Learning The Definition Of Grief Can Be The First Step To Finding Peace

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated June 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Grief is often a part of being human, and many people experience it throughout life. Some people may also believe that without the depths of grief, it is more challenging to fully appreciate moments of joy, beauty, and peacefulness. However, grief can be challenging and painful to experience. If you've ever grieved, or if you or someone you love is grieving currently, understanding the definition of grief and how it works for people worldwide may help you feel a sense of solidarity in your experiences.

You don’t have to move through the stages of grief alone

Grief definition

Grief is a natural process. It isn't an illness or mental health condition. The roots of the modern word "grief" come from the Anglo-French word "gref," which denotes "hardship, misfortune, distress, and trouble." The following are a few synonyms for grief: 

  • Distress

  • Despair

  • Frustration 

  • Regret 

  • Bereavement

  • Loss

However, grief is primarily defined as emotional pain or deep mental anguish in reaction to change. Often, grief is a response to the death or loss of a loved one or pet.  

Aspects of grief

There are several distinct types of grief and terminology to learn, including the following.

Bereavement

After a loved one dies, the process you go through is called bereavement. Bereavement is defined as a period of mourning. However, it isn't necessarily limited to a specific amount of time. 

In some places, the mourning period was defined by cultural norms. During the official bereavement period, after the death of a spouse, for example, rules may have been in place about how long you could wait before you remarry, date, or spend time alone with a person of the gender you're attracted to. After that time, it was considered acceptable to move on. In many modern societies and the US, a bereavement period is determined more by how quickly you pass through the grieving process. This period can vary from person to person.

Loss

The word "grief" is often associated with death, such as a death in the family or the death of someone you love. However, any loss can be a cause of grief. If you were fired from a job you loved, you might grieve. If you moved to a different city and left behind close family and friends, your loss could lead to grief. Grief can also occur if you lose an eye or a limb. 

People can also grieve lost artifacts or family heirlooms. Broken relationships, getting a pay cut, or finding out you have a terminal illness could all be reasons for grief. Many people also grieve when losing a pet to death. 

Acute grief

Acute grief is the period directly after a loss has occurred (such as the death of a loved one). Anger, anxiety, and sorrow commonly occur with acute grief. You may struggle to concentrate as you process your grief during this time. This grief may pass naturally or become complicated grief.

Complicated grief

Complicated grief occurs when any factor interferes with a person's ability to overcome their sorrow and pain and find acceptance after loss. A person with inconsolable grief may see the future as unappealing and meaningless without their loved one. Complicated grief may also happen due to a traumatic loss. In many cases, therapy can be a beneficial treatment for complicated or prolonged grief. 

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, you may pass through them in any order and revisit them several times before the grief process is complete. There's also a model that includes seven stages of grief. It includes two additional stages: the upward trend and the move toward seeking support.

Note that the Kubler-Ross model of grief is a theory, and although it is often helpful to grieving individuals, you might not identify with the concepts. Many people do not experience a linear scale of emotions, and others might feel comforted by having words to describe their experiences. Go with the theory that feels best to you. 

Denial

Denial can mean you struggle to accept the loss you've experienced. Although you've lost someone you love, you might feel and behave as if nothing has happened. For 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. Some people may also experience denial about their denial. 

Anger

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 caring for your loved one or yourself. Some people get angry at a higher power in their religion or the person who died. Anger can be a normal emotional response to grief. However, having the tools to cope with it can be beneficial. 

Bargaining

Bargaining often involves an attempt to make a deal after a loss. Many people bargain with a higher power when they or their loved one is terminally ill. They pray, begging their higher power to take them instead of their loved ones. They might say they'll be better if their loved one recovers from their illness. Grieving children sometimes try to bargain with their parents, not understanding that the parent can't stop or reverse death.

Depression

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, it can be natural. However, if you experience severe symptoms of struggling to care for yourself, eat, or care for your children, reach out for support. There are many grief resources in the US, and people may be able to help you organize a routine. 

Acceptance

Acceptance may not mean you've forgotten the person you cared for or completely moved on from their memory. Instead, it may mean living with the grief and growing around it, not feeling like it controls your life any longer. People may reach the acceptance stage multiple times in their grief, which may not be linear. 

Why do humans grieve? 

Grief is often considered an aspect of humanity. Loving another person is a part of life for many people. People may empathize with this loss when someone dies or loses someone, as they've often experienced a loss themselves. Losing someone you care about can be an extensive transition that can change your life forever. 

