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Grief: Stages, symptoms, and support

Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger, PhD

white paper heart torn in pieces

What is grief? 

Grief is a natural response to loss. It’s often associated with the loss of a loved one, but many different kinds of losses can cause grief. 

We all experience grief—but we don’t all experience it in the same way. Your grieving process may look different than someone else’s, even if you’re both grieving the same loss. There is no “right” way to grieve, and there’s no “normal” grieving timeline. The best thing you can do in times of grief is acknowledge your feelings without judgment and rely on the support of friends, family, and a professional therapist, if necessary. 

Is grief a mental health disorder?

Grief is an emotional response to loss, not a mental illness. But grief may worsen symptoms of other mental health disorders. 

Stages of grief

In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross described five stages of grief: 

We don’t all go through these stages in this order, though. In Kübler-Ross’s words, “There is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss.” You may go through multiple stages at once, or return to a stage you went through earlier. The stages can help you describe what you’re feeling after a loss, but they shouldn’t be used to prescribe what you “should” feel after a loss. 

Grief specialist David Kessler has suggested a sixth stage: finding new meaning in your life after a loss. As Kessler puts it, “Healing occurs not when grief gets smaller, but when life gets bigger.”  

Types of loss 

Grief is not reserved for when someone dies. You can experience grief after any kind of loss, including: 

  • The death of a family member or friend 
  • The death of a pet 
  • A miscarriage 
  • A loss of health 
  • A divorce or breakup 
  • A job loss 
  • Life transitions (such as moving, graduating, or retiring) 
  • National or global trauma (such as war, a pandemic, or a natural disaster) 

Signs and symptoms 

The way you experience grief depends on a number of factors: your personality, your culture, your faith background, what kind of loss you’ve had, whether you’ve faced loss before, and how you expect your loss to affect your future. 

While everyone’s grieving process is unique, most of us will experience at least some of these common symptoms of grief: 

  • Depression: Deep loss can leave us feeling sad, empty, and hopeless—or it may trigger a depressive episode for people who already live with clinical depression. 
  • Anger: Many losses are unfair or unjust. Anger can help us address injustices in our lives, but when it doesn’t push us toward healthy, definable actions, it may become a barrier to healing. 
  • Crying: A common symptom of grieving, crying is a physical way to express the overwhelming emotions that accompany grief. However, it’s also common not to cry, even though we still feel the pain of loss. You don’t have to force yourself to cry to “prove” you are sad. 
  • Fatigue/insomnia: Grief often disrupts our sleep cycles. You may struggle with fatigue and have trouble getting out of bed—or you may have trouble sleeping at night due to insomnia
  • Nausea: Many of us become nauseated or even throw up when we first learn of a devastating loss. You may also feel ongoing nausea as you grieve. 
  • Weight fluctuations: You may turn to food for comfort and gain weight, or you may lose your appetite and experience weight loss. 
  • Muscle tension/pain: Stress causes physical tension in our bodies. After a loss, you may suffer from muscle tension or pain. 
  • Isolation: You may feel afraid to be alone—or you may withdraw from others, even the people you love. 
  • Guilt/regret: These feelings are common after a loss, especially the death of a loved one. 
  • Doubt: This is a natural response to loss, particularly death. Whether you’re religious, agnostic, or atheist, you may feel doubt about the big questions of life, death, and meaning.

How long does grief last?

There’s no “right” amount of time to grieve. Grief lasts as long as it lasts. You may be grieving for days, weeks, months, or years; an anniversary may bring a surge of sorrow. 

Grief isn’t static, and it doesn’t progress in a straight line. Its intensity ebbs and flows as you change and adapt to life after loss. Your grief in the first week following your loss may look different than your grief after a year. It may be less overwhelming, or you may notice new symptoms. Changing symptoms of grief and changing levels of intensity are part of the healing process, and new symptoms don’t necessarily mean you’re going backward. 

If your grief doesn’t ease with time, or your symptoms worsen, you may have what is known as “complicated grief” (also called “persistent complex bereavement disorder”). This type of grief follows the loss of a loved one and interferes with your ability to function. If you feel like you may be suffering from complicated grief, help is available from a qualified bereavement therapist. 

Professional help for grief and loss 

When should I see a therapist? 

Grief can be challenging to navigate, but the good news is that it gets better with time—and you don’t have to go through it alone. If your grief feels too overwhelming, you may benefit from speaking with a professional grief therapist

You may want to seek grief counseling if you: 

  • Can no longer take care of yourself due to your grief 
  • Struggle with clinical depression as well as grief 
  • Can’t accept your loss 
  • Have thoughts of suicide (suicidal ideation) 

Treatment options 

  • Grief counseling: A professional grief therapist can help you process your loss in a healthy way and move toward acceptance.  
  • Support groups: Although grief is a personal experience, many people draw strength from others who have gone through similar losses. You may want to explore joining an online or in-person support group for people experiencing grief. 
  • Helplines: If you’re in crisis after suffering a loss, help is available now. Call 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, or text HOME to 741741 for the Crisis Text Line

How can I help a friend who’s grieving? 

The best thing you can do is listen to and support your friend in their grief. It’s important to let them feel their loss, instead of trying to get them to “cheer up” or “look on the bright side.” It’s also important to honor your friend’s faith tradition when discussing their loss, even if you personally believe in something else. 

Right after your friend’s loss, look for ways to take care of everyday things that may be falling through the cracks while they grieve—make a meal, clean the house, run errands, etc. As time goes on, support your friend in healthy ways of honoring their loss or marking significant events or anniversaries. 

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