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Knowledge Base » Mental Health » What is Grief?

What is Grief?

Last updated on 24th April 2023

One in five of us will have experienced the death of someone close to us before we reached adulthood. With the death of a significant person in our lives, it is natural that grief ensues.

Aside from the death of a loved one, we all experience other forms of significant change and loss in childhood, Grief UK claims that most children experience an average of 15 significant losses before they turn 18. In addition to death, these losses also include moving home or having a close friend or relative move, parental separation, and rejection from university. All these events can cause us to feel grief.

What is grief?

Grief is a natural response to loss or bereavement. It is defined as “intense sorrow” and encompasses many different emotions of varying intensities. The word itself comes from the Latin gravare, which meant to make heavy via the Old French grever, meaning to afflict, burden or oppress. Our experiences of grief today certainly feel heavy, burdensome and oppressive.

Grief is painful. It can be seen as a type of love – perhaps the most painful kind. It is the confusion between loving someone or something and not knowing how to do that now that they are not there. It encompasses frustration, anger, bitterness and even resentment. Indeed, grief can be a form of love that refuses to give up. Famous author C. S. Lewis summed up his grief over his wife in his book A Grief Observed:

“The act of living is different all through. Her absence is like the sky, spread all over everything.”

There is not a set pattern that people follow when they experience grief. It is a very personal experience, and no two people will experience it in the same way, even if they are grieving the same loss. Additionally, if you have experienced grief before, it does not mean that your next experience of grief will produce identical feelings and emotions. However personal an experience it is, grief is also a universal experience. We all grieve at different moments in our lives.

A man grieving the loss of his pet

What is the cause of grief?

When asked the cause of grief, most of us jump to the immediate response that grief is caused by the death of a loved one. And we would be correct as this often provokes the most intense of grief reactions. However, as alluded to above, there are many causes of grief.

Indeed, a loss of any kind can cause grief:

  • Relationship breakdown or divorce.
  • Loss of employment or financial stability.
  • Retirement.
  • Loss of health.
  • A miscarriage or loss of fertility.
  • Loss of a friendship.
  • Death of a family pet.
  • A loved one’s serious illness or diagnosis.
  • Loss of safety following trauma.
  • Loss of a family home.
  • Loss of a lifelong dream such as a rejection from a university or job.

Although each of these losses (and more besides) can provoke a loss reaction, not all experiences of each of these losses would be the same for everyone. Whatever the loss, it is always highly personal.

What someone else would perhaps not grieve over does not mean that it is not appropriate for you to grieve. No matter the cause of the grief, there is always support out there.

What is the grieving process?

As outlined, grief is an experience that is different for everybody. There is not a set pattern or a right and wrong way to grieve. How someone grieves will depend on different factors such as a person’s coping style, their personality, how significant a loss it is as well as whether they are spiritual in any way.

The grieving process is often drawn out. It must be seen as a process towards healing, without restrictions or timescales. Some people may start to resolve most of their feelings and emotions surrounding the loss in a few weeks or months; others may find themselves grieving and processing their loss for years. No matter the individual’s experience, it is important that they are shown compassion and that they, and others in their circle, are patient.

How to deal with the grieving process

Grief is an unavoidable part of life. However, we can learn to understand grief and work towards accepting and processing our losses. Eventually, whilst they may never “get over” a loss, most people manage to learn to live with or alongside their loss and are able to lead fulfilled, largely happy lives.

To begin to process a loss, it is important to acknowledge the different stages of the process. Also, it is important to recognise that your feelings and emotions are normal and that they are personal to you. It may help for you to begin by acknowledging your emotional pain and try to accept that you will feel many different and often unexpected emotions.

Whilst it is always a highly personal experience, it is important that you seek out support. Preferably, the support should be from those who know you well and care about your emotional and physical wellbeing.

Taking care of yourself physically is just as important as caring for your mind when you are suffering from grief. It is also important that whilst you feel deep sadness and sorrow, grief is not synonymic with depression.

Woman in a stage of grief

What are the stages of grief?

If you have ever grieved a loss (which most of us will have in one way or another), you will know that there are several different stages that a grieving person goes through after a loss.

Back in 1969, Swiss Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed a model around the different stages of grief for those facing their own death due to terminal illness. The Kübler-Ross model was later adopted as a way of understanding the grieving process in general, regardless of the type of grief.

Kübler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief were described as:

1. Denial.

2. Anger.

3. Bargaining.

4. Depression.

5. Acceptance.


“This isn’t my life!”

After a loss, it is common to feel numb and be in disbelief. It is hard to accept that the loss is a permanent one. The denial stage of grief often works as a protective factor, allowing the person experiencing the loss to do all that is necessary in the days following.

