After her spouse died, a woman wrote in her journal: “I feel like I’m a hamster on a wheel going round and round but going nowhere. Even though Steve died 10 months ago, I still feel like it happened only yesterday. I just can’t stop thinking about him.

“What is this strange thing called grief?”

Sooner or later, everyone loses someone they love to death. Yet, most people are unprepared for the tidal wave of grief that follows a loss.

Here are some commonsense answers about grief.


Q. What is grief?

A. Grief is the emotional reaction that follows loss. The most common cause of grief is the death of a loved one. However, there are many other losses that trigger grief: separation, divorce, disability, job loss, etc.


Q. What are the signs and symptoms of grief?

A. These are some of the most common and normal aspects of grief:


• Conflicting and confusing emotions – Sadness, depression, anger, guilt, regret, longing, despair

• Death imagery – Thinking you hear or see the person who died

• Sleep disorder – Sleeping too much or being unable to sleep properly

• Appetite disruption – Not wanting to eat or overeating

• Difficulty focusing and making decisions

• Physical symptoms – Headache, back pain, nausea

• Social withdrawal – Not wanting to be with people or at social events


It must be emphasized these are normal aspects of grief, but they are not permanent. The intensity eases for the majority of grievers who adjust and adapt.


Q. How long does grief last?

A. Generally, most people experience grief relief within 30 months. However, the duration of grief does not have a fixed end point.

Michael C. Miller, M.D., editor-in-chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter, writes, “Grief doesn’t neatly conclude at the six-month or one-year mark … Although it may persist, grief does usually soften and change over time.

“How this goes will be influenced by your emotional style, the nature of your support system, and the culture you are part of. Usually the raw, all-consuming shock of early grief will ebb slowly within weeks or months.

“Gradually, at their own pace, most people do find themselves adjusting to the loss and slipping back into the routines of daily life.”


Q. A friend told me I should be over this by now. Am I grieving incorrectly?

A. You are not grieving incorrectly. Moving through grief takes much longer than most people assume.

Harold Ivan Smith, a bereavement expert and author of several grief books, says grievers live in a “get-over-it, move-on-with-it world.”

Many friends “assume a grief should last about 30 days. Some of our friends may have never experienced the death of a close family member; they have no real understanding of what you are experiencing,” Smith says.

Focus on your grief. Ignore any comments from those who want to rush you through the process.


Q. Are there stages of grief?

A. No, but there are generally four tasks that need to be accomplished to have a successful grief recovery. They are:


1. Accept the reality of the loss. This means fully understanding your loved one has died and is not and will no longer be part of your daily life.

2. Allow yourself to feel the pain of the loss. Pain is part of healing. When there is a loss to death, grievers must allow themselves to experience the variety of intense feelings connected to it.

3. Adjust to a new reality. Death brings new changes and challenges. Grievers will have to take on new roles.

4. Adapt to a different life. Grievers need to move on, loosen ties to the deceased, and retain memories but invest their time and energy in new relationships.


Q. I’ve been told not to “get emotional.” Is it wrong to show sadness?

A. Feelings need to be acknowledged, not pushed away. Do not allow others to dictate how you will feel and what emotions you can express.

The death of a loved one impacts our emotions. We feel sad. We feel vulnerable. These are normal grief responses. As various feelings and emotions come up, accept them with compassion and kindness rather than with fear and frustration.


Q. Is it OK to cry?

A. Yes, it is, though some grievers hesitate to cry because tears are frightening to others and even to themselves.

Writer Cindy Horyza shares this insight about tears: “People are so afraid that if they start to cry, they won’t quit. Trust me: No one has ever died of crying. Flowers need lots of water to bloom, and sometimes we do, too.”


Victor M. Parachin, M.Div., is a grief counselor, bereavement educator, and author of several books, including Healing Grief.

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