Loss and grief are familiar to most people. According to Columbia University's Centre for Complicated Grief, 60 percent of the population has lost someone they felt was important to them. About 7 percent of people, or 10 million individuals in the US, are likely suffering from a complicated form of grief that makes it difficult to recover from a loss.
Understanding the signs and stages of grief, its effect on your life, and how you can get help will allow you to move through the process and to reach acceptance.
The 5 Stages of Grieving
Grief is natural after any loss, whether it is the death of a loved one or the dissolution of a relationship. A person might also experience grief after the loss of a job, a pet or after an illness is diagnosed.
Although what grief looks like might vary from person to person, as WebMD points out, there are a series of stages that most people move through when going through the grieving process. Over the years, there have been several models of the stages of grief.
The model many people are most familiar with is the one created by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. According to the Aroostook Mental Health Center, Dr. Kubler-Ross developed the stages to help individuals who were facing their own death.
Since then, people have adapted the five stages for anyone going through the grieving process. While not everyone experiences every stage of grief, Kubler-Ross' five stages are as follows:
- Denial. During the denial stage, you are likely to refuse to accept that the loss has occurred or that it will happen in the near future. Often, people feel numb and that they can't believe what is happening. According to Greenville Health System Children's Hospital, this first stage of grief is a defence mechanism.
- Anger. After denial comes anger. It's common to feel angry that you lost the person you loved or to feel frustrated that you are in the current situation. In some cases, people also feel anger towards the person they lost.
- Bargaining. During the bargaining stage, you might question why the loss happened to you, and you might try to find ways to make the pain go away. Some people try to negotiate with a god or other higher power or may feel intense guilt, as is the loss was somehow connected to something they did.
- Depression. Feelings of sadness or depression occur once you have moved past anger and have realised that bargaining won't bring back your loved one or the thing you lost. Crying, changes in eating habits, and withdrawal from friends and family are all common signs that you've entered the depression stage.
- Acceptance. The final stage of the grieving process is acceptance. After the sadness, the anger, and the denial, you realise that the loss is not something you can change or avoid. While you might still feel sad or even angry from time to time, you've reached a point at which you can start to put your life back together and to move forward.
Not everyone agrees with the existence of the five stages of grief or that the five stages are necessarily helpful to people who are grieving. As Psychology Today notes, believing that there is one "right" way to grieve can cause people to experience stress or to become overly self-critical if they think that they aren't going through the process the right way.
As HelpGuide points out, Kubler-Ross didn't intend for her stages of grief to become a rigid framework for the grieving process or to be a one-size-fits-all solution to loss. In her final book, in 2004, she wrote:
[The stages of grief] were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have. There is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grieving is as individual as our lives..
What's most important is not to rush the process of grief. You might feel depression one day and anger the next. It might be several months or even years after the loss of something before you finally feel ready to move on with the rest of your life.
How Grief Can Affect Your Life
You can divide grief into two categories: simple grief and complicated grief. Simple grief is what many people experience after a loss. Simple grief is unpleasant and can involve feelings of sadness, anger, and frustration.
Some people work with a counsellor or therapist to help them process their emotions during the grieving process. But, as Psychology Today points out, simple grief is not a type of mental disorder. It's a natural response to loss.
In some instances, people do develop mental health problems as a result of grief. This second category of grief is called complicated grief or persistent complex bereavement disorder, according to the Mayo Clinic. When a person has complicated grief, he or she experiences intense feelings of mourning and is unable to move forward with life.
Symptoms of complicated grief might include:
- Inability to focus on little else besides the death or loss of a loved one.
- Feelings of detachment or numbness.
- Pining for the lost loved one.
- Difficulty going about your daily life or carrying out routine tasks.
- Withdrawal from activities or hobbies you were previously interested in.
- Loss of a sense of purpose in your life.
Complicated grief affects up to 20 percent of people going through the grieving process, according to Psychology Today. Often, people with complicated grief also have a history of anxiety or depression, substance abuse problems, or emotionally dependent relationships.
Even if you aren't experiencing complicated grief, the process of simple grief can still have an impact on your brain, physical health, and relationships.
Grief and the Brain
A 2012 study, published in the journal Mental Health Practice, compared the effect of grief on the brain to pinball. The study's authors were quick to note that they weren't trying to diminish the grieving process. Instead, they made the comparison to demonstrate that the grieving process isn't linear.
When a person is going through the grieving process, they might come across various triggers that cause them to bounce back to a different stage or to experience certain emotions. Triggers can include a birthday, smelling the fragrance a person used to wear, or special activities Often, grieving people bounce back and forth between stages until they can accept their loss.