In the case of death, this can be things such as sorting funeral arrangements. Other common emotions at this stage are confusion, fear and shock at the loss, especially if the loss was unexpected.

You may feel like you are living someone else’s life, or at least an onlooker watching yours from the side lines. This stage of grief works to slow down our processing so that we can take things a step at a time as our mind catches up with reality.


“They should have done more! This isn’t fair!”

Many people are unaware that anger is a very common reaction to loss and is as much a part of grief as sadness is. Anger is a default emotion when we feel out of control and our brain wants us to try and gain some control in a primitive way. We can lash out in this stage.

Anger can revolve around the reason for the loss. If it is a part of the grief over a loved one’s death, anger can be aimed towards the deceased, towards medical professionals for not being able to save the person, or at ourselves for things that we did or wish we had done before the person died.

Even if the loss is not a death, feelings of anger are also commonly present. Such anger can be directed towards an organisation, an employer, a person who caused the trauma or the loss, and even anger towards God if we have a faith.


“Please, God. I’ll do anything.”

Our brains are naturally protective. They want us to try and find solutions to our problems, and grief is no different. Even the most intelligent of people can find themselves bargaining with God or with doctors to do something to fix the problem, to retract the loss and restore things to how they were.

This phase can also be characterised by the feeling of helplessness when a person realises that there is little, if anything, that can change the situation.


“Life is worthless without them.”

As the emotional fog ebbs away and the panic and anger subside, the loss feels ever more present and inescapable. This is when our sadness grows, and depression makes itself at home in our minds. We have the dawning realisation that the loss will not change and is permanent. The magnitude of the loss is felt more strongly, and people withdraw and isolate themselves from others.

Depression is often the main element that people associate with grief. Feelings of depression or prolonged sorrow are incredibly common following a loss. These feelings can be incredibly intense and overwhelming. It is common to experience feelings of unreality, apathy and restlessness during this period. Many people in this stage of grief may try to seek comfort in substances such as alcohol, drugs or food, which brings with it its own problems.

For many, depression does not solely occur immediately following a loss. This stage of grief can rear its ugly head months or years later. Even for those who have reached the acceptance stage, dips back into depression are incredibly common.


“It is hard, but I can be happy again.”

Acceptance is the return to a meaningful life after loss, where future plans may be created. This is often what people think of as “moving on” from a loss. This is the part of the grieving cycle that is the goal for a person who has suffered a loss. However, it mostly does not come quickly and sometimes it takes a considerable effort to get there.

Many do not feel like they want to get to this stage; they feel that if they accept the loss, then they have “forgotten” its significance. Nevertheless, it is important that we accept acceptance as a part of life.

Despite reaching acceptance, we must understand that it does not mean that we have got over a loss completely or that it is no longer a significant and sometimes debilitating part of our life. Indeed, it is better to think of the stages of grief as intertwined rather than a linear process.

Many of those grieving will find themselves dipping in and out of different stages of grief or getting stuck in a stage. At any stage, and at any time, those who have reached the acceptance stage of their loss could have a deterioration back into the depressive or even anger stage.

As such, it is important to continue to offer support to those who have suffered a loss even years later.

Many people use the acceptance stage of grief to explore helping others and putting their adverse experiences to good use. After the death of a loved one, people may carry out activities in their loved one’s memory such as charity events or random acts of kindness. Others put their experiences out there to share with others and try and help those who are going through an earlier stage in the grieving process, offering them support from someone who has been in their shoes.

As a caveat, it is important to reiterate that, although these five stages of grief are common, everyone’s journey through grief will be different. No two paths through it will be the same, even if it is the same person experiencing another loss or two people experiencing an identical loss. There is no right or wrong way to feel.

Struggling to sleep due to grief

What is masked grief?

Masked grief occurs when someone tries to suppress their feelings of grief and not deal with them or allow them to run their natural course. In the very early moments after a loss, our bodies and minds are clever in that the initial feelings of shock and denial are useful to us.

It means that we can function whilst starting to process the loss. Yet, this denial stage cannot and should not last for too long otherwise we do not learn to move on and process the loss.

Masking our emotions is nothing new to us; many of us do it every day in different situations so that we have more typical outward behaviour. Yet, masking grief over a protracted period is not healthy. Holding in emotions after a loss means that the feelings will manifest themselves in other ways.

Masked grief is typically more common in men or in cultures and societies where there are “rules” that suggest how you should act after a loss. Masked grief also happens to those who do not let on to others that they have suffered a loss.

What is the difference between grief and sadness?

Whilst sadness and grief often go hand in hand, they are not one and the same.  Sadness is very much a part of grief and is often the overriding emotion that most of us feel when we have suffered a loss of any kind. However, grief is not summarised solely by sadness.

