Learning The Definition Of Grief Is The First Step To Finding Peace

Updated October 5, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Grief is an integral part of the human experience. Some say that if we never know the depths of grief, we can never fully appreciate moments of joy, beauty, and peacefulness. Yet, grief is a difficult thing to go through. If you've ever grieved, or if you or someone you love is grieving now, the first step on your path to peace is to understand what grief is.

What Is Grief?

So, what is the best way to define grief? First of all, grief is a natural process. It isn't a disorder or an illness.

The roots of modern word grief come from the Anglo-French gref, denoting “Hardship, misfortune, distress, trouble.” 

Note: there is another definition grief as used in the online gaming community. As opposed to grief noun, the word in this context is a verb - “griefing.” Griefing is when someone causes hardship and distress to other players, through either their words or actions.

Some synonyms to grief may include words such as:

  • Distress
  • Despair
  • Frustration 
  • Regret 
  • Bereavement

Today, we use grief to mean emotional suffering or deep mental anguish in reaction to change. It generally is in reaction to a loss of some sort. Other examples of grief can be in reaction to relationships ending or job loss. 

Depending on how close you were to the person who passed, you will notice varying degrees of grief.

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Types of Grief

You may be surprised to know that there are several distinct types of grief.


After a loved one dies, the process you go through is called bereavement. It's a period of mourning, but it isn't necessarily a specific length of time. Long ago, the period of mourning was defined by cultural norms. During the official bereavement period, after the death of a spouse for example, you weren't allowed to remarry, date, or in some cases, even spend time alone with a person of the opposite gender. Only after that time was it considered that enough grief had been experienced to make such things acceptable again.

However, now, a bereavement period is determined more by how quickly you pass through the process of grieving. Whether that's six months or a year is completely up to you and how long it takes for you to process your grief.


While most of us think of death when we hear the word "grief," any loss might cause us to grieve. If you were fired from a job you loved, you might grieve. If you moved to a different city after leaving a home and friends that were extremely important to you, then that loss could lead to grief. If you lost an eye or a limb, you would surely grieve. And if a treasured possession was destroyed, you might grieve that loss, too.

Acute Grief

The word acute grief refers to the period right after a loss has occurred (such as the death of a loved one). Emotions during this time include anger, anxiety, and sorrow. You may find yourself unable to concentrate as you process your grief at this time. This grief either passes or else becomes complicated grief.

Complicated Grief

Complicated grief occurs when something interferes with a person’s normal ability to overcome their sorrow pain and move on with their life. A person suffering this sort of inconsolable grief may see the future as unappealing and meaningless without their loved one. If you feel complicated grief help is available in the form of professional grief counseling.

Symptoms of Grief

Many of the symptoms of grief are what you might expect. Certainly, there is sadness in grief. However, the symptoms can affect you physically, mentally, and emotionally. Your behavior may even change.

Symptoms of Acute Grief

If you or a loved one has lost someone important, you're probably aware of many of the symptoms of acute grief. Experiencing acute grief is normal, as long as it doesn't last too long. 

The following are some of the signs that you or someone you love might have acute grief:

  • Bodily feelings of distress or pain
  • Frequent sighing
  • An empty feeling in the stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness in the throat
  • A choking sensation
  • Muscle weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Chest pain
  • Palpitations
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Hair loss
  • Excessive crying
  • Preoccupation with the deceased's image
  • Feelings of disbelief or guilt
  • Sadness
  • Apathy
  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • A feeling of emptiness or meaninglessness
  • Numbness
  • Fear
  • Loneliness
  • Becoming emotionally distant from others
  • Feelings of irritability or anger
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Absentmindedness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Trouble keeping up with normal daily activities
  • Thinking about your death
  • Obsessing over the loved one's death story
  • Hallucinations of the deceased
  • Feeling unable to express the words for your suffering

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Symptoms of Complicated Grief

Many of the symptoms of complicated grief are the same as the symptoms of acute grief, but they are typically more intense and may last much longer. If you haven't resolved your grief well enough to readjust and move on after about a year of grieving, you likely have complicated grief and could benefit from intense grief counseling. 

The following examples are signs of complicated grief:

  • Intense sorrow and pain that doesn't go away
  • Obsessive thoughts about the memory your loved one
  • Making the deceased your primary focus in life
  • Inability to accept the death or loss
  • Longing for the person you lost
  • Feeling numb or detached
  • Experiencing feelings of bitterness
  • Inability to trust others
  • Inability to enjoy daily life or even think of happy moments with your loved one
  • The sense that life has no purpose
  • Inability to carry out necessary daily activities
  • Isolation
  • Pervasive feelings of sadness
  • Depression
  • Thinking you should have died with your loved one

Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross came up with the five-stage model of grief in 1969. This model has become well-known and respected, and it's used extensively in grief counseling. The five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. 

Although Kubler-Ross first presented these stages as a linear model, therapists now believe you can pass through these stages in any order and may revisit stages several times before the grief process is complete. There's also a model which includes 7 stages of grief; it includes two additional stages of the upward trend and the move towards seeking support.


Denial, a stage of grief that most bereaved people go through, means you don't accept the loss you've experienced. A person close to you has died, but you feel and behave as if nothing has happened. Or your boss fires you from a job where you've been successful for many years, and you go back to work the next day as if the event had never occurred. You can also be in denial that you're in denial.


