Grief is the experience of mourning and reacting to loss. Often grief is associated with the death of a loved one or a pet, but it can result from many different types of losses—from losing a job to losing your youth to losing the possibility of the future you imagined.
Different cultures respond to grief in different ways. Some place a lot of intentionality on the practice of grief and develop rituals and ceremonies around it. Others scarcely acknowledge it and spend more time focusing on the future than the past. Your experience of grief is likely a result of your cultural background, your family history, and your personality.
Although the feelings and practices associated with grief may differ from person to person and from group to group, it is a universal experience that can help us touch into our deepest feelings and our connection to the world around us. It can be confusing, difficult, and even unbearable, but it can also be transformative and cathartic.
Whether you are very familiar with grief or have minimal exposure to it, there is much to be learned about the experience. Here are ten things you may not have known about grief that are important to remember.
- Grief is not linear. Those who have experienced grief know it is not a linear process. That means its expression can look different from day to day. The Five Stages of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) detail common ways of experiencing grief, but they are not exhaustive and do not always follow that order.
- Grief doesn’t always look like sadness. People experience grief differently and it does not always present as crying or sadness. Some individuals experiencing deep grief may feel angry, confused, depressed or manic.
- Grief can be collective. Collective grief is an emotional experience that is shared by an entire community. It is a communal response to widespread tragedies, such as natural disasters or war. The United States, like many parts of the world, is currently experiencing a collective grief over the COVID-19 pandemic and the ways it has affected life as we knew it.
- Grief has physical effects. Grieving someone or something doesn’t just affect our mental state and emotions. It can have physical effects as well, ranging from insomnia and digestive issues to muscle soreness and memory loss.
- Grief can exacerbate mental health issues. Individuals who suffer from anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders may find their symptoms become worse when going through a period of grief.
- Grief can last for years. Although the intensity of feelings associated with grief may subside, the grief itself can last for years. Sometimes it never goes away. It is normal to grieve certain people or situations for your entire life.
- Grief can be re-triggered. Sometimes intense feelings can arise suddenly because of a “trigger” — a certain word, sensation, or situation that reminds our nervous systems of something in the past and creates an immediate bodily and emotional response. When grief is re-triggered, an individual could be feeling happy and “normal” in one moment and be experiencing a deep and overwhelming emotion the next.
- Grief sometimes requires professional help. According to The Recovery Village, about 10 to 20 percent of grievers experience “complicated grief” and have difficulty with daily functioning for a long period of time after the loss. Individuals with complicated grief should seek the help of a professional to help them process their thoughts and feelings.
- Grief can result from something that hasn’t happened. Often grief occurs following the loss of something important, but it is also possible to mourn things that will never happen. For example, individuals who are infertile may grieve the possibility of ever having a biological child.
- Grief is personal. No one can really tell you what is normal and what is not when you are in the midst of experiencing grief. It is a personal process that looks different for every individual. There is no timeline or process that fits everyone and no other person will truly be able to understand your experience — even though friends and family may try to compare their situations in an effort to help you feel better.
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