What is Grief?

Grief is an emotional reaction to a traumatic or life-altering event. Grief is a normal and healthy part of human life that people experience in response to losing important things like:

  • Good health
  • A loved one
  • A relationship
  • An important skill
  • A home
  • A job

While experiencing grief does not mean a person has a mental health disorder, some people need professional help to work through their grief. Furthermore, learning about the stages of grief and how to cope can help people know what to expect.

The Typical Stages of Grief

Generally, the mental health community recognizes that grief comes in five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Understanding what each of these phases looks like can help people move through them.

Denial: This is naturally the first stage in grief because sometimes the loss is too much to bear. The mind tries to protect itself from the flood of sadness and anger that the event might cause.  This results in denial that it truly happened. People in denial may say things like, “But I just saw him yesterday.”

Anger: Once a person’s denial starts to fade, they may turn to anger. This emotion is often a response to the fact that the person has no control over the situation. Anger is common though.  In the event of a loved one’s death (expected or unexpected), some may blame the person for leaving them.

Bargaining: During the bargaining part of grief, people wonder what could have happened differently to prevent the pain. They may appeal to a higher power to reverse what happened. (e.g., I’ll do a month of good deeds if everything turns out okay)

Depression: When the reality of the situation sets in, many people in grief experience a low mood and pervasive sadness.

Acceptance: The acceptance stage of grief does not mean that a person misses what they lost any less than before. Instead, it means that they have learned to live with this new reality.

What is Complicated Grief?

Some people move through the stage of grief fluidly with relative ease. Others, however, struggle to manage the process on their own. In some cases, people develop what’s called “complicated grief.” This type of grief is marked by things like:

  • Symptoms of major depression
  • Struggling to go about daily life
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Overwhelming guilt about the event that ignited the grief

How to Overcome Grief

There is a reason acceptance is the last stage of the grief process.  Acceptance of what the new normal is after the event takes time. Anyone who has lost a loved one, for example, say the “firsts” (birthday, anniversary, etc.) are the hardest. Many say after the “firsts” are done, that is when true acceptance sets in. Some mourners believe that if they learn to live with a loss, it means that they have forgotten about the thing they lost. It’s important to remember that overcoming grief is not the same thing as getting over someone. It’s learning to adjust to living with the changes that have occurred.

Therapists and counselors can help people overcome grief in emotionally healthy and respectful ways.

Individual Therapy

During individual therapy sessions, a grieving person talks with a therapist about their emotions. The counselor outlines ways for the patient to understand what they are feeling and to use healthy coping tools. This practice also provides patients with safe spaces in which they can explore their feelings with a neutral party.

Group Therapy

Group counseling sessions include one counselor and several group members who have all experienced a similar type of event. Members share their experiences and feelings while counselors guide the conversation. Therapists and group leaders may also teach about healthy coping skills.