Grief and Loss

Dealing with grief and loss is an unfortunate but necessary part of life and a tribute to the strength of our relationships with others.

It is because of this love and connection to others that losing a loved one is so painful. The grief process is very personal and unique to each individual. There is no one "right" way to grieve and the duration of grief is different for everyone. Commonly, our grief may come "in waves," often in response to memories or reminders of the loved one. It should also be noted that we typically think of grief in terms of losing a loved one, but grief also occurs at the loss of ideas, goals, and changes in life (failing a test, breaking up with a significant other, losing a job) that can affect how we view ourselves.

Reactions to loss vary and commonly include:

  • Emotional reactions: shock, anger, sadness, blame, numbness, anxiety, loneliness
  • Physical reactions: fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal disturbances, sleep changes, appetite changes
  • Behavioral reactions: seeking support and help, substance abuse, social withdrawal, irritability/shortness with others, clinging to or avoiding reminders of the loved one
  • Cognitive reactions: forgetfulness, confusion, feeling "out of it," difficulty concentrating

Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief

These are five typical stages that individuals will encounter when faced with grieving over a loss. Not everyone experiences each stage the same way and they can be in any order.

  1. Denial
    • May be the first reaction - disbelief of the news of the death, especially if sudden
    • Serves to protect us from feeling overwhelmed by the gravity of the news all at once
    • Gradually decreases as we come to recognize the loss
  2. Anger
    • Sign of upset and wishing the loss did not occur
    • Often a response to feeling powerless to change the outcome
    • May be directed at the lost loved one, oneself, or others for not doing enough to prevent the death
  3. Bargaining
    • Wishing one could change what happened and, sometimes, appealing to a higher power to find a way to "make it right"
    • Characterized by feelings of remorse or guilt
  4. Depression
    • Once the weight of the loss begins to feel real, these symptoms may occur
    • Includes sadness, loneliness, low motivation, low energy, poor sleep/appetite
    • Usually temporary and focused on the impact the loss has on one's life and future
  5. Acceptance
    • A growing awareness that the loss occurred and cannot be changed
    • Accepting the loss does not mean that it is acceptable, just that you are aware of it and recognize it carries an impact in your life

Suggestions to Help Manage Grief

  • Be gentle and patient with yourself, as well as others in their grief
  • Do not judge yourself for how much/little you are feeling or for how grief impacts you - everyone is different
  • Avoid making major life decisions during a time a grief
  • Expect that you may not be as productive at work and that changes in concentration, sleep, energy, motivation, and pleasure may all be side-effects of the grief process
  • Try not to stuff all of the emotions in - it helps to talk and get support
  • Only you know when you're ready to talk to friends or family, although they may also benefit from your support
  • Keep up with healthy self-care (sleep, exercise, hobbies, social life)
  • Write down recollections of the loved one you would like to be sure to remember later
  • Turn to your faith
  • Consider a support group or counseling - especially if you find yourself feeling particularly down or struggling to manage daily tasks

Helping Others with Grief

  • Listen with patience and kindness
  • Often, there is no "right" thing to say - just being present with those who are grieving is helpful
  • Ask for or offer specific tasks that can help, but do not push and be prepared if nothing comes to mind for the individual
  • Give the individual time to experience their emotions and do not judge them for how they should be feeling or coping
  • Encourage self-care for the individual (e.g., suggest lunch or a walk)

Be aware that grief comes in cycles and may come "in waves" when the individual is faced with reminders of the loved one, including holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries (especially of the day the loved one died)


(Portions of this document were adapted from Clemson University's Counseling and Psychological Services presentation, "Understanding the Personal Response to Death, Loss and Grief")