Recognizing the symptoms of grief and how to deal with them

October 7, 2021 - 11 min read

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What is grief?

Common symptoms of grief

Seasons of grief

5 ways to deal with grief symptoms

Bottom line: Let time do its work

What is grief?

Grief is the natural reaction to loss that all humans experience. Grief is a complex and multifaceted emotion that has emotional, physical, behavioral and social aspects.  Grief may be experienced by the loss of anything significant in your life, and does not necessarily just apply to the death of a loved one. Almost any type of loss, if it's personally significant, can trigger grief. Many of us grieved missed experiences and loss of normalcy during the coronavirus pandemic. You can grieve over a pet, a missed opportunity, letting go of a dream, or the end of a relationship.

For many people, our work is part of what defines us. You may experience grief after the loss of a job. Losing that identity can trigger feelings of grief that we may not even recognize as grief reactions.

Grief can also be triggered by the diagnosis of a loved one, especially if it is a life-changing or terminal illness. We may start to think about how our life will change in the future without our loved one or as we step into the role of caregiver. This is known as anticipatory grief. 

There are many other causes of grief, including divorce, miscarriage, loss of social connections, death of a pet, or death of a family member. 

There are two universal truths about grief. First, the only right way to grieve is your way. There is no right way or wrong way to grieve — only what’s right for you. Second, the only way around grief is through it. Attempts to avoid suffering or put off processing emotional pain can actually lead to delayed grief or even depression.

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Common symptoms of grief

There is a vast array of feelings that grievers experience. Many of the symptoms of grief are experienced in milder forms throughout our daily lives, especially during times of high stress. Grief symptoms are difficult to feel, and you may want to push them away. However, they are a natural response to loss and you should be gentle with yourself as you go through the stages of grief.

Grief is different than stress in that it’s triggered by a significant loss rather than being related to difficulties or challenges alone. Grief is also different in that grievers may experience things that are new and feel foreign to them. This sense of the unknown can be disorienting. It makes both the understanding of the symptoms as a grief response and one’s ability to work through it more difficult. This means you may be experiencing symptoms of grief and not even know it. Much of what we call stress, overwhelm, or just feeling down is actually, at its root, grief.

This is partly due to the fact that in our society, grief and bereavement have historically been associated with death. When you open the lens of what causes a grief reaction, you understand that there are many things that can trigger a sense of loss followed by grief.

The grieving process impacts our physical and emotional health in many ways.  When your brain is working hard to deal with grief, it has less energy to focus on keeping your body healthy, especially if there are underlying or old injuries.

All of these emotional and physical symptoms are normal parts of grief. Mourners may also experience things that are not listed here, and that’s normal too.

16 physical and emotional symptoms of normal grief

  • Normal physical reactions can include:
    • Lethargy and lack of energy
    • Motivation and interest may be hard to find
    • Changes to sleep patterns, like sleep disruption, difficulty getting to sleep, sleeping more, insomnia
    • Unplanned or unwanted weight loss or gain
    • Changes in eating habits, cravings, or hormone-related changes (that might be triggered by sleep disruption)
    • Increased susceptibility to illness
    • Less attention and interest to healthful behaviors and your immune system may work less effectively due to your brain’s focus on emotional healing
    • Resurfacing of old injuries

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  • Normal emotional reactions can include:
    • Temporary loss of interest in things that used to bring joy
    • Numbness, shock, sadness, despair, fear, guilt
    • Decreased confidence and self-esteem
    • Temporary increase in anxiety
    • Sense of loss of control
    • Changes in capacity and ability to deal with stress
    • Less focus at work
    • Changes in interpersonal relationships

If your sadness, anxiety or depression persist for a period of time without relief, or if you experience significant impacts to your ability to function in the world, you may need to seek professional help. Things to be on the lookout for include:

  • Inability to get out of bed
  • Deep sense of hopelessness all the time
  • Listlessness that does not go away
  • Complete lack of joy in things that used to bring you great joy
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Self-isolation
  • Sleep disruption that does not get better over time
  • Inability to work

Seasons of grief

If normal grief subsides over time, why do you sometimes feel intense, unexpected grief even years after the loss? Dr. Therese Rando defined this phenomenon in the early 1990s as STUGs, or Sudden Temporary Upsurge of Grief

STUGs are typically brought on by some kind of trigger such as birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, or a visit to a place where you used to go with your loved one.  They are characterized by an intense, unexpected surge of emotionality that arrives on occasion to those who have experienced the loss of a loved one, sometimes even long after the person’s death. 

STUGs may seem random and unexplained, but if you take a moment to examine what might be triggering the emotion, you will likely find an explanation.  Sometimes, the days or weeks leading up to a triggering event can bring on deeper feelings of grief, even years after the loss. Sometimes STUGs are triggered when a new loss occurs.

It’s normal for grief to lessen over time, and for you to experience STUGs even years after the loss. If grief is unattended to or unresolved, with emotions pushed down instead of processed, your grief may trigger depression, which is marked by prolonged sadness that does not go away.  In this case, it’s important to seek professional support.

In fact, as grief subsides, you may even find other emotions surfacing when you notice that you are getting back to your routines and enjoying life again. Recognizing that you can be happy and still miss your loved one is an important awareness to learn as you go through the seasons of your grief. In this case, you may experience feelings of guilt at being happy, when you had been so sad. Allowing yourself to feel happiness and joy again is also part of the process and a normal part of grief.

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5 ways to deal with grief symptoms

There is no magic formula for working through grief and different things may work for different people.  Most important is to allow yourself to experiment and try things to see how they support your grief journey. Some tips and practices to try include:

1. Practice gentle kindness with yourself

Allow space in your day for self-care and reflection. Or, you may prefer to have time to read, walk, or maybe do some binge-watchingmany other causes

 of your favorite shows. Get in touch with what you need and do that. Keep a list of self-care practices you can rely on when you’re feeling down.

2. Read about grief

Reading studies, research, and even personal accounts of grief will deepen your understanding of your own grief journey. If you love to read and learn, there are numerous books on the subject that a quick search on the Internet will reveal. Your local hospice may also be a great source of reading material.

3. Avoid alcohol and other substances

This is important to support your overall health and well-being as your brain and body focus on healing you emotionally. Alcohol and other forms of self-medication may temporarily dull the feelings, or they may intensify them. It can worsen symptoms of depression and may create habits that are hard to break.

4. Talk about your loss with friends or colleagues

Talking about your loss can help you understand it, as well as allow space for reminiscing or revisiting good memories. It also strengthens your social connections and allows others to support you in your grief. Allowing yourself to share what you’re feeling releases the pressure to seem “fine.” That’s emotional energy that’s better directed towards the healing process.

5. Know when to ask for help

If your sadness is constant and does not seem to be going away, or if you experience impacts to your sleeping, eating, ability to work or feel hopeless, it might be time to consult your doctor or a mental health care provider. You may need professional help to feel better. Grief counseling or connecting with others at a grief support group may start to ease your distress.

If you’re feeling stressed, emotionally tired, or in crisis and need to speak with someone immediately, please call the crisis helpline at 800-273-TALK (8255). They answer every call, and they’re available 24/7.

Bottom line: Let time do its work

The bottom line is that, for most of us, grief resolves over time given the proper attention. Remember, the only way around grief is through it. Healing takes both time and attention.

Grief will lessen as your mind and body heal from your loss. This does not mean that your love wanes, only that you are able to incorporate the loss into who you are now.

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Published October 7, 2021

Nikki Moberly, PCC, CBC

Better Up Fellow Coach

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