As explained in the stages of grief, there are many other emotions that a person experiences during the grieving process including:

  • Shock, disbelief, denial and numbness.
  • Guilt and regret.
  • Panic, anxiety and fear.
  • Anger.
  • Relief.
  • Elation.
  • Jealousy.
  • Gratitude.

Any of these emotions is normal during the grieving process (yes, even relief or elation if the relationship with a lost loved one was troubled or abusive). Whilst sadness plays a huge role in our grief, there are other parts too.

What are the signs and symptoms of grief?

Most of us are familiar with the emotional signs and symptoms of grief. However, physical symptoms of grief are also extremely common. These symptoms can be worrying if you are not sure what is causing them.

Physical signs and symptoms of grief include:

  • Tightness in the throat or chest.
  • A hollow, empty feeling in the stomach.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Tiredness, exhaustion and feeling weak.
  • Sensitivity to noise.
  • A dry mouth.
  • Appetite changes.
  • Aches and pains.
  • Trouble sleeping and nightmares.

Many of the physical symptoms of grief can cause additional worry to the person grieving, especially if the loss was of someone who was ill. Whether the symptoms are caused by grief or for another reason, they are very much real, and it is important that the person reaches out for support.

Of course, we must also acknowledge the emotional signs and symptoms of grief too, with which we are often more familiar. If the emotional symptoms of grief such as sadness, despair and anger become too overwhelming, they can turn into a protracted period of depression which needs treating in the same way as a physical illness does.

What are the different types of grief?

Most people grieve in a typical way, which is often called normal grief or uncomplicated grief. We have also explained masked grief above. But other forms of grief are more complex and often require additional support or treatment.

  • Complicated Grief is where grief becomes much more long-term and debilitating. It impairs the person’s ability to live their life in a normal way for an extended period.
  • Chronic Grief is where the strong and overwhelming emotions felt in grief do not typically subside. The person often becomes stuck in the bargaining and/or depression stages of grief.
  • Anticipatory Grief is the reaction to a loss that was expected such as when someone dies from a terminal illness. The grieving process therefore often begins long before the loss occurs. This can often be confusing, and it does not necessarily mean the grief after the death will be easier to cope with.
  • Secondary Loss is where a subsequent loss occurs as a result of the first loss. For example, if a loved one dies, a secondary loss could be the loss of the home or the loss of income, amongst other things.
  • Cumulative Grief is where someone suffers from repeated losses when they have not yet processed the first loss.
  • Absent Grief is where a bereaved person appears not to show any signs of grief and continues as if nothing has happened. This is concerning when it continues for an extended time.
  • Traumatic Grief is the grief following a loss that happened in horrifying or violent circumstances. This may result in a person going on to suffer from PTSD.
  • Abbreviated Grief is a short-lived response to grief. Abbreviated grief is often presumed rather than experienced, i.e., if someone remarries soon after the death of a spouse, their grief is assumed to be “over”.
  • Ambiguous Grief or a Disenfranchised Loss is where a person experiences a loss that lacks clarity to them or others. For example, it could be the grief that someone experiences if they suffer from infertility. Others may not understand that this is a form of grief, and it is often not supported, which can have lasting effects.
Counselling to help man dealing with bereavement

Is grief a mental health problem?

Grief can certainly cause mental health problems, but it typically is not a diagnosable mental health problem. Grief takes a long time to process, and it places strain on our lives. Even after we have accepted a loss, the feelings and emotions associated with grief still recur. Over time, a person usually learns to manage these feelings.

Grief becomes a mental health problem when the symptoms do not resolve in a typical way such as in complicated grief. In this example, the symptoms of grief become harder to manage rather than easier and impact a person’s daily living for extended periods.

Whether a person’s grief is or becomes a mental health problem, it is important that there is support throughout the process and beyond.

Support for grief

Thankfully, for those who are suffering after a loss, there is a lot of support out there regardless of the type of loss:

  • The Good Grief Trust offers help and hope to those suffering from bereavement.
  • Cruse Bereavement UK provides support for anyone who has suffered a loss either face-to-face, on the phone or online.
  • BEAD provides support for those grieving a loss because of drug or alcohol use.
  • SANDS offers support and information for those who have suffered the loss of a baby.
  • Widowed and Young provides support to those under 50 who have lost a life partner.
  • Compassionate Friends has a range of different services for bereaved parents and families.
  • Grief Chat offers a safe place for those grieving to talk about their story and explore feelings with a professional specialist counsellor online.
  • Winston’s Wish offers support to bereaved children.
  • There are also Divorce Support Groups for those experiencing grief as the result of a loss of a relationship.
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About the author

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Laura Allan

Laura is a former Modern Foreign Languages teacher who now works as a writer and translator. She is also acting Chair of Governors at her children’s primary school. Outside of work, Laura enjoys running and performing in amateur productions.

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