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Grieving: Facing Illness, Death, and Other Losses

Last Updated July 2022 | This article was created by familydoctor.org editorial staff and reviewed by Deepak S. Patel, MD, FAAFP, FACSM

Grief is a person’s normal, healthy response to a loss. It describes the emotions you feel when you lose someone or something important to you. People grieve for many different reasons, including:

  • Death of a loved one, including pets
  • Divorce or changes in a relationship, including friendships
  • Changes in your health or the health of a loved one
  • Losing a job or changes in financial security
  • Changes in your way of life, such as during retirement or when moving to a new place

The loss that triggers grief isn’t always physical. You can experience grief if you or a loved one are diagnosed with a major disease or face a serious illness. You may grieve plans you had made, or the ways life will change.

Grief is different for everyone. It can include many emotional and physical symptoms, including:

  • Feelings: Anger, anxiety, blame, confusion, denial, depression, fear, guilt, irritability, loneliness, numbness, relief, sadness, shock, or yearning
  • Thoughts: Confusion, difficulty concentrating, disbelief, hallucinations, or preoccupation with what was lost
  • Physical sensations: Dizziness, fast heartbeat, fatigue, headaches, hyperventilating, nausea or upset stomach, shortness of breath, tightness or heaviness in the throat or chest, or weight loss or gain
  • Behaviors: Crying spells, excessive activity, irritability or aggression, loss of energy, loss of interest in enjoyable activities, restlessness, or trouble falling or staying asleep

Grief is sometimes described as a process of 5 stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

These reactions to loss are normal. However, not everyone who is grieving experiences all of them, and not everyone experiences them in the same order. It is common to cycle back through some of these reactions, stages, and symptoms more than once.

Path to improved well being

There is no “right” way to grieve. Everyone is different. Give yourself time to experience your loss in your own way. At the same time, remember to take care of yourself:

  • Feel your loss. Allow yourself to cry, to feel numb, to be angry, or to feel however you’re feeling. It hurts, but it’s natural and normal.
  • Attend to your physical needs. Get enough sleep, eat a well-balanced diet, and exercise regularly.
  • Express your feelings. Talk about how you’re feeling with others. Or find a creative way to let your feelings out. This could include art, music, or writing in a journal.
  • Maintain a routine. Get back into your normal routine as soon as you can. Try to keep up with your daily tasks so you don’t get overwhelmed.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant that can affect your mood, so it could make you feel even more sad.
  • Avoid making major decisions. It takes time to adjust to a loss and get back to a normal state of mind. Making an impulsive decision as you’re grieving could add more stress at an already difficult time. Try to wait a year before making a big change, like moving or changing jobs.
  • Give yourself a break. Take breaks from grieving by participating in activities you enjoy. It’s okay to not feel sad all the time. It’s good for you to laugh.
  • Ask for help if you need it. You don’t have to struggle. Seek out friends, family, clergy, a counselor or therapist, or support groups. If your symptoms aren’t getting better or you feel like you need extra help, talk to your family doctor.

There is no set timetable for grief. You may start to feel better in 6 to 8 weeks, but the whole process can last from months to years. You may start to feel better in small ways. It will start to get a little easier to get up in the morning, or maybe you’ll have more energy. This is the time when you’ll begin to reorganize your life around your loss or without your loved one. During this time, it may feel like you go through a series of ups and downs. You may feel better one day, but worse the next. This is normal.

Over time, you’ll begin to find interest in other people and activities again. If you’ve lost a loved one, it’s normal to feel guilty or disloyal to them during this time. It’s also normal to relive some of your feelings of grief on birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, or other special occasions.

Things to consider

While it’s normal to feel sad after a loss, the feelings associated with grief should be temporary. Sometimes the feelings last longer, or you may have trouble dealing with your emotions. When this happens, grief can turn into depression. The symptoms of grief and depression are similar. Signs that you could be depressed include:

  • Not feeling any better as time passes
  • Having ongoing difficulty with eating or sleeping
  • Feelings disrupting your daily life
  • Relying on drugs or alcohol to cope
  • Thinking about hurting yourself or others

If you feel like you’re having trouble dealing with your emotions, ask for help. Your family doctor can help you treat your depression so you can start to feel better. He or she can also help you figure out what other kind of support you need. This could include a support group, individual therapy, or medicine.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Is what I’m experiencing normal?
  • Could I be depressed?
  • Should I go to a counselor or therapist?
  • How long will it be until I feel better?
  • Would medicine help me feel better?


American Society of Clinical Oncology: Understanding Grief and Loss

U.S. National Library of Medicine, Medline Plus: Grief

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