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Understanding and Managing Grief: A Complete Guide

Grief, more than a "very sad feeling," is the profound response to loss, be it from death, relationships, or jobs. Funeral professionals emphasize the unpredictable and painful nature of grief, urging strength in seeking help.

What Is Grief?

The dictionary provides a simple definition of grief, but anyone who has experienced it knows it is far from simple. Describing grief as merely “a very sad feeling, especially when somebody dies” is akin to calling the ocean a “big pond.” While technically accurate, it doesn't capture the depth and vastness of the experience. 

Grief is about loss, and even if you have not experienced the death of a loved one until now, you are familiar with loss. Loss can mean the end of a marriage, relationship, friendship, or job. Loss forces us to face that life is constantly changing. Although you could gain positively from change (a better paying job, perhaps, or a healthier relationship), you still must accept that even with a silver lining, there was first a loss. 

Grief is painful. As funeral professionals, we place ourselves in the path of grieving families every day. We know that grief is rarely a feeling for which you can prepare yourself. Even when a loved one is ill, and their passing is anticipated, you are still caught off-guard by the intense force of grief. 

Although some people use “grief” and “bereavement” as synonyms, researchers propose that the term "bereavement" be used to denote the actual loss. In contrast, "grief" should describe the emotional, cognitive, functional, and behavioral reactions to the death. 

Whatever name you give it and wherever you might be in the grieving process, remember that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Please let us know how we can be of service. 



What Are the Symptoms and Signs of Grief?

Grief can permeate every facet of your existence — it impacts your emotional state, physical health, and spiritual well-being. You might experience some or all of the following grief symptoms. 


Physical Symptoms

Grief is a significant stressor, manifesting physically in ways such as:

  • Persistent tiredness
  • Frequent headaches
  • Nausea and an unsettled stomach
  • A state of restlessness
  • Palpitations or sensations of an irregular heartbeat
  • Muscle weakness or joint discomfort
  • A constricting feeling in your chest or throat
  • Changes in appetite, whether decreased or increased
  • Disturbed sleep patterns, from insomnia to oversleeping


Behavioral Changes

The impact of grief can extend to your cognitive functions and behavior. You may find yourself:

  • Dealing with disorientation
  • Struggling with decision-making
  • Feeling a loss of hope or purpose
  • Having difficulty concentrating on anything other than your loss
  • Experiencing memory issues or neglecting daily tasks and responsibilities

Grieving people also grapple with a mix of opposing and perplexing emotions, such as: 

  • Sadness over the absence of a loved one, yet a sense of relief that they're now at peace
  • Feelings of guilt for harboring gratitude that you no longer have the incredible physical and emotional job as a caregiver 
  • A jumble of indifference, frustration, sorrow, and remorse while mourning someone with whom you shared a tumultuous or adversarial bond



Spiritual Changes

Some people may experience changes to their religious, spiritual, or existential beliefs: 

  • Anger at a higher power for taking their loved one
  • Doubt at the purpose or existence of an afterlife
  • Unsupported by members of their faith if their loved one died by suicide, drug overdose, or violent circumstances
  • Renewed relationship with their beliefs or separation from them 



Can You Actually Die From a Broken Heart?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, yes, you could die from a broken heart after losing a spouse or partner. Broken heart syndrome is an extremely rare but authentic medical condition. Also called Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (after the Japanese physician who identified it), broken heart syndrome mimics a heart attack. 

Unlike actual cardiac events caused by blocked arteries, extreme emotional duress may cause intense surges in adrenaline. This flood of hormones may stop blood flow to the heart, creating spasms.

In most cases of broken heart syndrome, these spasms cease, hormone levels subside, blood flow resumes and the heart returns to its normal function. In rare circumstances, the syndrome may create irreversible heart failure and death.



What Happens in the Grieving Process?

The grieving process is often compared to a "journey" because, like a journey, it involves a progression through different stages, emotions, and experiences. Grief is a multi-layered whirlwind of emotions ranging from anger to disbelief, guilt to regret, and loneliness to a profound sense of yearning. These emotions can vary in intensity and change from one moment to the next. 

