The Grief Process

No amount of knowledge can prepare us for grief. For many, it is the most intense and enduring experience. There is no quick fix or short cut to healing a grieving heart or mind. Those experiencing a loss cannot ignore or work around it, but rather they must work through it at their own pace.


There are many people with their own theories on grief work, stages, and phases. Sigmund Freud proposed that in the concept of grief work, a specific job or stage should be finished before the next begins. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, internationally known for her numerous books and presentations on death and dying, focuses on five overlapping stages of grief including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. John Bowlby and Colin Parkes believe that there are phases of grief. And J.W. Worden refers to the four tasks of mourning including accepting the reality of loss, experiencing the pain, adjusting to life without your loved one, and finally being able to invest your emotional energy into a new life.


So, who should you believe?


It’s a bit of everything. There are different stages, but the grieving process does not take the individual from start to finish like reading chapters in a book. It’s sometimes back and forth and sometimes it jumping over stages. There is no one right journey as it is personal and therefore must be worked through at one’s own speed and on their own journey.


No two losses are alike therefore the reaction to the loss is also most likely different. The expected death of a loved one who we watch suffer creates a grief reaction different than the unexpected or traumatic death of a loved one.


The “blueprint” of one’s grief may be a combination of overlapping psychosocial emotions, physical sensations, and cognitive behaviors.


Common emotions to loss may begin with shock or numbness, often followed by deep sadness. There may be anger directed in a myriad of directions including towards God, the doctor, the healthcare system, and sometimes even the person who died. People become frustrated that death is final and no matter how badly they want their loved one back there is nothing that can be done. Often included in the array of emotions is guilt as the grieving individual questions what they could have of had not done to prevent the loss.

Loss can create a physical reaction. Grieving individuals may claim to feel fatigued or weak. They may believe they are experiencing shortness of breath or tightness in their chest expressing the loss as having the wind knocked out of them, or that the loss crushed them, for example.


And beyond the emotional and physical reactions, their daily living behaviors may alter in loss of appetite, insomnia, retreating socially, crying, having intense dreams or nightmares, calling out their loved one’s name or vacillating between treasuring or avoiding things that remind them of their loved one.


Unfortunately, these experiences may occur for a surprisingly long time. Grief experiences may mimic those of depression as a reaction to the loss. Those grieving may feel a sense of peace and security one moment even with joyous laughter as good times and humorous incidents are recalled and then become paralyzed with sadness the next. This is normal however occasionally, grief may become so intense and lead to a full clinical depression which would require medical intervention.


With each passing day, as one explores and understands their loss, the emotional, physical, and behavioral “symptoms” will diminish in both frequency and intensity allowing the emotional rollercoaster ride to gradually and gently slow down and level off.


Mourning a loss may take weeks, months, or even years. For many individuals, the death of their loved one is carried with them throughout their lives. It’s important to recognize that the typical three days of bereavement leave given by employers does not represent the time needed to mourn the loss of a loved one. It’s simply the beginning of the mourning process. The most important tools for recovery are an accepting and understanding support circle of people and time.

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