Loss and Grief
In most cases, grief is a normal and healthy reaction to an emotionally significant loss. Grief gives us a window in to our caring for the person or thing we’ve lost, and it can help us move forward into a new phase of life after the loss. Often, grief comes with symptoms of common mental health conditions like depression or anxiety, but it is not in itself a mental illness.
However, when feelings of grief remain intense and last for a long time after a loss, they can keep you from moving forward with a healthy lifestyle.
Prevalence of challenges around loss and grief
Most people experience some form of grief after a painful loss. But for some people, acute grief persists long after the loss, often for a year or more.
This form of intense, prolonged grief is known as complicated grief, and one study notes that about 7% of people who experience the death of a loved one develop complicated grief.
Some studies suggest that women may be more likely than men to develop complicated grief.
Challenges around loss and grief
Grief often resembles symptoms of depression, but reactions to loss vary widely from person to person. That said, some of the most common symptoms include:
- Feeling lost, sad, or hopeless: You’ll likely experience all of these feelings at some point during your grieving process.
- Anger or irritability: You may feel that the loss you experience was unfair, or be generally angry and short-tempered with those around you.
- Guilt or self-blame: Some people feel as though the loss was their fault or remain preoccupied with things they could have done to prevent it.
- Numbness or detachment: You may feel emotionally numb or unable to connect with people or experiences.
- Difficulty concentrating: You might feel a general sense of mental fogginess, and/or find it harder to focus and think things through.
- Loss of interest in pleasurable activities: If you’re going through the grieving process, the things that usually bring you joy (socializing, hobbies, sex) may seem dull, uninteresting, or even depressing.
- Changes in sleeping or eating habits: Grief can cause you to sleep or eat too much or too little.
- Thoughts of suicide or death: People struggling with complicated grief sometimes become preoccupied with death and may consider suicide.
Types of grief and loss
Again, grief looks different for everyone. Nonetheless, some of the most common scenarios related to grief include:
- Simple grief: Though it can feel anything but simple, simple grief is the term psychologists use to describe normal grieving processes that do not develop into complicated grief. This might include milder or less prolonged versions of any of the above symptoms. Simple grief is not a mental health diagnosis, but it is still challenging enough that you may want seek support while experiencing it.
- Complicated grief: Also known as Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder, complicated grief is the term for grief that remains intense over a long period of time. It usually involves prolonged, intense experience of some of the above symptoms, and it often requires mental health treatment.
- Disenfranchised grief: This term is used to describe grief that is, for whatever reason, not deemed socially appropriate. This might include grief over the loss of someone whose relationship to you is stigmatized (such as a partner in an extramarital affair) or grief over someone who died in a stigmatized way (such as suicide or a drug overdose). If you’re dealing with disenfranchised grief, societal judgement can make an already difficult situation even more challenging.
- Traumatic grief: Grief can be especially difficult if you’re dealing with a death that occurred in a traumatic way. This might include violent or unexpected deaths, as well as those of children or young people who died before living full lives.
- Grief related to a loss other than death of a loved one: Grief can come from different kinds of loss, such as loss of a job, loss of a living situation, falling out with a friend or other loved one, or loss of mobility or independence after becoming disabled. This kind of grief can also overlap with disenfranchised grief if you’re grieving something that society does not see as a worthy cause of grief.
- Grief in relation to cultural norms: Beliefs and practices around grief differ greatly across cultures. Some cultures might encourage a prolonged or openly emotional grieving process, while others might encourage a more stoic reaction. You may find the grieving process to be especially challenging if your own tendencies do not line up with your culture’s expectations.
What to do if you’re experiencing challenges related to grief and loss
If you’re struggling with the grieving process, you might consider the following courses of action:
- Therapy: Find a therapist who can help you process your grief and move forward into the next phase of your life. (See more tips below on selecting a therapist.)
- Support groups: A support group can help you process your emotions and gain solace from individuals who are going through experiences similar to yours. Support groups are often formed around specific forms of grief, such as bereavement after the loss of a child.
- Journaling: Keeping a written record of your thoughts and feelings may help you gain perspective on your grief and provide an outlet for expressing yourself freely.
- Exercise: Staying active can help you find purpose in your daily life and may also decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression.
- Hotlines: If you’re having thoughts of suicide or need immediate support, you can always call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at at 1-800-273-8255. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline at 1-800-622-4357 can also help you locate resource and treatment options.
How to look for a therapist for loss and grief challenges
Prioritize personal fit
While personality fit is a nuanced factor, it is critical to your success in therapy. Multiple studies have revealed the importance of this factor, often referred to as “therapeutic alliance.”
On your initial phone call with the therapist, ask yourself:
- Could I see myself forming a connection with this therapist?
- Does their approach suit my personality?
- Do I feel like I will be heard and respected by this therapist?
Determine which therapy type(s) appeal to you
Therapists vary in their approaches to treating challenges related to grief. A few of the most common options include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
- Interpersonal Psychotherapy
- Exposure Therapy
- Existential Psychotherapy
New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.