Here are some other things you should know about the grieving process.



There Is No Fixed Timeline

Grief is not linear. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn't follow a set pattern or timeline. Some days might feel manageable, while others feel like the loss just occurred. The idea that one simply 'moves on' from grief is a misconception. Some might move through their feelings relatively quickly, while others might take longer. Days, months, or even years after a loss, feelings of grief can re-emerge. Most people learn to integrate the loss into their lives, finding ways to honor and remember their loved ones while forging a new path.



Your Perspective Evolves 

Your perspective on the loss and its implications for their life can evolve. You could find forgiveness from unresolved conflicts or bitter disputes. Through grieving, many find newfound strength, resilience, or a deeper appreciation for life. It sounds like a cliche to say that some people no longer “sweat the small stuff,” but it is often appropriate. Losing a loved one can focus your attention on what is truly important. 



Grief Is Your New Normal

Over time, the acute pain might soften, but rarely does it completely disappear. As one Afterall funeral professional says, “The hole in your heart doesn’t go away, but you learn to love around it.” By understanding grief as a journey, individuals and those around them can better appreciate the complexities of the experience. It underscores the idea that grief is not something to "get over" but something to move through, with its challenges, lessons, and moments of reflection.



You Don't Travel Alone

Every living thing dies. Grieving is a journey we all eventually must make, however unwelcomed or unexpected. But you do not have to be alone. Seek support from friends, family, therapists, or support groups. These connections remind you that you are not alone in your experience. By acknowledging that everyone grieves at some point, you can better support yourself and others in navigating this challenging but universal journey.



What Are the Stages of Grief?

The five stages of grief, also known as the Kübler-Ross model, were introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book "On Death and Dying." They describe a series of emotional stages that people often experience when faced with the impending death of a loved one or their own terminal illness.

 

Denial

In this stage, individuals believe there must be a mistake or misunderstanding. Denial can be a defense mechanism that numbs the immediate shock of the loss, allowing one to survive emotionally in the initial aftermath.



Anger

As the masking effects of denial begin to wear off, the pain re-emerges, and the individual may feel intense anger. This anger may be directed at inanimate objects, strangers, friends or family, or even the deceased.



Bargaining

During this stage, individuals may dwell on what they could have done differently to prevent the loss. Bargaining often involves the individual making a deal with a higher power desperately attempting to postpone the inevitable.



Depression

A deep sense of sadness marks this stage. The individual may become quiet, spend much of the time crying or grieving, and withdraw from life as the full extent of the loss takes hold.



Acceptance

The final stage comes with the gradual realization that the new reality is permanent. The individual accepts the loss and looks at ways to move forward with life, though this does not imply that they are "okay" or "happy" with what has happened.



Additional Stages of Grief

The original five stages have been very influential in the popular understanding of grief, but they have also been subject to various interpretations and criticisms. One criticism is that they do not necessarily encompass the full range of emotions or experiences people may go through and that only some experience all the stages or experience them in a linear progression.

In response, some grief specialists and psychologists have expanded the model to include additional stages or reactions to loss. The seven-stage model consists of the original five, but with the addition of: 

  • Guilt: Guilt is often acknowledged as a significant part of the grieving process, and many people experience feelings of regret or guilt about things they did or didn’t do. 
  • Upward Turn: This stage represents a shift in mood and attitude as the person begins to adjust to their loss, and life starts to feel calmer and more organized.
  • Reconstruction: Reconstruction involves the person finding ways to manage their life and work through grief, such as seeking new roles or activities to fill the void left by the loss.



Where Do You Find Help with Grief?

Finding help with grief can feel overwhelming, but there are various supportive resources available. Some individuals may find solace in professional services such as grief counseling or therapy, while others may prefer support groups in person or online. Whatever the preference, it's important to remember that grief is a unique journey, and there are compassionate and empowering options available for anyone seeking support.



