Understanding Grief

October 31, 2011
Marie Allen, PhD
Marie Allen, PhD

,
Shelly Marks, MS
Shelly Marks, MS

Grief is an emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual response to loss. The depth and the complexity of grief often feel overwhelming and baffling. Unfortunately, arming ourselves with knowledge about grief does not reduce the depth of grief, nor simplify grief.

Grief is an emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual response to loss. The depth and the complexity of grief often feel overwhelming and baffling. Unfortunately, arming ourselves with knowledge about grief does not reduce the depth of grief, nor simplify grief.

Yet without knowledge of the symptoms and process of grief, our confusion about what we feel, adds to the inevitable pain and confusion inherent in bereavement. Many of us worry that we have gone perfectly crazy -- a logical assumption in light of the fact that, commonly, grief feels crazy. The anxiety and pain that accompany this assumption, are unnecessary and preventable. This distress can stand in the way of our healing. As one woman in our study said, "I needed someone to sit and explain. I thought something was wrong with me. I didn't know that that was grief!"

Armed with information about bereavement and the natural efficiency of grieving, we can avoid additional pain, anxiety and confusion, and better manage our journey through grief.

No two of us will feel precisely the same way about any one loss. And the ways in which we deal with our grief are as diverse as there are people in this world. Each of us responds to life and to loss with our unique character, temperament, personal history, values, beliefs, and more.

Our unconscious minds are eminently wise, with full knowledge of what is needed for us at each given point in time. There is a unique time, place and way for each one of us to grieve (and to not grieve,) depending upon factors pertinent to each unique human life.

At the same time, grief is the universal response to loss. We all experience a variety of losses in life and, therefore, we all experience grief. We can feel grief in response to the loss of a treasured scrapbook or a very special watch, a marriage even though we wanted and chose to divorce, a city from which we have moved, a job we expected to get, emotional closeness with a friend, approval of a parent, feelings of safety after a violent crime has been committed, and a neighbor with whom we fought all the time and couldn't stand. The list is endless. We can experience grief not only in response to the loss of a loved one, but also in response to the loss of expectations, a quality of life, and more.

Feelings of loss range in intensity from disappointment to wrenching, life-altering bereavement. Grief is also felt in different ways. It is often experienced as a welling up of sadness. Waves of emotions can erupt in bursts and be interspersed with feeling "absolutely fine". Grief can also be a subtle sense of sadness that is not accompanied by tears. Grief is characterized by feelings of

and guilt. It does not necessarily entail sobbing, and it does not identify itself with a name tag.

A woman in our study said she did not grieve her miscarriage. She went on to describe feelings of sadness and guilt. Later in her interview, she said that she didn't think she "could take anymore

" because she didn't feel she could emotionally handle another loss. She didn't recognize her feelings as those of grief, yet she was grieving.

In grief we can feel that our being or soul is diminished. When loss feels great and when feelings are numerous, overwhelming, or very painful, we keep some of our feelings at bay. Therefore, we can feel numb, dazed, disconnected, neutral, or even dead inside. These are feelings of depression.

When a loved one dies, we are faced with the sometimes excruciating task of surviving without them. We are social beings and our relationships hold significance and meaning to us. We see ourselves and our worlds partly within the context of these relationships. We may ask ourselves, "Who am I without you?" or "What is life without you?" We don't just feel we want our loved ones in our lives; we feel we need them in our lives. This kind of pain is so pervasive; the sounds of sadness over the loss of a loved one dominate the radio air waves.

When someone who means very much to us dies, the world as we see it is changed. Loss poses philosophical challenges to our previous thinking: our beliefs, attitudes, theories and viewpoints on life, the world, what is important, God, who we are, why we are here, and what is real. We may find ourselves asking, "Why would this happen?" "Why me?" "How can God be the loving and all-powerful God I thought He was?" "What is the point?" or "How am I to live now?" and more. We feel disoriented and confused. Grief can feel like we are in a state of internal disarray, or have even been mentally looted.

Loss can necessitate the reorganization or rebuilding of our inner world, step by step and piece by piece. Grieving is the process of constructing and adapting to a new state of being without the one who was lost. Grieving is undertaken in layers and over the course of time.

When we are grieving, we are in transition. The word "transition" is defined by Mirriam-Webster as "passage ...movement, development, or evolution from one form [or] stage ...to another."

When we do "grief work", we think about our loss, feel it, express it in some way, learn about it, and grow because of it, piece by piece by piece, and over time. Through doing so, our being feels less and less diminished and our depression becomes more and more healed.

It is important to know that not every grieving person experiences all aspects of grief. We may experience some at some point in our grief, others at other points in our grief, and yet others not at all.