The grieving process

Many people think of grief as a single instance or 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. Normal grieving allows us to let a loved one go and keep on living in a healthy way.

Grieving involves many different emotions, actions, and expressions, all of which help the person come to terms with the loss of a loved one. But keep in mind, grief doesn’t look the same for everyone. And, every loss is different.

Grieving is painful, and it’s important that those who have suffered a loss be allowed to express their grief. It’s also important that they be supported throughout the process. Each person grieves differently. The length and intensity of the emotions people go through varies from person to person.

Although grief is described in phases or stages, it may feel more like a roller coaster, with ups and downs that make it hard for the bereaved person to feel any progress in dealing with the loss. A person 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 answer to this question, but some of the factors that affect the intensity and length of grieving are:

  • Your relationship with the person who died
  • The circumstances of their death
  • Your own life experiences

Grief can take unexpected forms

Difficult relationships with the deceased prior to death can cause unique grieving experiences for loved ones. In addition, prolonged illnesses can also cause grief to take unexpected forms.

Difficult relationships

A person who had a difficult relationship with the deceased (a parent who was abusive, estranged, or abandoned the family, for example) is often surprised by the painful emotions they have after their death. It’s not uncommon to have profound distress as the bereaved mourns the relationship he or she had wished for with the person who died, and lets go of any chance of achieving it.

Others might feel relief, while some may wonder why they feel nothing at all at the death of such a person. Regret and guilt are common, too. This is all a normal part of the process of adjusting and letting go.

Grief after long illness

The grief experience may be different when the loss occurs after a long illness rather than suddenly. When someone is terminally ill, family, friends, and even the patient might start to grieve in response to the expectation of death. This is a normal response called anticipatory grief. It can help people complete unfinished business and prepare loved ones for the actual loss, but it might not lessen the pain they feel when the person dies.

Many people think they are prepared for the loss because death is expected. But when their loved one actually dies, it can still be a shock and bring about unexpected feelings of sadness and loss. For most people, the actual death starts the normal grieving process.

Stages of grief

People may go through many different emotional states while grieving. The first feelings usually include shock or numbness. Then, as the person sees how his or her life is affected by the loss, emotions start to surface. The early sense of disbelief is often replaced by emotional upheaval, which can involve anger, loneliness, uncertainty, or denial. These feelings can come and go over a long time. The final phase of grief is the one in which people find ways to come to terms with and accept the loss.

Children grieve, too, but the process may look different from adults. To learn more about this, see Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer: When a Child Has Lost a Parent.

Shock, numbness, and disbelief

Many times, a person’s first response to a loss is shock, disbelief, and numbness. This can last anywhere from a few hours to days or weeks. During this time, the bereaved person may feel emotionally “shut off” from the world. Still, the numbness may be pierced by pangs of distress, often triggered by reminders of the deceased. The person may feel agitated or weak, cry, engage in aimless activities, or be preoccupied with thoughts or images of the person they lost.

The rituals of mourning − seeing friends and family and preparing for the funeral and burial or final physical separation − often structure this time for people. They are seldom left alone. Sometimes the sense of numbness lasts through these activities, leaving the person feeling as though they are just “going through the motions” of these rituals.

Facing the loss

At some point the numbness wears off, and the reality of the loss starts to sink in. This part of the grief process, sometimes called confrontation, is when the feelings of loss are most intense and painful. This is the time the person starts to face the loss and cope with the changes the loss causes in their lives.

People have many different ways of dealing with loss, so there may be many different, equally intense emotions. During this time, grief tends to come in waves of distress. The person may seem disorganized. He or she may have trouble remembering, thinking, and doing day-to-day activities. This can last for weeks to months. Some or all of the following may be seen in a person who is grieving:

  • Socially withdrawing
  • Trouble thinking and concentrating
  • Becomes restless and anxious at times
  • Loss of appetite
  • Looks sad
  • Feels depressed
  • Dreams of the deceased (or even have hallucinations or “visions” in which they briefly hear or see the deceased)
  • Loses weight
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Feels tired or weak
  • Becomes preoccupied with death or events surrounding death
  • Searches for reasons for the loss (sometimes with results that make no sense to others)
  • Dwells on mistakes, real or imagined, that he or she made with the deceased
  • Feels guilty for the loss
  • Feels all alone and distant from others
  • Expresses anger or envy at seeing others with their loved ones

During this time, a grieving person needs a lot of emotional support. Finding support can be the key to a person’s recovery and acceptance of the loss. Family members, friends, support groups, community organizations, or mental health professionals (therapists or counselors) can all help.

Accepting the loss

By this time, people have begun to recognize what the loss means to them in day-to-day life. They have felt the pain of grief. Usually, the person comes to accept the loss slowly over the months that follow. This acceptance includes adjusting to daily life without the deceased.

Like the earlier parts of the grieving process, acceptance does not happen overnight. It’s common for it to take a year or longer to resolve the emotional and life changes that come with the death of a loved one. The pain may become less intense, but it’s normal to feel emotionally involved with the deceased for many years. In time, the person should be able to reclaim the emotional energy that was invested in the relationship with the deceased, and use it in other relationships.

Still, adjusting to the loss does not mean that all the pain is over. Grieving for someone who was close to you includes losing the future you expected with that person. This must also be mourned. The sense of loss can last for decades. For example, years after a parent dies, the bereaved may be reminded of the parent’s absence at an event he or she would have been expected to attend. This can bring back strong emotions, and require mourning yet another part of 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 journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Last Medical Review: April 22, 2016 Last Revised: June 6, 2016

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