The Role of Grief or Bereavement Counselors 

One of the most essential roles of grief counseling is to provide validation and empathy. Counselors acknowledge that grief is a complex and individual experience, and they honor the unique journey of each person seeking help. Through active listening, support, and guidance, counselors help individuals through grief in several ways: 

  • Provide practical tools and techniques for managing the many challenges of grieving.
  • Offer relaxation exercises, mindfulness practices, or cognitive-behavioral techniques to help individuals cope with anxiety, depression, or other emotional struggles.
  • Connect individuals to additional support, such as therapy or support groups.
  • It helps individuals find meaning and purpose in their loss.
  • Guide individuals in identifying new passions or goals that honor their loved ones and brighten their future.
  • Assist individuals in coping with difficult anniversaries or triggers that may arise after the initial mourning period.
  • It may help individuals navigate the many legal and financial aspects of loss, such as estates, insurance, and benefits. 



How to Find a Grief/Bereavement Counselor

You can start by asking your primary care physician or local hospital for a referral. Afterall funeral professionals often have resources or recommendations. Many counseling organizations also have directories of licensed professionals you can browse, such as:



Finding Comfort in Support Groups 

A grief support group is a safe and confidential space for those who are grieving to connect with others who are experiencing similar emotions. Grief can feel isolating and lonely, but in a support group, you are surrounded by those who "get it." You may share your feelings without judgment and receive comfort and validation from those who understand. 

Support groups are also regular social outings that help you from being isolated. Whether you choose a face-to-face local group, online chat, or a hybrid, you build connections and cultivate new friendships.

Online Grief Support Groups

You can find online support groups through hospice, grief counselor, or your favorite search engine. Here are eight reputable online groups compiled by PsychCentral: 

  1. General/overall: Grieving.com
  2. Parents who lost a child: MISS Foundation
  3. Pregnancy and infant loss: First Candle
  4. Individuals who lose a spouse/partner: Widowers on Reddit
  5. Young adults: Actively Moving Forward
  6. People grieving someone who died by suicide: Suicide Grief Support
  7. Loss of a twin: Twinless Twins
  8. Loss due to cancer: Cancer Care



What Is Complicated Grief?

Complicated grief, also known as prolonged grief disorder, is a persistent form of grief that doesn't appear to lessen over time. This form of grief can be challenging to identify because most people will experience typical grief symptoms, such as sadness, anger, and shock. 

For bereaved people with complicated grief, these symptoms become more pronounced. They become withdrawn and may have difficulty functioning in their everyday lives. Other warning signs of complicated grief include: 

  • Having intense feelings of longing or yearning for the loved one 
  • Withdrawing from family and friends or feeling emotionally numb
  • Changes in sleeping or eating patterns
  • Difficulty functioning in daily activities
  • Overwhelming feeling of guilt or self-blame
  • Feeling stuck and unable to move forward in life
  • Talking about wanting to join their loved one (suicidal thoughts or ideation)



Complicated Grief May Require Professional Help

If you or someone you know is experiencing complicated grief, it's essential to seek professional help from a therapist or counselor experienced in grief counseling. They can provide specialized guidance and support to help you navigate your grief journey, understand your emotions, and develop coping mechanisms to help you move forward.



What Is Bereavement Leave?

Bereavement leave is a workplace policy that allows employees to take time off to grieve and attend to matters related to the loss of a loved one. When faced with the loss of a loved one, bereavement leave offers more than just time off work. It provides a range of benefits that support individuals, their coworkers, and the company:


  • Validation and emotional support: By acknowledging the emotional impact of loss, bereavement leave recognizes the need for individuals to process their grief. This validation promotes healing and offers the necessary support individuals require.
  • Improved well-being: Taking time off to grieve allows individuals to prioritize their healing and well-being. By reducing the risk of burnout and promoting a healthier grieving process, individuals can better navigate their emotional journey.
  • Addressing practical needs: Bereavement leave accounts for the practical aspects that arise after a loss, such as attending funerals, making arrangements, and supporting family members. It ensures that individuals have time to handle these responsibilities without additional stress.
  • Compassionate work environment: Employers who offer bereavement leave demonstrate compassion and empathy. By creating a supportive work environment that values the overall well-being of their employees, organizations show their commitment to understanding and honoring the individuals they employ.

