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

Updated January 13, 2023by 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 can be a challenging 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 may be to understand the purpose of this difficult process.  

You Don’t Have To Move Through The Stages Of Grief Alone

What Is Grief?

Grief is a natural process. It isn't a disorder or an illness. The roots of the modern word “grief” come from the Anglo-French word ‘gref,’ which denotes “Hardship, misfortune, distress, trouble.” Some synonyms for grief may include words like:

  • Distress

  • Despair

  • Frustration 

  • Regret 

  • Bereavement

Today, we use grief to mean emotional suffering or deep mental anguish in reaction to change. It generally is a reaction to a loss of some sort. 

Types of Grief

There are several distinct types of grief, some of which are described in more detail below.


After a loved one dies, the process you go through is called bereavement. It's a period of mourning but 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. Today, a bereavement period is determined more by how quickly you pass through the process of grieving. This period can vary greatly from person to person.


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 and left behind family and friends that were extremely important to you, that loss could lead to grief. If you lost an eye or a limb, you could grieve, and if a treasured possession was destroyed, you might grieve that loss, too. Broken relationships, getting a pay cut, or finding out you have a terminal illness could all be reasons for grief. 

Acute Vs. Complicated Grief

Acute and complicated grief are distinct from one another. A person might experience both at different stages of their grieving process.

  • 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 that commonly occur with acute grief include anger, anxiety, and sorrow. You may find yourself unable to concentrate as you process your grief during this time. This grief either passes or becomes complicated grief.

  • Complicated Grief: Complicated grief occurs when something interferes with a person’s normal ability to overcome their sorrow and pain and move on with their life. A person with this sort of inconsolable grief may see the future as unappealing and meaningless without their loved one. Many times, therapy is needed to move past complicated grief.

Symptoms of Grief

Many of the symptoms of grief are what you might expect, such as sadness. However, symptoms can vary from person to person and may affect you physically, mentally, and emotionally. Your behavior might even change, and your symptoms can shift depending on what stage of grief you’re going through.

Symptoms of Acute Grief

If you or a loved one has lost someone important, you may be having symptoms of acute grief. Experiencing acute grief is natural, but it usually shouldn’t last longer than a year without professional intervention. The following are some of the signs that you or someone you love might be experiencing 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

  • 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

You Don’t Have To Move Through The Stages Of Grief Alone

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, you may 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 of 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

Stages Of Grief

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 toward seeking support.


Denial, a stage of grief that most bereaved people go through, can mean that you are struggling to accept the loss you've experienced. A person close to you has died, but you feel and behave as if nothing has happened. As another example, maybe 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 might feel extreme rage. Your anger may be directed at someone you feel has caused or contributed to the death. You might also be angry with the doctors who cared for your loved one or with yourself for not being good enough 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 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 during the grieving 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

One of the biggest reasons we grieve may have to do with our humanness. Most of the time, we take a chance when loving another person. When someone experiences a painful death or dies young, we often empathize with the loss. 

Another reason we grieve is that loss can change our lives forever. Whether you're struggling because your marriage is over, your favorite pet has died, or your spouse is terminally ill, that loss typically causes permanent change. Learning how to live with such difficult changes can feel challenging and even near impossible. Other people grieve with us for the same reason, sometimes saying phrases such as “I have no words” in regard to your struggles.

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 four tasks of mourning. Worden's model not only provides a definition of grief, but it outlines what we often must do to move on after a loss.

#1 Accept the reality of the loss

First, it can be important to accept the loss as something that has happened. You not only need to be able to recite the fact, but you need to know completely, in all your thoughts and emotions, that your time with that person or thing is over. You may feel like nonacceptance can keep you emotionally safer, but in many cases, this might only prolong the grieving process.

#2 Work through the pain

Working through the pain is sometimes the hardest part of the grieving process. Instead of avoiding your feelings surrounding the loss, it can be important to let yourself fully feel them. Your emotions might 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 can involve letting yourself feel your emotions, but it can also mean 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. 

#3 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. 

#4 Maintain a connection while moving on

Although your loved one is gone, maintaining a healthy connection with memories of them can be essential. Moving through grief isn't about forgetting them altogether. If you find yourself avoiding all reminders of them, you may not be finished with the grieving process quite yet.

Online Therapy With BetterHelp

If you or a loved one is having trouble coping with loss, it may be helpful to seek new ways to manage your grief. Grief counseling can help you move through the stages of grief within a framework that makes sense to you. BetterHelp is an online therapy platform that can match you with trained, qualified grief counselors to help you through your loss. Since grief can lead to mental health conditions such as depression, you may be finding it difficult to get out of bed in the morning. Online therapy makes it possible to still receive guidance even from your home, removing traditional barriers to mental health care.

The Effectiveness Of Online Therapy

Online therapy can be a viable option for individuals moving through the stages of grief or experiencing complications from loss. One study assessed the efficacy of an internet-delivered cognitive behavioral therapy program for prolonged grief disorder in adults. Researchers found that “most participants showed a clinically significant change in depression” and “improvement in symptoms of loss and typical beliefs in complicated grief.” Participants also reported being highly satisfied with the treatment content and format as well as its usability. 

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."

The Takeaway

Grief can be one of the most intense emotions of the human experience. Since everyone processes loss differently, you may move through the stages of grief at different speeds than someone else. While it’s possible to move past grief on your own over time, therapy may help you heal more effectively. An online therapist can work with you to help you understand your emotions and come to terms with any significant loss you’ve experienced. 

For additional help & support with your concerns

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started