Grief, at its core, is a response to loss. It can be an emotion, a crisis, an adjustment, a healing process, and more. Everyone grieves differently, which means there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to mourn.
When you think of grief, you might first think of the death of a loved one. Death is not the only kind of loss.
You can grieve the breakdown of a marriage, eviction from a home, or the erosion of a dream — and no one else should tell you these losses aren’t “serious enough” or worthy of grief. Only you can decide what losses to mourn.
If you have recently experienced a loss, you may feel overwhelmed. You might not know what to say about your feelings.
Our guide can help. There are more information on the different types of grief, examples of how grief might show up, and some tips on getting support.
Many people find grief to be more than sadness. It can cause a range of emotions.
- It was a longing for a loved one.
- Anger at the loss.
- anxiety and fear when you wonder how you’ll cope
- numbness as your brain tries to process everything you’ve experienced
Grief can affect you physically.
- It might cause a sense of breathlessness if you have a tight chest and throat.
- Changes in your sleeping and eating habits.
- Slower physical movement that requires more effort than usual.
During the grieving process, you may find it difficult to go about your daily life. For instance, you might find it tough to focus on your work or stay “present” around other people.
Is it grief or depression?
Grief can resemble depression in many ways. Both states can leave you feeling sad, hopeless, and tired.
But with grief, these feelings tend to revolve around your loss. Meanwhile, with depression, you might feel sad and hopeless about anything and everything.
If you’re grieving, remember to have patience with yourself. Treat yourself gently, with self-compassion. It can take time to regain your bearings after a loss, and that’s completely natural.
In some cases, grief can lead to situational depression. A therapist can offer more guidance with distinguishing grief from depression and help you find the right kind of support.
A grief bout of sadness is what many people consider after a loss.
That is a common template for grief, but it is not the only path mourning can take.
Anticipatory grief describes an emotional response that happens ahead of a loss you know is coming.
“You may mourn the death of a cousin who died from cancer. They may still be living, but they don’t have much left. That might make you upset.”
It is natural to grieve when you are about to lose someone. You might end up letting the present slip away if you focus on the future. If you become so distraught over the idea of losing your cousin, you could prevent you from enjoying the time you have left.
Inhibited grief happens when you repress your emotions around a loss.
If you break up with your fiancé, you may avoid feeling sad by telling yourself you’re better off without them. But strong feelings rarely follow commands. If you refuse to acknowledge your emotions, your grief may come out in physical ways, like fatigue or lack of appetite.
A 2015 article suggests men raised in Western cultures may be discouraged from expressing strong emotions and thus more prone to inhibited grief. But anyone can experience this type of grief.
It is possible to begin to process your grief by exploring your emotions around the loss.
“You don’t show any signs of mourning if you don’t experience grief. You may lack both emotional and physical signs of distress, which goes a step beyond inhibited grief.”
A strong sense of denial is what leads to this type of grief. You may spend the first few days demanding that your house is fixed after losing your home in a fire. You have to accept your old house is gone before you grieve.
Denial may ward off sorrow for a time, saving you from experiencing pain you don’t feel ready to accept. But it’s not a permanent coping method. What’s more, avoiding the reality of your situation could result in procrastination on time-sensitive issues, like finding a new home you can safely live in.
Delayed grief is an emotional reaction that may take weeks, months or years to come.
If you lose your spouse in a car crash, you might spend the first few weeks comforting your children and handling financial affairs. You might have to leave crisis mode for a month before you start to process your own feelings.
These sensations are not a sign of mental health issues. It might seem like your grief will happen randomly, but eventually it will.
After you believe you have processed your feelings, grief can reappear. You might look at your wedding photo several years later and find that you are still sad, even though you thought you were done mourning.
Disenfranchised grief refers to grief that society doesn’t fully acknowledge. People might express confusion about your sadness, or fail to give you space to mourn. This can happen with losses that others judge less significant, or with losses that people tend to avoid discussing.
For example, your boss may seem surprised when you request time off after a close friend’s death, or say “It’s just a dog” when you need a few days to grieve your family pet. Friends and loved ones may not even realize you’ve had a loss, such as when you and your partner experience a miscarriage, or your incarcerated sibling passes away.
