Understanding the Grief Experience

Grief is a natural, normal response to loss. Although grieving is a normal reaction, at times grief can feel enormously painful, overwhelming, and exhausting. Beginning to understand your grieving experience, and taking gradual steps to address your pain and loss, can be important and integral components of recovering from your grief.

Symptoms of grief may include:

  • Down or depressed mood
  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Crying spells or crying very readily
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss/weight gain
  • Insomnia/oversleeping, tiredness
  • Weakened immune system

Complicated grief is defined when the pain of loss is so constant it keeps you from resuming life activities — often described as being stuck in a constant state of mourning. It may feel like you are stuck at one or more of the stages of grief and may have trouble accepting what has happened.

Symptoms of Complicated Grief:

  • Intense longing and yearning for the deceased
  • Intrusive thoughts or images of your loved one
  • Denial of the death or sense of disbelief
  • Imagining that your loved one is alive
  • Extreme anger/bitterness

Stages of Grief

Within the first few weeks to months after a death or loss, you may find yourself riding on a roller coaster of shifting emotions. Grief can involve physical, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral responses. Most people go through these stages not in progressive steps, but in unpredictable waves -- moving through one stage to the next and sometimes shifting back. Some people will also experience certain phases but not others. Everyone grieves differently, but here are several common grief reactions:

  • Shock/Disbelief - This is the numbing, disorienting sense that the death has not really happened, not really occurred.
  • Anger - Your anger may be targeted at a number of sources or you are just irritable in general.
  • Guilt - You may blame yourself for not doing more, not being there enough, or not being there when the death happened. You may feel regret over "unfinished business" -- conflicts you and the deceased never resolved or feelings between the two of you that were never fully discussed or shared.
  • Sadness - You may experience a deep sense of loss.
  • Fear - There may be anxiety or panic, fears about carrying on, and fears about the future. If the person who died was an adult (e.g. partner, sibling, or parent), it may bring up fears about your own sense of mortality or sense of being left behind.
  • Depression - You may go through periods of melancholy where you feel inclined to withdraw or isolate yourself. You may lose interest in your usual activities or feel helpless or hopeless.

In addition to these stages, people who are grieving frequently experience physical symptoms, such as fatigue, sleep disruption, appetite changes, increased tension, and numerous aches and pains.

What You May Need During Grief

Grieving the death of someone does not have a particular timetable. Mourning their loss may take weeks, months, or even years. For many individuals, the death of their loved one is carried with them throughout their lives. Although there is no "cure" for grief, here are several ways to help you cope with your loss and begin to ease the pain:

  • Time - Take time alone for yourself as needed. When with others, be forthright and tell them when you do and do not want to talk about it.
  • Caring - Try to allow yourself to accept the expressions of caring from others even though they may be awkward.
  • Rest, Relaxation, Small Pleasures - You may need to give yourself extra amounts of things that nourish and replenish you. Grief can be an emotionally and physically exhausting process.
  • Mini-Goals - You may need to be patient with yourself while healing and set mini-goals versus major projects. Accept this.
  • Permission to Backslide - The grieving process rarely proceeds in a straight line. Give yourself permission to slide back into sad feelings that you thought had passed or decreased. This is how the psyche heals itself and does not mean you are not progressing.
  • Hope - You may find hope and comfort from those who have experienced a similar loss. Knowing what helped them, and realizing that over time they have recovered, may give you the hope and strength to envision that you, too, will eventually heal from your grief.
  • Be Aware of Drug and Alcohol Use - The use of drugs, alcohol, and even prescription medications may prolong and delay the necessary process of grieving. You cannot prevent or cure grief. Mourning is an important part of healing.
  • Permission to Change Your Mind - Grieving can shake you up inside. You may have difficulty concentrating or find yourself constantly reevaluating your priorities. You may be unsure or uncertain what you want in numerous aspects of your life. When you make commitments or plans, be sure to let people know you may need room to cancel or change your mind.


Duke Personal Assistance Service
2200 W. Main Street, Suite 400A
Durham, NC 27705

Unicorn Bereavement Center
Triangle Hospice
1001 Corporate Dr.
Hillsborough, NC 27278

American Hospice Foundation
2120 L Street NW, Suite 200
Washington DC 20037