Grief is defined as “keen mental suffering or distress over a loss.” It is the natural response to having something taken away from us that was once close and cherished. Of course, it is most associated with the death of friends and family, but grief can arise in a wide range of situations, from divorce to loss of financial stability, to loss of a lifelong dream. The constellation of emotions that the grieving process brings is deeply personal and unique to each situation—there is no right or wrong way to grieve, and no reason to ever be ashamed of your grief’s source, timetable, or intensity.
Some periods of grieving can last only weeks or months, while others can last years or have relapses. Generally, though, the emotional ups and downs associated with loss grow gradually less potent over time, and if they don’t, it might be a sign that a deeper underlying issue such as depression or anxiety may be at play. Understanding the shapes, symptoms, and processes of grief can help provide coping tools for when it inevitably arises in our lives.
Common Emotional Symptoms
Perhaps the most universal emotion associated with grief is sadness, which can take the form of loneliness, emptiness, or emotional instability. Sadness is sometimes but not always accompanied by crying—if you aren’t crying over a loss, it doesn’t mean you aren’t sad or didn’t treasure that relationship—everyone’s process is both unique and normal. Many people also experience a sense of guilt, feeling that something they did (or didn’t do) may have negatively affected the person they are grieving, and there are no more opportunities to apologize. It is also possible to feel guilty of certain feelings, such as relief at a loved one’s death after a long and difficult battle with illness.
Fear is another common symptom—fear of facing life without our loved one, or the responsibilities their absence may bring. Loss can also trigger our own sense of mortality, bringing with it a large dose of very understandable fear. Panic attacks, insomnia, and anger can all be manifestations of grief-based fear.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, and many more emotions can certainly come into play when experiencing grief—but by simply recognizing and acknowledging some of these main symptoms, they can be defanged. In all cases it is important to breathe into feelings of loss—any efforts to “be strong” by ignoring feelings, or self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, will postpone your grief and leave you vulnerable to more serious mental health complications when it does arise.
Tips for Healing with Grief
Perhaps the most important step anyone can take in healing from grief is seeking a support system of friends, family, and treatment, as the case may be. In the face of such difficult emotions, there is a strong instinct to withdraw, especially if expressing strong emotions is a source of embarrassment or shame. To make matters worse, it can be expected that many people will find grief frightening or confusing, and may act awkwardly or not have the tools to say all the right things. Despite these challenges, face-to-face time with a loving, supportive community remains the most powerful healing tool in any grieving person’s arsenal.
Learning to accept assistance that is offered, share your shifting emotional landscapes, and process your mourning out loud is certain to smooth out the bumpy road to healing. It is easy to let your hobbies and routines fall by the wayside in the face of grief’s difficult feelings, but fighting to maintain a semblance of your “old life” is an important thing to remember. The routines that bring us joy and stability before a loss are certain to do the same after—and those are times when joy and stability are most valuable. Similarly, physical wellness is deeply tied to emotional wellness, and that is no different in cases of grieving. Taking care of your physical body with enough sleep, exercise, and a healthy diet can do wonders for your emotional life when you need it most.
Your Own Journey
In any conversation about grief, it must be set against a backdrop of understanding, acceptance, and openness. No two people will experience the same interaction of emotions or the same impact on their daily life. Healing will require patience and a network of support. In the end, though, everyone experiencing grief should feel optimistic that the beauty and joy of life can be reclaimed with time and dedication.