Grief, at its core, is a response to loss. It can be an emotion, a crisis, an adjustment, a healing process, and more. Everyone grieves differently, which means there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to mourn.
When you think of grief, you might first imagine your response to the death of a loved one, also called bereavement. But death isn’t the only kind of loss.
You can grieve the breakdown of a marriage, eviction from a home, or the erosion of a dream — and no one else should tell you these losses aren’t “serious enough” or worthy of grief. Only you can decide what losses to mourn.
If you’ve recently experienced a loss, you may feel disoriented and overwhelmed. You might not know exactly to characterize your feelings.
Our guide can help. Below, you’ll find more information on the different types of grief, examples of how grief might show up, and some tips on getting support.
For many people, grief goes beyond sadness. It can trigger a range of emotions and experiences:
- yearning for a loved one
- anger at whatever caused the loss
- anxiety and fear when you wonder how you’ll cope
- numbness as your brain tries to process everything you’ve experienced
Grief can also affect you physically, often leading to:
- tightness in your chest and throat, which might cause a sense of breathlessness
- changes in your eating and sleeping patterns
- slower physical movement, or movement that requires more effort than usual
During the grieving process, you may find it difficult to go about your daily life. For instance, you might find it tough to focus on your work or stay “present” around other people.
Is it grief or depression?
Grief can resemble depression in many ways. Both states can leave you feeling sad, hopeless, and tired.
But with grief, these feelings tend to revolve around your loss. Meanwhile, with depression, you might feel sad and hopeless about anything and everything.
If you’re grieving, remember to have patience with yourself. Treat yourself gently, with self-compassion. It can take time to regain your bearings after a loss, and that’s completely natural.
In some cases, grief can lead to situational depression. A therapist can offer more guidance with distinguishing grief from depression and help you find the right kind of support.
Many people consider grief a bout of sadness that happens immediately after loss.
While that does serve as one common template for grief, it’s certainly not the only path mourning can take.
Anticipatory grief describes an emotional response that happens ahead of a loss you know is coming.
For example, you may mourn the loss of a cousin dying from late-stage cancer. They may still remain among the living, but you know they don’t have much longer. Understandably, that might make you pretty upset.
Of course, it’s only natural to grieve when preparing to lose someone you love. But in focusing on the future, you might end up letting the present slip away. In short, becoming so distraught over the idea of losing your cousin could prevent you from taking opportunities to enjoy the time you have left.
Inhibited grief happens when you repress your emotions around a loss.
If you break up with your fiancé, you may avoid feeling sad by telling yourself you’re better off without them. But strong feelings rarely follow commands. If you refuse to acknowledge your emotions, your grief may come out in physical ways, like fatigue or lack of appetite.
A 2015 article suggests men raised in Western cultures may be discouraged from expressing strong emotions and thus more prone to inhibited grief. But anyone can experience this type of grief.
Working to identify and explore your emotions around the loss can help you begin to accept and process your grief.
If you experience absent grief, you show little to no signs of mourning at all. It goes a step beyond inhibited grief, since you may lack both emotional and physical signs of distress.
This type of grief often stems from a strong sense of denial. After losing your home in a wildfire, for instance, you may spend the first few days insisting your house can be repaired. Grief may not come until you’ve accepted your old house is gone.
Denial may ward off sorrow for a time, saving you from experiencing pain you don’t feel ready to accept. But it’s not a permanent coping method. What’s more, avoiding the reality of your situation could result in procrastination on time-sensitive issues, like finding a new home you can safely live in.
Delayed grief describes an intense emotional reaction that may come weeks, months, or years after the loss.
If you lose your spouse in a car crash, you might spend the first few weeks comforting your children and handling financial affairs. A month might go by before you finally leave crisis mode and begin to process your own emotions.
These sensations are common and typically temporary, not a sign of any underlying mental health concerns. Eventually, your grief will surface, though it might seem to happen randomly, without warning.
Grief can resurface long after you believe you’ve processed your feelings, too. You might glance at your wedding photo several years later and find that sadness washes over you, even though you thought you were “done” mourning.
Disenfranchised grief refers to grief that society doesn’t fully acknowledge. People might express confusion about your sadness, or fail to give you space to mourn. This can happen with losses that others judge less significant, or with losses that people tend to avoid discussing.
For example, your boss may seem surprised when you request time off after a close friend’s death, or say “It’s just a dog” when you need a few days to grieve your family pet. Friends and loved ones may not even realize you’ve had a loss, such as when you and your partner experience a miscarriage, or your incarcerated sibling passes away.