When loved ones don’t acknowledge your pain, you may feel emotionally isolated and distant from your community and social circle. Without emotional support, which becomes especially important during a vulnerable period of mourning, feelings of loneliness or hopelessness can seem especially sharp.
You might experience loneliness and despair when you lose a loved one. The grieving process has such feelings as a common part. They come and go in waves, so you can feel all right one day and bad the next.
It will likely become more manageable with time, as grief may seem heavy in the beginning. The waves of sadness may be less frequent. You can carry your pain onto shore as you learn to live without your loved one.
Waves of emotion that offer reprieve are not as helpful as a flood. You can barely tread water in one spot because of the amount of energy you spend. It may feel impossible to swim to the shore. As the world spins on, your grief may feel like it happened yesterday.
Prolonged grief disorder
In March 2022, the DSM-5-TR introduced a controversial diagnosis: prolonged grief disorder. This diagnosis aims to describe grieving that falls outside cultural norms and becomes a potential mental health concern.
According to the DSM-5-TR, sadness and longing are normal after a death, but strong feelings that impact someone long-term may be a cause for concer. For children, at least 6 months after the death is the long-term. This period is for adults.
Someone experiences overwhelming distress for most of the day in a long term grief disorder. Symptoms can be conflicting, and you may find yourself moving between extremes.
Symptoms suggested by the American Psychiatric Association include:
- Emotions include sadness, anger, bitterness, or remorse.
- preoccupation with photos, clothes, and other reminders of the dead
- It was feared that they would abandon the deceased, so they were reluctant to bond with other people.
- Difficult figuring out what you are feeling is emotional numbness.
- You should avoid places, objects, or people that remind you of your loved one.
- It can be lonely or as if you have lost a part of yourself.
- Difficult accepting the death.
- thoughts of suicide
This diagnosis has sparked plenty of
Given that roughly one million people in the United States have died in a still-ongoing pandemic, it’s difficult to predict how cultural expectations of mourning will evolve. Somewhere down the line, the criteria for prolonged grief disorder could change to reflect that.
You might find mourning a long, messy process no matter what kind of grief you experience.
While there’s no tried-and-true formula for healing your pain (except possibly time), a number of strategies can help you cope:
- Rest. Grief can be physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting. Taking a nap or trying a comforting hobby can do a lot to recharge your batteries.
- Lean on others. It’s always OK to ask others for support. Even if you don’t feel like sharing your feelings right away, loved ones can bring you meals, help you shop when you don’t feel up to crowds, or simply offer company during dark days.
- Keep a consistent schedule. When life throws unexpected changes your way, routines can offer a comforting sense of predictability. Even things like eating regular meals and going to bed at the same time each night can help.
- Immerse yourself in art. Grief can involve a lot of complex, seemingly contradictory feelings. Sometimes music or drawing can express your inner world in ways words can’t.
- Create rituals. Consider creating a ritual to express your grief. For example, you might look through old photos of your lost loved one every morning before breakfast, or visit their grave — or a place that reminds you of them — on weekends. Rituals can serve as a special period to honor your connection with the deceased so you can dedicate the rest of your time to living.
- Tell the story of your loss. Turning your grief into a story can help you figure out how a loss fits into your life. What led to it? How did it affect you? And where do you go from there?
Need to talk?
You can feel overwhelmed by loss and unable to live alone.
If you find yourself in a crisis or have thoughts of suicide, you can get help from a free helpline.
A trained crisis counselor is available.
- texting “HOME” to 741-741 to reach Crisis Text Line
- calling 1-800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
You can get help by calling.
- the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline, online or by phone at 1-800-950-6264
- SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-622-4357
There are more suicide prevention resources.
One way to figure out what works best for you. Listen to your heart. What makes you feel comforted, soothed, or peaceful?
“It is important to remember that your needs may change over time. One strategy didn’t work at first, but it never will.”
A therapist can always offer support and guidance.
There are many forms of grief. The shape of your grief can be determined by a number of factors.
It is not always easy to grieve alone, and there is no “correct” way to do so.
If you feel lost or overwhelmed, you can reach out for help. A mental health professional can help you begin to process your feelings and begin healing.
Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.