Lesson 3: What is Grief?

Grief is the price we pay for love. – Queen Elizabeth II

We tend to think of grieving as an emotional experience. However, grief is a traumatic experience which radically effects all of who we are as a human being. It is a holistic experience.

  • Feelings (emotions)
  • Physiological (physical)
  • Cognition (thought patterns)
  • Spiritual (religious)
  • Behavioral (social)

Trauma is “an experience that produces psychological injury or pain”; “a powerful shock that may have long-lasting effects”; “a sense of psychic wound, unpleasant experience which causes abnormal stress” according to Dictionary.com.

When a loved one dies, the bereaved person’s world is shattered — reference points are obliterated. One is in a strange new world without a map or compass or guide; literally not knowing which way to turn. Grief is a state of chaos.

The way one grieves (and mourns) is highly influenced by one’s culture, religious/spiritual beliefs, general psychological condition, personality, physical circumstance, age, availability of a support system and one’s ability and willingness to utilize that support, as well as other factors.

Normal grief, sometimes referred to as “uncomplicated grief”, encompasses a broad range of feelings and behaviors that are common after a loss. Statistically, approximately 80% of a bereaved population copes with their grief journey without professional assistance.

“Complicated grief” occurs when a bereaved person is affected by internal and/or external factors that interfere with their ability to experience grief and/or can hamper their ability to mourn. There are many factors that can complicate grief, and it is beyond that capacity of this course to adequately deal with this less common experience of grieving.

Generally, if one is not, or believes one is not, able to function successfully in one’s life, there may be complications to the grief that may require the help of a trained professional grief counselor or psychiatrist.

There is no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve; there is no time-frame or pace; there are no “stages” to go through; there is no “goal” to attain; there really is no “end” to grief, as we truly grieve for a lifetime. One’s grief, however, changes and softens over time and effort — doing one’s “grief work”, which is arduous work indeed.

Each person’s experience of grief is unique, different from others, wholly his or her own. And an individual’s grief experience will be unique from different types of losses, such as that of a parent, child, spouse, etc. And yet there are similarities and common aspects to all experiences of grief.

Here are some of the ways that grief can manifest to an individual, and to those around him or her. This list is not exhaustive, and a grieving person will generally manifest some but not all. There is nothing “wrong” with these manifestations. They are simply ways grief can appear to one’s self and others. They may be brought on by any number of stimuli, or no apparent stimulus — what is called a “grief burst” that can happen seemingly “out of the blue”.


Normal Manifestations of Grief (2)

Note: If any of these manifestations persists for a significant length of time and/or interfere with one’s ability to live an engaged life, it is recommended to seek professional assistance.

Feelings (Emotions)

  • Shock– occurs most often in the case of a sudden or unexpected death and is typically the first emotion experienced after a loss; may last for weeks or months in a gradually milder form.
  • Numbness– a “lack of feeling” often felt early on which may last for weeks or months.
  • Sadness – may be expressed with or without tears; it may look like depression but usually is not.
  • Anger– may be directed towards anyone — the deceased, the self, a family member, medical professionals, God. It can be one of the most confusing feelings a griever may experience. It is sometimes accompanied by guilt.
  • Guilt or Self-Reproach– for many reasons, such as “I could/should have prevented the death.” “If only….”
  • Anxiety– can range from a sense of insecurity to a panic attack.
  • Fear– of what may happen to me now; often experienced by children who lose a parent who may fear losing the remaining parent.
  • Loneliness– missing the loved one, feeling desperately alone.
  • Helplessness– powerlessness, feeling unable to cope with the loss.
  • Relief– often experienced after a protracted terminal illness of the loved one; may be accompanied by guilt.
  • Emancipation– a sense of freedom; may be a positive feeling; may be accompanied by guilt.

Physical (Physiological)

  • Tightness, constriction in the chest and/or throat.
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, especially in the first moments to days after learning of the death, or when the event is remembered.
  • A decrease in blood pressure which could cause fainting or swooning.
  • Hollowness or emptiness in the stomach.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Over-sensitivity to noise or light.
  • A sense of depersonalization or “unreality”.
  • Weakness in the muscles.
  • Fatigue, lack of energy, listlessness, apathy, difficulty performing routine tasks, even getting out of bed.

Thoughts – (cognition, patterns of thought)

  • Disbelief– often the first to appear upon hearing of the death of a loved one, especially if it is sudden and/or unexpected, and can remain for many months, even years with less intensity.
  • Confusion– often in the first months; can experience not being able to get thoughts in order, difficulty concentrating, remembering, disorientation.
  • Preoccupation– very often in the beginning; obsessive or constant thoughts about the deceased.
  • Sense of Presence– the cognitive counterpart to the emotion of yearning. Some report visual and/or auditory experiences or vivid dreams of the deceased, which may be beneficial, calming, comforting, or unsettling. These are considered by some to be examples of the phenomenon called After Death Communication (ADC), where the deceased is present in some substantial way to the bereaved.

Behaviors (Social)

  • Crying– from weeping to uncontrollable moaning, even wailing.
  • Sleep Disturbances– either more or less sleep, especially in early experience of grief; usually sleep patterns return to normal over time (if not, it could be an indication of something more serious occurring and the need for professional or medical care).
  • Appetite Disturbances– especially in the beginning; loss of appetite or over-eating. These patterns return to normal over time (if not, it could be an indication of something more serious occurring and the need for professional or medical care).
  • Social Withdrawal– often in the beginning; loss of interest in the outside world; withdrawal from support network (if this persists it can deter friends and family from offering needed support).
  • Avoiding Reminders of the Deceased– avoiding places or things that trigger painful feelings.
  • Searching or Calling Out– akin to yearning; sometimes imagine one sees the deceased in a crowd or expect the deceased to walk through the door, etc.
  • Restless Over-activity– hyperactivity; not wanting to be still; can be an indication of anxiety or avoidance; can be a coping strategy.
  • Visiting Places– that remind the bereaved of the deceased, such as a favorite restaurant or visiting the gravesite.
  • “Linking Objects”– carrying or wearing objects that remind the bereaved of the deceased or belonged to the deceased; fashioning articles from deceased’s clothing, memorabilia, etc.

Spiritual or Religious Beliefs

  • May be strengthened or weakened.
  • Might be helpful (can be comforting) or a hindrance (can create anxiety) to grieving.
  • Can be used to avoid experiencing grief.

The way one grieves and mourns is highly influenced by one’s culture, religious/spiritual beliefs, general psychological condition, personality, physical circumstance, age and availability of a support system and our ability and willingness to utilize that support, as well as other factors. Some of this we will address in the next lesson on mourning.

(2) Worden, J. W. Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, Third Edition, New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company; 2002. P. 25.



Take some quiet time to reflect on the following questions and write down your responses.

  1. Write down 2-3 manifestations of your grief experience in each of the 5 categories: emotionally, physically, cognitively, spiritually and behaviorally.
  2. Did you allow yourself to feel and express them, or did you try to suppress them? In either case, what was the effect on your mourning?
  3. How have others you have known manifested their grief differently from you?