In the anger stage of grief, you feel extreme rage. The anger might be directed at someone you feel has caused or contributed to the death. You may also be angry with the doctors who cared for your loved one or with yourself for not being good to your loved one while they were alive. Finally, you may feel so angry with God for the unfairness of it all that you avoid religious places and people for a time.


Bargaining is the stage of grief where you try to make a deal. Many people bargain with God when they or their loved one is terminally ill. They pray, begging God to take them instead of their loved one. They might say they'll be a better person if only their loved one could recover from their illness. Children who are grieving sometimes try to bargain with their parents, not understanding that the parent can't stop or reverse death.


According to Kubler-Ross, many people do show symptoms of depression when they've recently lost a loved one. They may have disturbances in their sleep, poor appetite, or frequent sadness. If you find yourself depressed while grieving, this is natural. Talking to a counselor can help you find ways to cope.


You may accept the death and begin to move on at any time in the grief process. However, if the process isn't complete for you, you may return to the other stages of grief before you ultimately readapt to life without your loved one.

Why We Grieve

Why do we grieve, anyway? After all, death is a part of life. Adults know this, and children soon learn it. One of the biggest reasons we grieve is that we are human. As such, we take a chance when loving another. We care for them so much that it breaks our hearts if they suffer or die young. In a word, we empathize with the loss. 

Another reason we grieve is that a great loss changes our lives forever. Whether you're suffering because your marriage is over, your favorite pet has died, or your spouse is terminally ill, that loss will cause permanent change, and you'll have to learn to live with it. You will never It’s this basic fact which prompts such suffering in so many.

Other people grieve with us for the same reason, sometimes saying phrases such as “I have no words” in regard to your suffering.

Tasks of Grief

Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief are perhaps the most well-known model of grief, but a psychologist named J.W. Worden came up with a different framework. He called it the tasks of grief. Worden's model not only provides a definition of grief, but it outlines what we have to do to move on after a loss.

Accepting the Reality of Loss

First, we have to accept the loss as something that has happened. We not only need to be able to recite the fact, but we need to know completely, in all our thoughts and with our emotions, that our time with that person or thing is over.

Work through the Pain

Working through the pain is sometimes the hardest part of the grieving process. Too often, we find ourselves avoiding feelings surrounding loss. If we felt our emotions in this case, they might be so overwhelming that we would have problems continuing with our daily routine. Your emotions might also be mixed, no matter how healthy and rewarding the relationship was. You might also experience emotions you don't understand, such as a feeling of freedom or relief.

Working through the pain means letting yourself feel your emotions, but it also means releasing those emotions and letting positivity back into your life. You may need to talk to a counselor while you go through this painful period. They can give you support, permission to feel your grief (if needed), and help in moving beyond the pain.

Adjust to Life without the Deceased

After the pain has subsided, the next task is to adjust to your new circumstances. You may feel at a loss as to what to do with your life following the loss. Even if you intellectually know where you want to go from here, you might not feel emotionally ready or able to follow that path. Support is helpful during this task, too, as you gather the courage, the knowledge, and the resources to forge ahead.

Maintain a Connection while Moving On

Although your loved one is gone, you still need to maintain a healthy connection with memories of them. Moving through grief isn't about forgetting them altogether. If you find yourself avoiding all reminders of them, then you probably aren't finished with the grieving process.

Can Grief Counseling Help?

If you or a loved one is having trouble coping with loss, it's time to find a better way to manage your grief. Grief counseling can help you accomplish all of the tasks of grief or move through the stages of grief, depending on the framework that makes sense to you. BetterHelp has grief counselors who can stay with you from the first signs of grief until you can accept and process your feelings of loss, so you can adjust to your new situation. Talking to a grief counselor at BetterHelp is confidential, affordable, and convenient. With licensed counselors ready to help, you can begin healing today. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

"Sarah is a kind person that listens intently, focuses on issues, and then helps find successful strategies to deal with those issues. Never once did I feel that she was judging me or talking down to me. She was easy for me to open up too, she was professional, and she took me seriously. Together we discussed issues of loss and grief from the passing of my father, which had become more than I could handle alone. She not only validated my feelings of loss, but she also helped me find ways to mitigate those feelings, break them down into their roots and causes then address those. Coping with grief and loss is hard work, but Sarah helped me find the tools I needed within myself to do that hard work and ultimately find success. I am a stronger person now. I am happy and confident. I may not know what is around the next corner, but I know that whatever it is, I can handle it."

"Rachael has been an invaluable partner while I worked through some difficult questions and choices following my husband's death. She is kind, thoughtful and listened to my questions, fears and doubts. She challenged me with thought provoking questions to help me work through my issues. I am forever grateful that she was in my life during this extremely challenging time."


Grief can be one of the most intense emotions of the human experience. It can leave us feeling drained and depressed. If your grief is severe, you may need extra help to heal and move on. You don't have to fight this battle alone - take the first step.

Commonly Asked Questions Below:

What is the true meaning of grief?

Does grief mean sad?

Why Is grief a powerful emotion?

What is the difference in grief and mourning?

What does the Bible say about grief?

How do you deal with grief?

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