Grief, also sometimes called bereavement, is a hard thing to define. Most often we think of grief as being an emotional response to the death of a loved one, but sometimes grief happens because of other types of major losses, life changes or transitions. Grief is a natural response to loss, not a disorder or illness (unless it’s complicated by other factors).
You might describe grief as being in a state of very low mood. Think about mood as if it were a sliding scale: If someone feels “stuck” in a very low mood for a prolonged amount of time, or finds it hard to feel content or happy for any length of time after experiencing loss, they might be grieving. Grief might also cause a person to feel anger, shock, guilt, disbelief, despair or numbness. Grief isn’t just about feeling something emotionally. Grief can also affect our thoughts, actions and bodies.
Grief is a part of life. At some point, everyone will experience loss, and grief is a natural response to loss, not a disorder or illness. Someone who is grieving can go through a series of emotional phases as they work through their feelings and learn ways to move ahead and cope.
For most, grief is temporary. This doesn’t necessarily mean that people “get over” the loss; the loss of someone close to you will be felt in some way forever. It does mean, however, that the pain and low mood that grief brings usually lessens over time. Because we will all experience loss at some point, coping with grief is a vital part of our mental health.
It’s tricky to decide how long grief should last, and there is no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve. When someone has a loss, they may grieve in some way for the rest of their life.
Sometimes the grieving process is prolonged and turns into “chronic” or “complicated” grief. Complicated grief might be triggered by the circumstances of the loss (like death by suicide, a sudden or unexpected illness or accident, or after a long and painful illness), by life experiences (like lack of support from family or friends, or if a person is also dealing with other mental or physical health issues). The grief process might also be prolonged if the loss causes a big life change for a person (if someone was very dependent on a parent, for instance, and that parent dies) or the loss changes their identity somehow (the loss of physical or cognitive ability, or the loss of a child). The medical term sometimes used to describe prolonged or complicated grief is persistent complex bereavement disorder.
Grief is not:
- Something someone can “snap out of”
- A sign or result of low intelligence or weakness
- The same for everyone