Grieving: Facing Illness, Death and Other Losses

Grieving: Facing Illness, Death and Other Losses Family Doctor Logo

What is grief?

Grief is a 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 the following:

  • Death of a loved one, including pets
  • Divorce or relationship changes, 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.

What are the stages of grief?

When people talk about the stages of grief, they most often are talking about the 5 stages of grief identified by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Kübler-Ross was a psychiatrist who studied how people who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness grieved the loss of their health. She identified the 5 stages of grief as:

  • Denial: “This isn’t happening. Not to me.”
  • Anger: “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”
  • Bargaining: “I’ll make a change in my life, if only this won’t happen to me.”
  • Depression: “I just don’t care anymore.”
  • Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what is happening.”

All of these feelings are normal. However, not everyone who is grieving experiences all of these emotions. And not everyone experiences these emotions in the same order. It is also common to cycle back through some of these stages more than once. Grief can include many other emotions and even physical symptoms.

What are the symptoms of grief?

Grief can include both emotional and physical symptoms. There is a big overlap with symptoms of depression. For example, emotional symptoms may include the following:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Blame
  • Bargaining
  • Confusion
  • Denial
  • Disorganization
  • Fear
  • Guilt
  • Irritability
  • Loneliness
  • Numbness
  • Sadness
  • Shock

Physical symptoms of grief may include the following:

  • Crying spells
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Feeling like there’s a lump in your throat
  • Hallucinations (e.g., seeing images of the dead person)
  • Headaches
  • Hyperventilating
  • Nausea
  • Not feeling hungry
  • Restlessness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sleeping problems
  • Tightness in your chest
  • Tiredness
  • Weight loss or gain

How do I deal with a loss?

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

  • Talk about how you’re feeling with others.
  • Try to keep up with your daily tasks so you don’t feel overwhelmed.
  • Get enough sleep, eat a well-balanced diet and exercise regularly.
  • Avoid alcohol. Alcohol can make you feel more depressed.
  • Get back into your normal routine as soon as you can.
  • Avoid making major decisions right away.
  • Allow yourself to cry, to feel numb, to be angry, or to feel however you’re feeling.
  • Ask for help if you need it.

How long does grief last?

You’ll probably start to feel better in 6 to 8 weeks. The whole process can last anywhere from 6 months to 4 years. If you feel like you’re having trouble dealing with your emotions, ask for help. People who can help include friends, family, clergy, a counselor or therapist, support groups, and your family doctor.

How do I tell the difference between normal grief and depression?

The symptoms of grief and the symptoms of depression are quite similar. While it’s normal for you to feel sad after a loss, the feelings associated with grief should be temporary. If you don’t start to feel better as time passes, if your feelings begin to disrupt your daily life, or if you start to think about hurting yourself or others, talk to your family doctor. These can be signs of depression. Your family doctor can help you treat depression so you can start to feel better.

How do I know when I’m starting to feel better?

You may start to feel better in small ways. For example, you may find it’s a little easier to get up in the morning, or you may have small bursts of 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 day. This is normal.

Eventually, you’ll begin to reinvest in other relationships and activities. During this time, it’s normal to feel guilty or disloyal to your loved one because you’re moving on to new relationships. It’s also normal to relive some of your feelings of grief on birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and during other special times.

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