Few of us will get through life without having the intensely painful mental experience known as grief. Grief is a normal human reaction, which is usually experienced after the loss of someone or something that is very dear.

What can cause grief?

The death of a parent, spouse or child is a common cause of grief, but it may happen as a result of other things. The breakdown of a marriage, retirement, loss of a job or the diagnosis of a serious illness can all result in profound grief. Some older people grieve over their lost youth and occasionally, after operations such as a hysterectomy, women grieve over their lost fertility. Children may experience profound grief over the death of a pet, or losing a favourite toy.

Stages in the grief process

Grief is a very complex process, which produces a wide range of differing emotions. These can be hard to understand and can be quite frightening. Although each person will experience grief in his or her own personal way, most people go through similar stages. Understanding these stages, and recognising them, can help friends and relatives give the support necessary for those affected.

The grief reaction can include the following emotions:

  • denial;
  • anger;
  • sadness; and
  • acceptance.

Denial

Denial is part of the initial shock of losing someone or something. It is difficult to believe that you will never again see or talk to a person who has died. When a serious illness such as cancer is discovered, denial may take the form of ‘this can't happen to me’. The length of this stage of the grief reaction varies enormously. When a death has occurred, seeing the body often helps.

Anger

Anger can be the hardest, and most confusing, stage of grief. ‘It's not fair that this should happen to me’, ‘If there is a God, how can he be so cruel?’ are common reactions. There may be a strong feeling of guilt associated with grief. Some people direct their anger inwardly and blame themselves. Anger may be directed at the doctors, nurses or hospital looking after someone who has died, and sometimes anger is felt towards the dead person, for leaving others behind to cope.

Sadness

Sadness is an inevitable and essential part of grief. During this stage it is normal for thoughts and memories of the dead person to totally dominate one's thoughts. There is no doubt that crying is a great help in expressing unhappiness. Unfortunately there is reluctance among some groups (particularly males) to display this emotion.

Acceptance

Acceptance can be seen as the time when the grieving person begins to resume a relatively normal life. Going back to work, being able to socialise and making new friends are all signs that the grieving process is over.

How long does grief last?

Not everyone will experience all these emotions, but many will. The length of the grief reaction varies enormously from person to person, but is unlikely to be over in less than 6 months. Grief is a painful, but essential process. If it is not allowed to happen there can be problems, often many years later.

Getting through the grief process

If someone close to you is grieving, encourage them to talk about how they feel and the person they have lost. Expressions like ‘you must be brave’, ‘you'll get over it’, and ‘life must go on’, don't really help. Letting them know that you understand their pain is probably the best way to help.

The use of sedatives to help cope with grief is not usually a good idea, except when there is a major disturbance to sleep.

Last Reviewed: 02/09/2018

Your Doctor. Dr Michael Jones, Medical Editor.


References

1. Loss, grief and bereavement (revised July 2016). In: eTG complete. Melbourne: Therapeutic Guidelines Limited; http://online.tg.org.au/complete/ (accessed Sept 2018).
2. Australian Psychological Society. Grief. https://www.psychology.org.au/for-the-public/Psychology-topics/Grief