Whether taking time to heal, attending to practical matters, or seeking emotional support, bereavement leave benefits individuals by providing the space and resources they need to honor their grief.



How Do Different Religions Deal with Grief?

As a universal human experience, grief often intersects with religious and cultural practices. 

Most religions have established rituals and traditions that provide comfort and guidance to those who are grieving:


  • Christianity: Mourning rituals may include funeral services, prayer vigils, and memorial services, which offer an opportunity for the community to come together and support the bereaved.
  • Hinduism: Grieving individuals may participate in rituals such as cremation, prayer ceremonies, and other practices that support the Hindu belief in reincarnation. 
  • Buddhism: Buddhists place importance on acceptance and impermanence, and grieving individuals may engage in meditation, recitation of chants, and acts of kindness to honor the deceased.
  • Judaism: The Jewish faith has specific mourning rituals and customs, including sitting shiva, reciting the Kaddish, and participating in the unveiling of the headstone after a year has passed.
  • Islam: Muslims emphasize community support during times of grief, with practices such as funeral prayers, burial rituals, and comforting the bereaved through visits and food offerings.



What Are Other Ways to Seek Comfort While Grieving?

Dealing with grief can be a challenging and deeply personal experience. Be gentle with yourself and permit yourself to grieve in the way that feels most meaningful and healing to you.

Here are some compassionate and practical do's and don'ts to help you navigate this difficult journey.

DO:

  • Acknowledge and accept your emotions: Emotions such as sadness, anger, guilt, and confusion are normal and valid.
  • Seek support from others: Lean on the support of those who care about you and consider joining a grief support group to gain additional solace and guidance.
  • Engage in self-care activities: Prioritize activities that bring you peace and solace, such as exercise, spending time in nature, meditation, or deep breathing exercises.
  • Explore creative outlets: Expressing your emotions through creative outlets like painting, writing, or playing music can be a powerful way to find solace and process your grief. 
  • Find comfort in rituals and traditions: Lighting a candle, creating a memory box, or writing letters can help cultivate a sense of connection and comfort your grief journey.
  • Seek professional help if needed: Grief counseling or therapy can offer guidance, specialized tools, and a safe space to discuss your feelings and find solace.


DON'T:

  • Suppress or deny your emotions: It's crucial to allow yourself the space and time to process your grief in healthy and constructive ways.
  • Isolate yourself: While grief can make you feel withdrawn, isolating yourself for extended periods may hinder your healing process. 
  • Compare your grief to others: Everyone's grief journey is unique, and there is no right or wrong way to grieve. 
  • Rush the healing process: Be patient and avoid putting pressure on yourself to heal quickly. 
  • Turn to alcohol or drugs: Dulling your emotions with excessive drinking or taking drugs is a temporary and often slippery slope that can make you feel worse, not better. 



How Long Does Grief Last?

There is no timeline for grief: it lasts as long as it lasts. That might not be the answer you want to hear, but understand that everyone grieves differently and on their unique timetable. 

Research suggests that active grief, characterized by intense and acute feelings of sadness, longing, and emotional pain, typically lasts between six months and four years. One study found that grief-related emotions tend to peak at around four to six months and gradually decline over the next two years of observation. It's important to note that the intensity and duration of grief can vary considerably among individuals.

While the acute stage of grief may fade, individuals may still experience waves of sadness and longing, especially during trigger events such as anniversaries or holidays. Grief may resurface periodically throughout a person's lifetime, particularly during significant life events or milestones. Even a song or scent of perfume can trigger grief, no matter how much time passes. 



What Is Traumatic Grief?

Trauma can occur in response to a loss, such as the death of a loved one, or to a distressing or disturbing situation, like an assault. This experience can overwhelm an individual’s ability to cope, leading to physical, emotional, and psychological complications.

Grief can sometimes intensify into traumatic distress, making it challenging to differentiate between mourning and trauma. Traumatic grief occurs when death comes violently and unexpectedly, especially for the young or vulnerable. The resulting traumatic response can vary depending on individual resilience, support systems, and the nature of the loss.

