FAQs about Grief
Updated: Aug 11
This year has brought immense heartbreak, grief, and loss for millions worldwide. With that in mind, we thought it timely to put together some frequently asked questions therapists hear about grief.
What is grief?
In simple terms, grief is an emotional response to loss. Most commonly, we think of grief as something that occurs when a loved one dies. However, grief can happen following a variety of losses. You can experience grief when a relationship ends, when you lose a job, when your body or mind loses capability. To further widen the definition, grief can present itself anytime expectations don't meet reality. That means you may even grieve the loss of something you never had, like a close-knit family or a sense of belonging.
What are the stages of grief?
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross famously introduced a grief model in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, inspired by her work with terminally ill patients. She summarized the 5 stages of grief as follows:
Denial- Denial and shock are normal reactions to a experiencing loss and the accompanying overwhelming emotions. Denial sounds like, “This isn’t happening, this can’t be happening.”
Anger- Where denial may be considered a coping mechanism, anger is a masking effect. Anger is hiding many of the emotions and pain that you carry. Anger looks for someone or something to blame.
Bargaining- Looking for ways to regain control, or somehow affect the outcome of an event. In the bargaining stage of grief, you may find yourself creating a lot of “what if” and “if only” statements.
Depression- In the depression phase, we are resigning ourselves to the reality of our situation, but may be left with feelings of sadness and hopelessness. “What’s the point? How can I go on? Life will never be the same.”
Acceptance- Acceptance doesn’t mean we like or love our situation. It doesn’t mean that we are happy with our loss. It does mean that we have acknowledged the loss. Ultimately, acceptance is recognizing that you will be okay, and rekindling hope that your life can have meaning, purpose, and joy despite the loss.
David Kessler (author/grief expert) argues that finding meaning is the sixth stage of grief. Finding meaning includes remembering those who have died and moving forward with your life in a way that honors your loved one. This happens one step at a time, one moment at a time, and one day at a time.
It is important to note that grief does not happen in a linear way. There is no expectation that someone needs to go in order from Stage 1- Stage 6 with predictable stops at every step. Grief is much more individualized than that, with tendencies to move less predictably between stages. It is normal to hit each stage multiple times along the path of healing.
Why am I experiencing grief this way?
As mentioned before, there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Chances are, whatever emotions you are experiencing, someone else has experienced those as well. It is okay and valid to feel the way that you are feeling, and beating yourself up about what you "should" be feeling will only compound your pain (and may inhibit your healing process).
How long does grief last? Will I ever "get over" this loss?
As with all things, this is such an individual experience. With some losses, you may be able to fully "get over" it. For example, if you've experienced a break-up, there may come a time when you look back with relief that you "dodged a bullet." As Taylor Swift said, "I forgot that you existed. And I thought that it would kill me but it didn't."
In other situations, it is completely normal and acceptable for significant losses to make a more permanent mark on our hearts. That being said, moving towards a place of acceptance (where you believe that you and your life can be okay and meaningful despite the loss) is the ultimate hope.
What is anticipatory grief?
Anticipatory grief often occurs before an impending loss. This is typically common among caregivers and family members of people with Alzheimer's, cancer, and other terminal illness.
Anticipatory grief comes with all the same emotional impact that would traditionally be experienced once a loss has been sustained.
Some clients struggle with anticipatory grief due to fear/anxiety surrounding possible loss. In these cases, the "what ifs" and fear of the future can rob them of the joys of living in the present moment.
What if I'm not getting the support I need from friends/loved ones?
Unfortunately, people don't always know how/what to say to support people who are struggling. Your friends and family might let you down, and you might not always find the support that you need. Sometimes they mean well and don't know how to help. Sometimes insensitive comments they make might add layers of pain to an already difficult situation.
Ultimately, I'm a believer in open communication. Share with them what you are noticing, how you are feeling, and what you need from them. How they receive your feedback is helpful information. If they are apologetic, receptive, and willing to implement changes, allow them the opportunity. However, if you are continuing to be hurt by the same insensitivity, it is okay to set boundaries and create space for your emotional safety.
When should I turn to a therapist for help in the grieving process?
There's nothing that is stopping you from coming in early on! Your therapist will be happy to meet you wherever you are in the grieving process. It will be particularly helpful to have a therapist support you if you are experiencing complicated grief, prolonged grief, or are otherwise feeling stuck.
Someone well-known passed away. Why am I experiencing grief?
This has been such a common thread throughout 2020. I have found this true even for myself, as I have shed tears for the loss of people I've never met. There are many reasons why this might happen.
To provide a personal example, one such situation I experienced this year was while reading a news story. As a result of the wildfires in Oregon, a 13-year-old boy was found to have passed away in his car with his dog. This struck a chord for me, as I have a 10-year-old son and a dog and could very easily imagine the pain that family must have felt.
For other well-known losses, those people have been a part of our lives. Maybe they have done something for the world that has had a positive impact on us. Or maybe that person symbolized something meaningful to us in our lives. Whatever the case may be, it is important to recognize that this is a normal and natural experience, and not something to be ashamed of or concerned by.
What can I do to move through the grief process?
Acknowledge your pain.
Expect and respect when you move through various stages of grief.
Allow yourself to have an individualized experience, without shaming yourself for your reactions.
Take care of yourself physically (eat, sleep, stay hydrated, and exercise).
Be willing to ask for professional help if necessary.
How can I support someone who is grieving?
"There are three needs of the griever: To find the words for the loss, to say the words aloud and to know that the words have been heard." -Victoria Alexander
I believe the most important thing that you can do to offer support is be present and hold space for their pain. Allow them to move through the emotions of grief without judging them for where they are, or telling them where they "should" be. Don't rush their process along, and don't compare their grief to your own experiences.
Do you have questions that we haven't touched on in this blog post? Feel free to reach out to us, and we'll be happy to answer any questions? Do you need help navigating the grief process? Go visit our therapist bios to see if we've got a clinician that would be a good fit for you!
Carrie Nicholes is a Maryland Board approved Licensed Certified Social Worker - Clinical (LCSW-C) and the founder of Cedar Counseling & Wellness. Recognized as one of the top therapists in Annapolis, she has a lifelong passion for teaching people tools to improve their lives.