Grieving is an enormous challenge, particularly when there is no prior experience, and the process is unfamiliar and unexpected. When someone loses a loved one or a pet, their body can react in ways they never imagined. This article will take you through the various stages of grief and the physical responses that may occur at each stage.

Grief reactions may be felt in response to physical losses (example: a death) or in response to symbolic or social losses (example: job loss or a breakup of a relationship). Each type of loss means the person has had something taken away.

Grief may be described as physical problems, constant thoughts of the person who died, guilt, hostility, and a change in the way one normally acts.

Symptoms of Grief

Grief may be experienced as a mental, physical, social, or emotional reaction. Mental reactions can include anger, guilt, anxiety, sadness, and despair. Physical reactions can include sleeping problems, changes in appetite, physical problems, or illness. Social reactions can include feelings about taking care of others in the family, seeing family or friends, or returning to work.

What is bereavement?

Bereavement is the period after a loss during which grief is experienced and mourning occurs. The time spent in a period of bereavement depends on how attached the person was to the person who died, and how much time was spent anticipating the loss.

What is mourning?

Mourning is the process by which people adapt to a loss. Mourning is also influenced by cultural customs, rituals, and society’s rules for coping with loss.

Mourning is often described as having the following 3 phases:

  • the urge to bring back the person who died
  • disorganization and sadness
  • reorganization

Stages of Grief

While grief is a very personal and individual process, there are stages of mourning that are universal. It should be kept in mind that while these stages are normal, they are not on a straight path, and they may come out of order. For instance, an individual may feel they are going backwards instead of progressing. This is natural and will continue until the grief is processed.

Stage 1: Denial and Isolation

Shock is the first reaction many have when faced with the death of a loved one. This is a protective instinct the mind erects to protect us from the onslaught of emotions. Once the shock wears off, an individual may have trouble accepting the death. Tendencies to hide from the world during this stage are normal.

Stage 2: Anger

As the denial wears off and reality sets in, immense pain emerges. Many times this pain is redirected into anger. This anger can be directed inward, or onto friends, family, inanimate objects, health professionals, or even the deceased. This anger usually results in guilt, which brings more anger.

Stage 3: Bargaining

This is the stage when the bereaved may start trying to take back control. They may rationalize in their mind with many “what if” scenarios. This stage is full of “why” questions that have no answer.

Stage 4: Depression

This is the stage where the bereaved understands the magnitude of their loss. They are able to grasp the fact that their life is altered, and will never be the same. Deep sadness and regret dominate, sometimes accompanied by worry over other loved ones.

Stage 5: Acceptance

Acceptance does not mean happiness. Acceptance only means that the bereaved acknowledges the death of their loved one and is prepared to live without them. Their brain has processed the necessary loss and they realize they are still alive. This is when the bereaved start asking “how” questions in regards to themselves, instead of staying focused on “why” in regards to the deceased.

10 Questions to ask your doctor about grief

  • Is it normal to feel ___?
  • Is it normal to cry?
  • Who can I talk to about this?
  • How can I help myself feel better?
  • How do I talk to my husband about my feelings?
  • Will exercise help?
  • When is it appropriate to go for counseling?
  • Where can I find a support group?
  • How do I choose a grief counsellor?
  • Is there a different way for each person to grieve?

Grief and Loss Support Groups