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Grief and Bereavement

Many people think of grief as a single instance or as a short time of pain or sadness in response to a loss – like the tears shed at a loved one’s funeral. But grieving includes the entire emotional process of coping with a loss, and it can last a long time. The process involves many different emotions, actions, and expressions, all of which help a person come to terms with the loss of a loved one.

Grief

Grief is how a person reacts to the loss of a loved one. You may feel sad, angry, numb, confused, and many other emotions. You may act differently from what you normally would. It is a process you go through and you may feel many different emotions over time. Grief is different for everyone - there is no wrong way to grieve.

We may hear the time of grief being described as "normal grieving," but this simply refers to a process anyone may go through, and none of us experiences grief the same way. This is because grief doesn’t look or feel the same for everyone. And every loss is different.

The three types of grief are:

Anticipatory grief

Some people start grieving before their loved one’s death. They might start to think about how life will change after their loved one’s death, feel anxious or sad, or become more concerned about how their loved one is feeling. This is called anticipatory grief. It is normal and allows the person who is dying and their loved ones to deal with any issues that have not been resolved. It is part of preparing for the loss of a loved one.

Having anticipatory grief does not change how a person grieves after their loved one dies. When their loved one dies, many people still feel shocked and sad.  For most people, the actual death starts the normal grieving process.

Common or normal grief

Each person feels grief in their own way and there can be many ups and downs to the grieving process. Some days will be better than others and, over time, the grief will most often lift.

Here a some of the more common ways that people might react to the loss of a loved one.

Emotions

You may feel shock, numbness, sadness, denial, despair, and/or anger. You might have anxiety or depression. You can also feel guilty, relieved, or helpless. You may find yourself wishing for the time before your loved one was told they have cancer.

When you are grieving, reminders like a song or comment that makes you think of your loved one can make you cry. You might also cry for no reason.

You may also feel differently about your religion, faith, or spirituality. Grief and loss can make you question your beliefs or how you see the world. It may also deepen your faith or help you to understand the meaning of life in a new way.

Thoughts

You may experience disbelief, confusion, and have trouble concentrating. You might not be able to think of anything except the loss of the person who died. You may also have dreams about your loved one or see or hear things that other people don’t (hallucinations).

Physical feelings

Grief can cause physical feelings. Your throat or chest feels tight or heavy. You might feel sick to your stomach or don’t feel like eating. Some people who find it hard to eat may lose weight.

Other physical feelings include dizziness, headaches, numbness, muscle weakness or tension, pain, and extreme tiredness. You may be more likely to feel unwell or become ill.

Behaviors

When you are grieving, it is normal for you to act differently.  You may have trouble falling or staying asleep. You might not enjoy your favorite food or activities. You may be irritable or have a short temper. Sometimes you may feel like you have no energy, or you might feel restless and be much more active than usual.

You may find yourself staying away from social activities. You might feel alone and not want other people around much of the time. 

All these feelings and ways of acting are normal when you are grieving. But if they don’t let up over time, you may need to seek help.

Complicated or unresolved grief

For some people, grief goes on for a long time and seems to not lessen. Symptoms of complicated or unresolved grief might include:

  • Continuing to not believe that their loved one has died
  • Continued emotional numbness over the loss
  • Thinking very often about the loved one or how they died
  • Intense sorrow and emotional pain, sometimes including bitterness or anger
  • Not being able to enjoy good memories about the loved one
  • Blaming oneself for the death
  • Wishing to die to be with the loved one
  • Avoiding reminders of their loss
  • Constant longing for the deceased
  • Feeling alone, detached or distrustful of others
  • Trouble pursuing interests or planning for the future
  • Feeling that life is meaningless or empty without the loved one
  • Loss of identity or purpose in life, feeling like part of them died with the loved one

Some people are more likely to develop complicated grief. Spouses and parents are most at risk. Other factors that may increase the risk are:

  • Having several losses in a short period of time
  • History of anxiety
  • Trouble coping in the past

If you or anyone close to the deceased has symptoms of complicated grief, talk with a health care provider or mental health professional. Mental health treatment can help people with complicated grief. People with complicated grief are at risk of their symptoms getting worse and more at risk of committing suicide.

Mourning

Mourning is how grief and loss are shown in public. Mourning might involve religious beliefs or rituals. Our ethnic background and cultural customs can affect mourning.  The rituals of mourning, such as seeing friends and family and preparing for the funeral and burial, can give some structure to the grieving process.

Bereavement

Bereavement is the period of time when you are sad after the loss of the loved one. This is when you feel grief and are in mourning. 

Children and grief

Children of all ages go through grief, sadness, and despair after losing someone they love, especially when that person is a parent. Even though the grieving process might look different from that of adults, it is important to be aware of the signs and support the child through it.

How long does the grieving process last?

Each person grieves in their own way. And it can take a different amount of time for each person.

There is no ‘right’ length of time for a person to grieve. It’s important for the person who has lost a loved one to be allowed the time they need to work through their grief.

The person who has lost a loved one may feel better for a while, only to become sad again. Sometimes, people wonder how long the grieving process will last, and when they can expect some relief. There’s no right answer to this question. But how deep a person’s grief is and how long it lasts can be affected by:

  • Their relationship with the person who died
  • How the loved one died
  • Their own life experiences
  • What death means to them
  • Their cultural practices

It’s common for the grief process to take a year or longer. Grief most often gets less intense over time, but the sense of loss can last for decades. Certain events, mementos or memories can bring back strong emotions, that usually last for a short time.

Difficult relationships

A person who had a difficult relationship with the person who died is often surprised by the painful emotions they have after the death. They may mourn the relationship they wished they had with the person who died and letting go of any chance of having it.

Other people might feel relief, and some may feel nothing at all at the death of such a person. Regret and guilt are common, too. This is all a normal part of dealing with the loss.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as editors and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Hospice Foundation of America. What is Grief? Hospicefoundation.org. Accessed at https://hospicefoundation.org/Grief-(1)/What-to-Expect on November 20, 2023.

Mental Health America (MHA). Coping with loss: Bereavement and grief. Accessed at https://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/coping-loss-bereavement-and-grief on November 14, 2023.

National Cancer Institute. Grief, bereavement, and coping with loss (PDQ®). Accessed https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/advanced-cancer/caregivers/planning/bereavement-hp-pdq  on November 14, 2023.

National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. Bereavement care. caringinfo.org. Accessed at https://www.caringinfo.org/types-of-care/bereavement-care/ on November 14, 2023.

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Tyrrell P, Harberger S, Schoo C, et al. Kubler-Ross Stages of Dying and Subsequent Models of Grief. [Updated 2023 Feb 26]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507885/

Last Revised: December 19, 2023

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