Cases of complicated grief can alter the brain in several, distinct ways. First, people with complicated grief often have difficulty remembering events from their past, according to a 2013 study published in Clinical Psychological Science.
Second, complicated grief altered the way people imagined their future. The researchers discovered that people were better able to imagine a future that couldn't be, one involving the lost loved one, instead of a future that was most likely to take place.
Grief and the Body
Grief can have several negative effects on the physical health of your body. For one thing, it can leave you feeling drained and exhausted. According to Dr. Sanjay Gupta, extreme tiredness is a common symptom of grief. Those feelings of exhaustion can make it for a person to perform everyday tasks.
Grief also affects the body's ability to produce neutrophils, according to the Atlantic. Neutrophils are white blood cells that help to fight infections. The Atlantic noted that the reduction in neutrophils could help explain why one spouse might die right after another in older couples.
Other ways that grief has an adverse effect on the body include:
- Increased pain (The Clinical Journal of Pain)
- Memory problems (Neuropsychology Development, and Cognition: Section B Aging, Neuropsychology, Cognition)
- Increased risk of heart attack (Circulation)
- Reduced effectiveness of the flu vaccine (Brain, Behavior, and Immunity)
- Higher blood pressure (Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience)
Grief and Relationships
Everyone grieves in their own way, which means that grief can have a negative effect on your relationship with other people. Even if you and a partner, friend or other relative are experiencing the loss of loved one together, the process of grief can cause you to grow apart, especially if one or the other becomes more inward focused or retreats from the loved ones.
There are ways to protect your remaining relationships while grieving. One option is to create space in your relationship. That means accepting that your partner isn't necessarily going to be able to provide all the guidance and support you need while you grieve. Speaking with a counselor can help you process your feelings and emotions without straining your existing relationships.
Another way to protect your relationship is to let everyone grieve in his or her own way. Your partner might not openly weep in front of you or might seem detached or numb while you feel sad or angry. Don't lash out at him or her for not feeling the same things you are feeling.
Grief and Your Work
Grief can affect your performance at work, which can, in turn, have an effect on your financial well-being. In the Guardian, a woman who lost her husband at the age of 44, after a short illness, recounts the haze of grief she experienced afterward and how that negatively affected her performance on the job. She notes that she was relatively lucky since she ran her own company, there was little chance of being fired.
One way to minimise the impact grief has on your work life is to build a partition between work and personal life, according to Fast Company. As your co-workers not to ask you about how you're dealing with the loss or how you're feeling if you are worried that thinking about your loss will cause you to breakdown at work. You can also ask family and friends to hold on calling you when you are at work unless it's an absolute emergency.
Joining a support group, outside of work, can give you an outlet for expressing your feelings, which can help you avoid revisiting your pain and sorrow at work.
How to Cope with Grief and Loss
Coping with grief and loss is often a multi-step process. Occasionally, the first step to healing is getting closure in your relationship and finding a way to say goodbye.
A memorial service or funeral for a deceased loved one gives you and your family and friends a chance not only to say goodbye to your loved one. It also allows you to celebrate that person's life, which can help you to see the good in any pain or suffering.
Another way to cope with grief is to remember to take care of yourself physically and mentally, according to HelpGuide. Connecting with remaining friends and loved ones can provide you with an outlet for expressing your feelings and for finding ways to remember or celebrate the one you lost.
Getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and eating a healthy diet after a loss can also help you avoid the physical side effects of grief.
Coping When You Have Children
If you are going through the grieving process and you have children, things can become more complicated. You might not want your kids to see you crying, as you want to avoid upsetting them or because you want to put on a facade of strength.
But the UK's National Health Service advises letting your children see your emotions. If they see you crying, they will realise that it is OK to feel sadness and to express that feeling.
Things can be tricky if the loss you are experiencing has to do with the breakdown of your relationship with your partner, or the children's other parents. Never blame your kids for the breakup of your relationship. Make sure they understand that they aren't at fault.
Be a shoulder to cry on for your kids and lend them an ear so that they feel comfortable expressing any fears or other concerns they have with you.
When to Seek Help
While not everyone needs professional counselling or support while grieving, there are times when your grief can feel overwhelming. If you have any signs of complicated grief, or if you think your life isn't worth living after a loss, getting help can help you process through your feelings. In some cases, professional help can also involve medications to help reduce any symptoms of depression or anxiety that you feel.
The first place to look for help can be at your doctor's office. If you don't have a primary care provider, you might consider making an appointment with a therapist or psychiatrist initially.
While doctors and therapists can be valuable, they aren't the only way to get support and help during a challenging time. Support groups, for people who have lost a spouse, gone through a divorce, or who are otherwise grieving, can help you see that you're not alone and that there is hope after loss.