Whether you're struggling because your marriage is over, your favorite pet has died, or your spouse is terminally ill, permanent change may occur. Learning how to live with such changes can feel challenging and sometimes impossible. Humans grieve as a response to loving, attaching, and caring.

As social creatures, it is often seen as strange not to grieve. Many animals, like elephants and chimpanzees, also have funeral rituals and grief. Grief is a natural expression of processing the fact that an individual in or element of your life is no longer there. 

Symptoms of the grieving process

Many of the symptoms of grief are the same across the board, regardless of the type. However, symptoms can vary from person to person and may affect you physically, mentally, and emotionally. Your behavior might change, and your symptoms can shift depending on what stage of grief you're going through. Below are a few of the most common signs of grief. 

Symptoms of acute grief

If you or a loved one has lost someone, you may have acute grief symptoms. Experiencing acute grief is natural, but it often doesn't last longer than a year. 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

  • Feeling emotionally distant from others

  • Isolating behaviors 

  • Feelings of irritability or anger

  • Restlessness

  • Insomnia

  • Absentmindedness

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Trouble keeping up with daily activities

  • Thinking about your death

  • Obsessing over a loved one's death story

  • Hallucinations of the deceased

  • Feeling unable to express the words for your feelings

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 those of acute grief, but they may be more intense and last much longer. If you haven't resolved your grief after about a year, you may have complicated grief and might benefit from grief counseling. 

The following examples are signs of complicated grief:

  • Intense sorrow and pain that won'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

  • An inability to trust others

  • An inability to enjoy daily life or think of happy moments with your loved one

  • The sense that life has no purpose

  • Difficulty carrying out necessary daily activities

  • Isolation

  • Pervasive feelings of sadness

  • Depression

  • Thinking you should have died with your loved one

  • Nightmares

  • Scary persistent memories of your loved one 

  • Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Tips for coping with complex grief 

Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief are one of the most well-known models, but a psychologist named J.W. Worden devised a different framework. He called it the four tasks of mourning. Worden's model defines grief and outlines what may help individuals cope with a loss, including the following tips. 

Step one: Accept the reality of the loss

After losing someone, it may be beneficial to accept the loss, telling yourself it has occurred. Try to understand, in all your thoughts and emotions, that your time with the person you've lost is over. Although it can feel scary to accept that a loss has occurred, it may help you move forward to other phases of grief more quickly. 

Cope through the pain 

Coping through the pain is sometimes the most challenging part of the grieving process. Instead of avoiding your feelings surrounding the loss, try to let yourself feel them. Your emotions might be complex, no matter how healthy and rewarding the relationship was. You might also experience emotions you don't understand, such as freedom or relief. 

Working through the pain can involve letting yourself feel your emotions, but it can also mean releasing them and letting positivity back into your life. You may benefit from talking to a counselor during this period.  

Adjust to life without the individual 

As you start to cope with your emotional pain, you may find value in adjusting to your new circumstances. You may feel confused about what to do with your life following your loss. Try to find areas you are grateful for in your new life. Look at the positives that have come into your life since your loss.  

Maintain connection while moving forward 

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

Finding support from a grief counselor

If you or a loved one is experiencing intense grief and struggling to cope with loss, there are many options for finding support. Grief counseling may help you move through your grief within a framework that makes sense to you. Many people contact a grief counselor through a grief center in their area. Others might look at exclusive practice therapists. You can also consider grief therapy online, which may be beneficial if you struggle to organize outside appointments. 

Online therapy platforms like BetterHelp can match you with trained, qualified grief counselors to guide you as you navigate your grief. Since grief can lead to mental health conditions like depression, a therapist can offer coping advice and resources to support you in your mental healing. In addition, you can take advantage of extra features like webinars or an in-app journal to connect with your grief and process it openly. 

Researchers have also found that online therapy can be a viable option for individuals moving through 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, format, and usability. 

Counselor reviews

"Sarah is a kind person who 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 to. 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, and then address them. 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 and 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."

Takeaway

Grief can be one of the most intense emotions many people go through. Everyone, including bereaved parents, siblings, and caregivers, processes loss differently, and you may move through grief at different speeds than someone else. While it's possible to move past grief on your own over time, therapy may help you understand how you're grieving. Consider reaching out to a grief center, exclusive practice therapist, or online counselor for further guidance and support during this stage of your life.

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