Understanding grief for what it is and how we mourn

October 12, 2021 - 11 min read

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Grief defined

Causes of grief

Stages of grief (or not!)

Grief vs. depression

Tips to cope with grief

Know when to ask for help

Grief is an experience shared by all of humanity. At some point, it will become part of life for everyone. Yet each of us experiences grief in our own way. We often go through the grieving process on our own and can feel alone in this most universal and natural response.

Grief defined

Grief is a reaction to loss. Our definition of grief typically focuses on the emotional pain that comes with significant loss. But it can arise from smaller losses, too. And the symptoms can be complicated.

When examining complex concepts like grief, it can be useful to explore historical context. By observing how humans in times past have experienced deep feelings such as grief, we gain insight and perspective.

The word “grief” first showed up in the English language circa the early 1200s. It was used to refer to feelings of pain, hardship and suffering.  It came from the Old French word “grief” (same spelling), referring to injustice or misfortune.  It is also related to another Old French word “grever,” referring to a burden or affliction.

Further, this Old French word “grever” derived from the Latin words “gravare” and “gravis” meaning to make heavy or weighty, respectively.

This sense of heaviness, hardship and suffering give us clues that can inform our modern understanding of grief as emotional pain felt in our physical body.  Indeed, many people describe grief as a sense of heaviness on their heart, a heavy cloak that weighs on their shoulders, or a dark suffering that surrounds them.

In modern terms, grief is simply defined as the natural response to loss.  The deeper the connection or love for the person or thing that has been lost, the deeper the sense of grief. The grief brought on by the loss of a loved one or a close family member can be profound. Such loss can bring life changes that add to the feelings of sadness and sense of loss.

Early practitioners on grief applied grief only to death. Modern grief practitioners understand that grief can be caused by anything that feels like a significant loss, not just the death of a loved one.

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Causes of grief

A loss that triggers grief is usually something that helped form your identity. For example, the loss of a spouse might shake your identity as a husband or wife. But depending on your circumstances, it might also affect your identity as a caregiver. Job loss or even children growing up can lead to this dual life change and loss of identity. 

Such a loss can lead one to feel lost, sad, lonely, at loose ends in our daily life, unsure where to turn or what to do. It can feel like your world has been turned upside down. 

Loss can also affect your sense of value and worth, adding to the emotional roller coaster.

Some causes of grief include:

  • Job loss
  • Loss of social connection due to quarantine
  • Miscarriage
  • Divorce
  • “Empty nest,” when children are grown and moved out of the familial home 
  • Health problems that affect your mobility, prospects, or sense of self
  • Life-changing diagnosis for yourself or a loved one 
  • Death of a cherished pet
  • Death of a loved one

Our understanding of complicated grief and the personal process of grieving is broadening. Still, only some of these forms of grief get full recognition in our society. For the death of loved ones, we have support groups and grief counseling. For divorce, we have support groups. It is a recognized life change. The loss of a pet typically brings out heartfelt and easy expressions of sympathy.

Other types of loss and grief are more complicated. We aren't as easy or comfortable with knowing how to acknowledge them or offer support. 

But for other causes, people around us may not recognize the significance of our loss or its impact. We might not appreciate for ourselves how significantly the loss will affect us, even as time passes. 

Indeed, after such a loss, you are different. Acknowledging and accepting that you are different now after the loss is the first step in moving through your grieving process. Honoring the impact that significant loss has on you and your physical and mental health is a step forward to take care of yourself.  

Attempting to recapture your way of life and who you were before the loss can lead to feeling stuck and hamper your work to process the grief and create a new life after the loss.

Stages of grief (or not!)

All humans experience grief and everyone experiences grief in a way that is unique to them. There is no right way or wrong way to grieve. One person’s grief is not deeper or lesser than yours. It’s important at this time not to compare losses or grief reactions.

