What is Grief & How Can Therapy Help?
Death is inevitable. Yet, the loss of a loved one always produces strong emotions of grief and despair. The pain can be extremely overwhelming and it can last a long time. Just as you feel like life has returned to normal, something reminds you of your loved one and the intense, heart-breaking anguish returns.
Grief can be caused by many things besides the death of a loved one. It is also normal to grieve when a pet dies or when going through a divorce. These events can be just as devastating for some people as the death of a family member. 1
For most people, grief will let go eventually. But, sometimes, mental pain and anguish won’t relent. When grief doesn’t go away, it is known as persistent complex bereavement disorder (complicated grief). In persistent complex bereavement disorder, the emotional symptoms are so severe and deeply-rooted that you have trouble moving on from the loss and living your own life. 2
So, how do you know if you are suffering from a normal reaction to grief or something more? The first step is to learn about grief. What is normal and what isn’t? Here are some of the normal emotions following a loss.
Scientists used to think that grief involved a series of stages that a person moves through. Newer studies show that people do not pass through grief in neat stages. Rather, the grieving process usually involves a period of ups and downs. No two people grieve in the same way. Grief can manifest itself in a variety of ways. How a person grieves depends on spiritual, cultural, emotional, and behavioral factors. 3
There is no typical response to a loss. However, there are some common symptoms of grief that many people experience. You may experience some or all of these emotions.
- Disbelief or Shock – One of the first emotions that a person may experience after the loss of a loved one is disbelief. You may feel numb or have trouble believing that the event happened at all. You might expect the person to show up or believe that you see them on a crowded street somewhere. Denial and shock are normal during the initial period after a loss. Denial is the brain’s way of making sure that you don’t get too overwhelmed with emotions at once. It helps you get ready for the difficult road ahead and prepare to process the grief.
- Sadness – After the shock wears off, deep sadness will likely take its place. You might feel empty or lost. You might find yourself crying for no reason at all. The sadness can make it hard to perform normal daily tasks. These feelings are normal. Even though they are unpleasant, they are natural and should subside with time.
- Anger – Losing someone or something important can feel unfair. It can make you feel resentful or angry. You may feel the need to blame someone for this injustice – the doctor, God, or even the person who died for abandoning you — especially if the death was from suicide. The death of a loved one can shake your religious beliefs. You might feel angry with God for a period of time. Placing blame is a way to try to alleviate sorrow. Eventually, you will work through the anger and learn to forgive.
- Guilt – It’s normal to feel guilty after a loss. You may regret things that you said or didn’t say to the person. You might feel frustrated that you won’t have the chance to do things differently.
- Fear – A loss can trigger feelings of fear or anxiety. It reminds you that you and others that you love are mortal. You may fear for the safety of your remaining friends and family. You might even vividly imagine terrible things happening to yourself or your loved ones. These feelings of anxiety and fear are a normal part of the grieving process.
- Physical Symptoms – Grief can take a toll on your physical health, as well. Due to the intense levels of stress associated with grief, it can affect your physical health. Common physical symptoms associated with grief include stomach aches, nausea, pain, and fatigue. Weight loss is common with grief.
So, how do you distinguish normal grief from complicated bereavement?
- Unshakable denial. As discussed above, disbelief is a normal emotion that most people experience after a loss — for a certain period of time. The key is acceptance. Eventually, you’ll accept the loss. However, some people fail to come to terms with reality. In these cases, denial is unhealthy. Taking a temporary break right after a loss is healthy, however, trying to completely avoid the fact that your loved one is a sign of complicated grief.
- Self-destructive behavior. Some people engage in self-destructive behavior, such as drug abuse, alcohol, self-harm, or unsafe sex to cope with the loss of a loved one. This behavior is a sign that something deeper is going on.
- Extreme anxiety. It is normal to experience some anxiety after the death of a loved one, however, if the anxiety is prolonged or significantly impacts your daily functioning, it could be a sign of complicated grief. An example would be an extreme fear of being sick that is not alleviated even after having numerous medical tests come out normal.
- Problems functioning in daily life. Right after a loss, you might have difficulty keeping up with housework, taking care of the kids or going to work. That is normal and usually alleviated with the help of a good support system. However, sometimes, these problems persist, which can indicate a bereavement disorder.
Tips for Coping with Grief
If you are struggling with grief, there is good news. You do not have to live with debilitating, long term pain. There is a way to healthy grief. These tips can help.
Tip #1 – Accept Help
One of the most important factors in healing from loss or death is having sufficient social support. Support from friends, family, and others can make grief an easier burden to bear. When family and friends offer to help with funeral arrangements, prepare meals, care for your kids or clean your home, let them. It can be overwhelming to do these things right after a loss. Not having to worry about these responsibilities can free you to focus on coping with your grief.
Tip #2 – Share Your Feelings
Don’t hold your feelings in after a loss. Most people are more than willing to lend an ear to friends who need to talk about a loss. Share your feelings with family, friends or religious leaders. You can also try bereavement support groups, which provide an opportunity to share your sadness with others who are also going through a loss and can relate to your feelings.
Tip #3 – Take Good Care of Yourself
It is important to take good care of yourself when you are grieving — even though that can be especially hard. Here are some tips:
- Focus on sleep. Make sure you are getting enough sleep. Try to stick to a sleep schedule. If you are having difficulty falling or staying asleep, talk to your doctor.
- Stick to a healthy diet. When you’re grieving the death of a loved one or a divorce – you might have trouble making good decisions. Suddenly, what to eat becomes another hard decision. Your emotionally drained already and don’t want to think about it, so you opt out of eating altogether or you make the most comforting decision, which is to gulp down an unhealthy meal of donuts and french fries. Unforteunly, high carb meals can sap your energy and lead to blood sugar ups and downs that lead you to feel even worse.
- Stay active. Grief can cause you to want to do nothing more than lay on the couch with a spoon and a tub of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. Exercise can help you stay healthy during this tough time in your life. Plus, going to the gym is a great way to meet friends and take your mind off your pain.
Tip #4 – Seek Professional Grief Counseling
Even if you are grieving normally and are not experiencing the pain of prolonged or complicated grief, getting counseling can help you cope. A therapist can promote a healthy healing process by assisting you with working through tough emotions.
Treatment for Complicated Grief and Loss
So, what kind of treatment is available for grief and loss?2
- Psychotherapy. Complicated grief psychotherapy may be used to treat persistent complicated grief disorder. This therapy is similar to techniques used to treat other mental health issues like anxiety and depression. However, it is specifically for complicated grief. Complicated grief psychotherapy may be done in a group format or individually.
- Medications. There is little evidence to support the use of medications to treat grief. However, anti-depressants may be helpful to treat depression, which can sometimes occur with a bereavement disorder.
Find a Therapist for Help with Grief
If you are experiencing a significant or prolonged reaction to loss, search TherapyTribe for a grief therapist today. TherapyTribe can help you find a counselor in your area or online who specializes in treating grief.
- Scientific American. (2018, May). Why We Need to Take Pet Loss Seriously. Retrieved April 10th, 2019, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-we-need-to-take-pet-loss-seriously/
- Mayo Clinic. (2017, April). Complicated Grief. Retrieved April 10th, 2019, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/complicated-grief/symptoms-causes/syc-20360374
- Scientific American. (2018, November). Five Fallacies of Grief: Debunking Psychological Stages. Retrieved April 10th, 2019, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/five-fallacies-of-grief/