What is grief?

Grief is an emotional response to the loss of something that has value to us – of a person and our relationship with them, through death or separation, our health or functioning, our way of life. And it hurts. Our experience of grief is affected by the nature of the loss, our own nature and temperament and our personal life experiences. We all respond differently, and we can have different responses to the same event at different times.

Grief after bereavement

If you have suffered the loss of bereavement, you will understand that grief can be overwhelming and show itself in both physical and emotional symptoms. It is common to feel disoriented, a sense of panic or desolation, and for normal sleeping and eating patterns to be disrupted. When we lose someone we love, we are bereft in an absolute sense. We have lost someone we have been attached to and who gave our life meaning, and who may have given us a role in life – perhaps as a parent, child, or partner. Our primary loss also includes many secondary losses, including the loss of what we formerly held as our whole world-view. When this beloved person is gone we feel a sense of abandonment and isolation, that the world makes no sense – often we can feel as helpless as we did when we were children. This is a terrifying feeling, but also completely natural – even if you feel as though you are losing your mind and will never survive. Even though you cannot possibly imagine it, grief can be survived – it takes time, loving support, and patience – and knowing that within you hope still lives.

The process of grieving

Understanding more about the process of grieving can help you cope, and can also help others to support you. Bereavement is a major cause of stress, and that acute distress is to be expected and is usual. If your distress and other symptoms continue for an extended period of time and you feel unable to move forward consider asking for extra help to allow you to cope with your feelings. A number of factors can also impact on your ability to cope with the grief of bereavement. These include personal and family values and beliefs, personal experience, your relationship with the deceased, your gender, age and the manner of death. Be aware that you may find it even more difficult to cope if you have lost a child, or if the death is sudden or accidental (particularly if violent), or if your relationship with the deceased is unresolved, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. This may also be true if you have other crises occurring simultaneously or where you may have pre-existing and unresolved grief. If you do not have much support from family or friends this can also affect your ability to cope with bereavement. If after an extended period – perhaps years – you feel you have unresolved grief it may be that you have been unable to communicate your feelings to your loved one prior to their death, or other factors are at play, and feelings of regret, guilt or anger may remain. It is common for us to have regrets, for example, about what was or was not said.

Symptoms of grief

Physically, the body reacts to the stress of bereavement and there are common symptoms. Stress can impact upon the pituitary gland, which releases hormones including adrenalin (the “fight or flight” mechanism) and cortisol from the endocrine system. Cortisol affects the immune system and reduces immunity to disease or virus. The release of adrenalin leads to increased blood pressure and energy levels. The body also releases endorphins, which can have the effect of relieving pain (during the shock of hearing of the death) and melatonin, which can also have a calming effect. It is thought that the suppression of grief can actually impair the body’s production of such substances, hampering its ability to heal itself. Other symptoms may resemble those experienced during panic attacks, including a feeling of a tightness in the chest and emptiness in the stomach; or breathlessness or a dry mouth. A person can experience a heightened sensitivity – to noise or other stimuli, or otherwise a decrease in energy.

Related information

The ‘stages’ of grief

Common grief responses

More information about grief

About grief: Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement

Truths about grief: What’s your grief? (US site)