You may have read or heard about the work of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in the 1969 book entitled, “On Death and Dying.”  Her research and subsequent publication of the five stages of grief are known worldwide by grief practitioners and laypeople alike.  Dr. Kubler-Ross describes five stages of grief in the terminally-ill patients she cared for:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. 

In popular culture, her work has been a bit misunderstood. 

  • First, it has been applied to the bereaved as well as the dying. In fact, Dr. Kubler-Ross based her findings on interviews solely with the dying, not the bereaved. She herself was somewhat perplexed that people were applying her model to bereaved individuals when her research focused solely on those who were facing an imminent death. 
  • Second, some people believe that once you went through all the stages and reached acceptance, grief was over. What we know now about grief is that it is more like waves of emotions than stages. It comes and goes by hour, by day and by week. It can creep up on us when we least expect it. It’s not an orderly process of moving from one stage to the next.
  • Finally, the emotions we feel as grievers is much broader than just those defined in the five stages.  Being able to label when you are feeling can be an important part of healing. Taking time to label or name what you are feeling can lead to identification of what you need right now to support your grief process.

The only right way to grieve is your way. Only you know the depth of the loss and its impact on your life and identity. Only you can define what you need right now to work through your grief.

Grief vs. depression

In grief, there is no set timeframe for the relief of feelings of pain or loss. Normal grief generally resolves in 6 months to 2 years. That being said, many people may experience relief from grief much sooner, while others may take longer.

Depression is one of the potential emotional reactions to grief. Symptoms of grief tend to lessen over time while symptoms of depression persist, are constant and don’t get better on their own.

If you are experiencing difficulty sleeping, eating, getting out of bed, severe anxiety, or depression, it may be time to seek professional help.  

Tips to cope with grief

By now, you understand that there is no right way or wrong way to find your way through grief. The second universal truth is that the only way around grief is through it.

In fact, attempts to suppress or deny grief are just as likely to prolong the process, potentially leading to what is known as delayed grief, or even depression.

There are some simple practices you can adopt that will help your grief:

  1. You cannot heal what you don’t feel. Naming what you are feeling can be very helpful in identifying rituals or practices to help you in this moment. Having this clarity can also help you communicate to others what you are experiencing. Dr. Gloria Wilcox published the Feelings Wheel to help put words to emotions. 
  2. Make time to do what you need right now. Once you name what you are feeling, you can identify what type of rest or self-care you need. It’s important to take some time for introspection and really connect with yourself. Resist the urge to listen to what others would do, or what others need. Just like your grief is personal, so is what you need right now.
  3. Acknowledge you are different now and might need different things. After a loss, your needs may have shifted. Take some time to ask yourself what’s important to you right now. Focus on right now, not what used to be important, what should be important, what’s always been important or what is important to others. 
  4. Practice self-care and habits to support your health. Your mind is putting energy to healing your emotions right now. Therefore, staying as healthy as possible physically can support your grief journey.  Avoid alcohol and other substances, take time away when you need it, be with people when you need it, and do things that bring you joy.
  5. Give others the gift to know how to help you. Most people simply don’t know what to say or do when someone they love is grieving. Ask for what you need and be specific. You can say, “I need some time alone right now. Thanks for the invitation to walk, please keep me in mind in the future, but today, I’m going to put my music on and just be with myself.” Alternatively, you can say, “I really need to be with people today. Are you available to walk with me this afternoon?”  This will serve to support you and it allows your loved ones to be part of your healing process. 

Know when to ask for help

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 you feel hopeless, it might be time to consult your doctor or a mental health professional. You may need professional help to feel better.

Emotional pain doesn't mean you're broken. We all need support to strengthen our mental health and get through difficult times. BetterUp offers personalized nonclinical support for individuals. Companies can provide the support people need, when they need it, across the enterprise through BetterUp Care

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Published October 12, 2021

Nikki Moberly, PCC, CBC

Better Up Premier Fellow Coach

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