When loved ones don’t acknowledge your pain, you may feel emotionally isolated and distant from your community and social circle. Without emotional support, which becomes especially important during a vulnerable period of mourning, feelings of loneliness or hopelessness can seem especially sharp.
When someone you love dies, you might experience intense despair and loneliness. Such feelings, while painful, happen as a common part of the grieving process. They often come and go in waves, so you may feel all right one day and terrible the next.
As heavy as your grief may seem in the beginning, it will likely become more manageable with time. The “waves” of sadness may grow shallower and less frequent. You might not stop missing your loved one, but you can carry your pain onto shore with you as you learn to live without them.
Rather than waves of emotion that offer moments of reprieve, prolonged grief is more akin to a flood. You may spend so much energy coping with your loss that you can barely tread water in one spot. Swimming to shore may feel impossible. Even as the world spins on, your grief may feel as intense as ever, as if the loss only happened yesterday.
Prolonged grief disorder
In March 2022, the DSM-5-TR introduced a controversial diagnosis: prolonged grief disorder. This diagnosis aims to describe grieving that falls outside cultural norms and becomes a potential mental health concern.
According to the DSM-5-TR, while sadness and yearning are to be expected after a death, strong feelings that strongly impact someone long-term may be a cause for concer.. For children, “long-term” means at least 6 months after the death. For adults, this period extends to 12 months.
In prolonged grief disorder, someone experiences overwhelming distress for most of the day, nearly every day. Symptoms can be contradictory, and you may find yourself moving back and forth between extremes.
Symptoms suggested by the American Psychiatric Association include:
- intense sadness, anger, bitterness, or remorse
- preoccupation with photos, clothes, keepsakes, and other reminders of the deceased
- reluctance to bond with other people for fear of “abandoning” the deceased
- emotional numbness, or difficulty figuring out what you’re feeling
- avoiding locations, objects, or people that remind you of your loved one
- intense loneliness, or feeling as if you’ve lost a part of yourself
- difficulty accepting the death
- thoughts of suicide
This diagnosis has sparked plenty of
Given that roughly one million people in the United States have died in a still-ongoing pandemic, it’s difficult to predict how cultural expectations of mourning will evolve. Somewhere down the line, the criteria for prolonged grief disorder could change to reflect that.
No matter which kind of grief you experience, or who (or what) you have lost, you might find mourning a long, messy process.
While there’s no tried-and-true formula for healing your pain (except possibly time), a number of strategies can help you cope:
- Rest. Grief can be physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting. Taking a nap or trying a comforting hobby can do a lot to recharge your batteries.
- Lean on others. It’s always OK to ask others for support. Even if you don’t feel like sharing your feelings right away, loved ones can bring you meals, help you shop when you don’t feel up to crowds, or simply offer company during dark days.
- Keep a consistent schedule. When life throws unexpected changes your way, routines can offer a comforting sense of predictability. Even things like eating regular meals and going to bed at the same time each night can help.
- Immerse yourself in art. Grief can involve a lot of complex, seemingly contradictory feelings. Sometimes music or drawing can express your inner world in ways words can’t.
- Create rituals. Consider creating a ritual to express your grief. For example, you might look through old photos of your lost loved one every morning before breakfast, or visit their grave — or a place that reminds you of them — on weekends. Rituals can serve as a special period to honor your connection with the deceased so you can dedicate the rest of your time to living.
- Tell the story of your loss. Turning your grief into a story can help you figure out how a loss fits into your life. What led to it? How did it affect you? And where do you go from there?
Need to talk?
Loss can sometimes overwhelm you to the point where you feel unable to go on living alone.
If you find yourself at a point of crisis or begin having persistent thoughts of death or suicide, you can get confidential, compassionate support by reaching out to a free helpline.
Connect with a trained crisis counselor by:
- texting “HOME” to 741-741 to reach Crisis Text Line
- calling 1-800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
You can also get help finding mental health support by contacting:
- the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline, online or by phone at 1-800-950-6264
- SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-622-4357
Find more suicide prevention resources.
One good way to figure out what works best for you? Listen to your heart. What feels most comforting, soothing, or brings you some measure of peace?
It also helps to remember that your needs may change over time. Just because one strategy didn’t work at first doesn’t mean it never will.
Remember, too, that a therapist can always offer compassionate guidance and support.
Grief can take many forms. The shape of your grief might depend on the loss you experienced, your personal approach to coping, along with any number of other factors.
While there’s no “correct” way to mourn a loss, grief affects everyone differently, and it’s not always easy to navigate alone.
If you feel lost or overwhelmed, there’s no shame in reaching out for help. A mental health professional can help you begin naming and processing your feelings and take the first steps toward healing.
Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.