Grief And Loss

What Is Grief?

Grief is the personal experience of losing someone or something important to you. It is a
normal reaction to loss and one we can all expect to experience at some point in our lives.

The experience of grief isn’t isolated to losing a loved one; it can occur with a wide range of
loses such as losing a pet, your youth, your mobility, moving interstate, or separation through a divorce.

Grief can rarely be sidestepped or hurried; it can be a painful experience because losing something or someone we care deeply about is emotionally distressing. Sometimes the experience of grief is differentiated from mourning, which refers to the process that occurs after a loss.

The process of mourning is often described in terms of the stages, phases or tasks that people move through or complete as they deal with a loss, for example, accepting the loss and processing your emotional reactions. Often the words grief and mourning are interchanged in the literature on loss.


What Are The Symptoms Of Grief?

The symptoms of grief can include emotional distress, altered thinking, physical sensations,
and changes in our behaviour. Grief can turn our stable and predictable world upside down,
throwing us into emotional pain, chaos and confusion.

Emotional Distress

Those experiencing a loss often describe grief as an emotional rollercoaster. The feelings that surface can be intense, persistent and distressing. Frequently experienced emotions include:

  • Sadness
  • Loneliness
  • Guilt
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue and exhaustion
  • Helplessness
  • Vulnerability
  • Shock
  • Yearning
  • Numbness
  • Relief— particularly after the death of a loved one who has
    suffered a lengthy and painful illness.


Altered Thinking

A significant loss can derail even the most stable people. It can throw our minds in a spin, undermine our logical and systematic thought patterns, resulting in cognitive chaos. Here
are some examples of thoughts that people experience after a loss.

  • Disbelief – how did this happen, why did it have to happen, I don’t want to believe it,
    this can’t be happening to me, to us.
  • Confusion – difficulty concentrating, getting muddled up when communicating,
    unable to think logically, losing track of time.
  • Preoccupation and obsessive thoughts about the deceased – intrusive thoughts and
    images of the deceased, circling thoughts that won’t stop.
  • The sense of presence of the deceased – children can report feeling looked over by a
    dead parent, spouses sense the presence of their partner around the house.
  • Hallucinations, visual and auditory – can occur in the weeks immediately after a loss.
    For some, these hallucinations can be very comforting.


Physical Sensations

Physical sensations in the body are many and varied. Common sensations include:

  • Tightness or hollowness in the chest region
  • Churning and upset stomach
  • Dry mouth
  • A constricted throat sensation
  • Oversensitivity to noise, light and touch
  • Numbness in the body and senses
  • A sense of depersonalisation or life feels ‘not real’
  • Feeling short of breath
  • Muscle weakness and body fatigue, depletion and a lack of energy.


Behaviour Changes

Emotional distress, altered thinking and physical anomalies can all exacerbate changes in
behaviour. Common behaviours during grief include:

  • Sleep disturbances such as difficulty falling asleep, waking too early and not going back to sleep, intermittent sleep throughout the night followed by the inability to function the following day due to lack of sleep.
  • Diminished appetite. One’s appetite can simply disappear because grief is extremely stressful and upsetting. When upset, our digestive system shuts down, making eating unpleasant, if not impossible.
  • Absentminded behaviour such as driving to the shops and walking home without the
    car. It is common to become muddled, uncoordinated and un-sequenced in our
  • Withdrawal from social support and friends. It is not unusual to withdraw from social interactions during times of grief. Interactions with others can feel too overwhelming
  • Crying, sobbing, screaming, wailing, and calling out. It makes sense that loss is associated with crying and other verbal expressions. When we are hurting, crying, wailing and calling out are normal reactions.
  • Avoidant behaviour. It is not unusual for some people experiencing grief to avoid triggers that remind them of their lost loved one. Triggers might include places (thegarden shed or the site of the death), people (work colleagues), memorabilia(photos), and events (anniversaries).
  • Restless hyperactivity can refer to maniacally making yourself busy or taking flight to avoid being still and feeling the emotional pain of loss. Channelling your energy towards untidy cupboards, messy wardrobes, and reorganising the garage can make for a soothing distraction; however, avoiding our feelings can be an unproductive long-term strategy.
  • Treasuring objects that belong to the deceased. Jewellery, clothing, ornaments, and
    other items of significance represent a way of holding on to the memory of a loved
    one. Spouses have reported wearing their deceased husband’s dressing gown, which
    is a very normal response.


What Are The Phases Or Tasks Of Mourning?

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross developed one of the earliest and most recognised models of grief.
Her model of grief represents five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and
acceptance. More recently, other models of grief have emerged that promote the process
of grief as non-linear and less prescriptive.

William Worden is credited with a model that describes mourning as consisting of four
tasks. These tasks don’t necessarily occur consecutively; instead, grieving is viewed as a
highly individual process with those mourning a loss undertaking the tasks in the order that
seems most suitable or necessary at the time.


Worden’s four tasks of grief are:

  1. Accepting the actuality of the loss
  2. Processing the emotional pain of the grief and loss
  3. Adjusting to life without your loved one
  4. Finding a way to stay connected with your lost loved one while re-engaging in life without them.


How Long Does It Take To Move Through The Mourning Process?

Grief is considered a normal reaction to loss and is described as self-limiting, meaning that
grief generally comes to a natural end within 6 to 18 months of a loss.

Complicated grief is described as grief that intensifies to a level where the person is overwhelmed and engages in maladaptive behaviour, or remains suspended in a state of grief without progression of the mourning process towards resolution. Complicated grief can be associated with difficult loses such as losing a child or partner to suicide, accidental death, losing a family member to homicide, a sudden death where no warning was evident, premature death due to illness, and multiple deaths in a short space of time.


How Can A Counsellor Help You Deal With Grief And Mourning?

Grief is highly personal, idiosyncratic and intimate. It correlates with our sense of identity
and how we construct or reconstruct who we are after a loss. Working with a counsellor can
help you to attend to the tasks of grief with support and understanding. Many people
incorrectly presume that the reactions they experience are abnormal or exaggerated. With
the help of a counsellor, you can draw meaning from your experience, understand your
reactions, process your emotional responses, and begin the task of reconstructing your life
after the loss. For many people, the most difficult task of grief is imagining life without their
loved one and reconstructing a life that has meaning.


If you’re concerned about yourself or a family member’s grief experience, or you’d like a deeper understanding of your grief experience, contact Alison on for an appointment.


To learn more about Alison view her profile on our SOR website.

Or click on this link now Book Online with Alison.


Author: Alison Bickell
Photo: Thanks to Mike Labrum for making this photo available freely on @unsplash.

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