Ignoring trauma can lead to lifelong difficulties such as withdrawing from people, drug abuse, alcoholism, and trouble in relationships. Trauma manifests in physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms that include:

  • Fatigue
  • Chronic pain or aches 
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Feelings of sadness, despair, guilt, or shame
  • Avoidance behaviors
  • Engaging in risky or self-destructive behaviors 
  • Difficulty functioning in work or social situations

There are clinical tests to identify if one is suffering from trauma. However, practicing mindfulness and support from family, friends, or professionals is often helpful in managing symptoms and finding recovery.



What Message Should Be in Sympathy Cards?

Finding the right words to express your sympathy can feel overwhelming, but it's important to remember that just reaching out with kindness and support can make a difference. Here are a few suggestions for what you can write in a sympathy card or email to help someone grieving.



Acknowledge Their Loss

Begin your message by expressing your condolences and acknowledging their pain. Using their loved one’s name shows respect and compassion for their loss. It also makes your words more meaningful. If you don’t know their name, mention the relationship. 

  • "I can't find the right words to ease your pain of losing your mother, but please know that I am thinking of you."
  • “Your brother had a wonderful sense of humor and was always so kind to me. I am so sorry to hear of his death. May his memory be a blessing.” 
  • “I cannot imagine how you are feeling as you grieve the loss of your beloved daughter, Alice. Please know that I am here if you want to talk or just to sit together with a cup of tea.”



Offer Specific Support

Let the grieving person know you are there for them and willing to help, but avoid general offers. Many people are reluctant to accept help, even when needed. Instead of saying, “Please let me know if you need anything,” be specific.

  • “I’d like to bring a meal for you. Is tonight okay or would tomorrow be better?”
  • “Would you like me to care for your pet for a few days? I’d be happy to if it would help you.”
  • “Do you need anything from the grocery store or pharmacy? I can take care of that for you.”



Stay in Touch

The first days and weeks after death are a whirlwind of out-of-town relatives, friends, and neighbors. But someone who lost a spouse or other loved one might need company when facing an empty chair at the table. 

  • Commit to a regular get-together, whether morning coffee, an evening stroll, or a trip to the grocery store.
  • Invite them to your home for lunch or dinner as a change of scenery.
  • Text or call once daily, even if it is a heart emoji or “Thinking of you.” 

Grieving individuals might want company one day and to be left alone the next. Don’t take their reaction personally. And if you are the one suffering, you do not owe anyone an explanation or excuse for your feelings. This is about your struggle to accept a loved one’s passing and how to create a different life without them in it. 



What Are Some Famous Quotes About Grief?

Quotes about grief can be a simple yet profound tool in navigating the complexities of loss. People in mourning often seek out quotes about grief for a variety of reasons, and doing so can offer several benefits during the healing process:

  • Quotes on grief can help to articulate and validate complex emotions.
  • Reading quotes, poems, or memoirs about grief can make you feel less alone.
  • Comforting words can help soothe and reassure, while hopeful quotes suggest it's possible to still find peace or joy after loss.
  • Famous quotes on grief are ideal as a writing prompt for a journal or even an eulogy. 



Famous Quotes About Grief

  • “Grief is the price we pay for love." - Queen Elizabeth II
  • "The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not 'get over' the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered." - Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler
  • "Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot. All of that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go." - Jamie Anderson
  • "Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life's search for love and wisdom." - Rumi
  • "The only cure for grief is action." - George Henry Lewes
  • “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.” - Psalms 34: 18-19
  • "Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes, it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim." - Vicki Harrison
  • "The darker the night, the brighter the stars, the deeper the grief, the closer is God!" - Fyodor Dostoevsky


Afterall: Comfort and Compassionate Grief Support 

Please remember that while your grief experience is unique to you, you're not alone on this journey. At Afterall, we invite you to explore the many resources available on our website. Here, you can find guidance, support, and a compassionate community to assist you through every step. Whether you need comforting words, or seeking advice on the practical aspects of bidding farewell, our doors and hearts are open to you. Please visit us online or contact us in person; allow us to stand with you as you honor the cherished legacy of your loved one.