What Is Grief? Here's How Experts Define It
Untangling this complex phenomenon that occurs after a loss.
Grief and the grieving process are getting a lot of attention these days, with the COVID pandemic affecting so many people. What exactly is grief, what are the signs, and how long does grieving last? Here, experts share what to expect from grief, along with strategies to help you weather the process.
What is grief?
After a loss, grief is what follows. "It's a response; it's an internal expression of loss, where mourning is the outward expression of loss," New York ity-based psychotherapist Kathryn Smerling, PhD, tells Health.
Grieving can be an uncomfortable, challenging process, but it's a natural one, and it has a crucial purpose.
"The pain of grief allows for an emotional processing of the importance of what has been lost and the reintegration of the meaning that the loved one has produced," Elizabeth G. Loran, PhD, an assistant professor of medical psychology in psychiatry at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center, tells Health.
Grieving shouldn't be a solo operation, as humans rely on close connections, Loran points out. Part of grieving involves connecting with others through funerals and other remembrance ceremonies that typically involve friends, extended family, and the larger community, she says.
Why does grief occur?
Grief is closely associated with the death of a loved one. But people mourn for all sorts of reasons. Any kind of loss can qualify, including divorce, a pet's death, the loss of a job, a medical injury, or a broken relationship, Loran says.
Grief can also happen during a transition—such as a move to a new home or a child leaving the nest for the first time.
"I think during the pandemic, many felt grief," Smerling says. This could be due to the unprecedented way the year played out, with so many deaths as well as a sense of lost plans and changed futures.
Grief signs and symptoms
Grief can lead to a wide array of symptoms, both physical and emotional. "It can appear as shock, sadness, tearfulness, depression, anger, or restlessness and difficulty concentrating as well as changes in thoughts and ways of experiencing the world," Loran says. When you're grieving, you may find it harder to do the normal day-to-day tasks you're used to performing. "Thoughts about the loss may arise frequently and unexpectedly, generating intense emotions," she notes.
The physical manifestations of grief include headaches, weight changes, or GI issues, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other physical symptoms can include exhaustion, chest pains, and muscle tension, notes Pathways Home Health and Hospice.
Experts often point to psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross' foundational paradigm on grief, which divides the grieving process into five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. In this framework, people shift from one stage to another, but not necessarily in a linear fashion.
This model is helpful, but keep in mind there's no "correct" way to grieve. "Some people will grieve quietly, while others may be overcome by grief and be unable to function for a time," Loran says. The experience can be transformative, shifting your sense of what's important in life, Loran notes.
How long does grief last?
When it comes to grief, there's no set timeline. "Some people take a long time to heal, and other people can heal in an easier way," Smerling says.
Sometimes, grieving can be delayed. "Not everyone experiences grief immediately. Many people experience grief in waves—they feel it and can't cope in the moment so it goes into the recesses of their mind," Smerling explains. Months will pass, well past the shock and denial of the loss, and they'll begin to experience grief, she says.
More acute and intense grieving can last months or years, Loran says. There isn't necessarily an end date for experiencing some form of grief, she notes. That is, if a loved one who is a vital part of your life dies, you'll grieve them for your entire lifespan in some way. The grieving experience, however, will typically become less intense.
But take comfort: "The experience of this grief will change over time and become more manageable and more a part of the individual who processes this loss," Loran says.
How to cope with grief
With time, acute grief will pass, but a person may still struggle with moving forward and managing work, life, and day-to-day tasks. These strategies can make the process easier:
Reach out to others
"Human beings do not grieve well alone," Loran notes. "Those who grieve should seek out others to talk to and to process their loss with."
Participate in grieving rituals
"Funerals and memorials allow for emotional processing and release of feelings surrounding a loss," Loran says. These events are for the living, not those who have passed, she points out.
Feel your feelings
Your emotions may be intense, but don't push them away or resist thinking about your loved one or what you lost. Acknowledging these feelings will help you process the loss, Loran says.
When to reach out for help
"Grief is a normal reaction to a loss," Loran says. But for some people, grief can linger. They "might continue to feel a sense of disbelief and shock at the loss, as if it happened yesterday," Loran notes. If someone is experiencing this type of complicated or persistent grief, therapy can help them make sense of the loss, she says.
The American Cancer Society recommends reaching out for help if you any of these occur: substance abuse, thoughts of suicide or conversation about it, physical symptoms that aren't going away, and neglect of regular personal hygiene.
Professionals can help with processing a loss at any point in your grieving process, Loran points out.
How to support a grieving loved one
The number one thing you can do is listen and be compassionate, Smerling says. Check in over text, invite the grieving person for walks, and make sure they have a support system in place, she suggests.
You can also open up conversation, Loran points out, "asking questions about the deceased and inviting memories and reflection."
And don't shy away from offering practical aid: dropping off food, helping with kids or pet care, making necessary phone calls, and so on. These small gestures can be a big help when a person is too upset to cook or is struggling with day-to-day responsibilities.
"Look at who the person grieving is, and tailor your response to it," Smerling says.
How to Be OK When You're Not OK Check out Health's special series on life after loss.