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Grief and loss

11-minute read

Key facts

  • Grief is a response to the loss of someone or something that was important.
  • Grief can occur after a death, divorce, illness or other significant loss.
  • Grief can affect your physical and mental health.
  • The experience of grief is different for everyone.

What are grief and loss?

Grief is the natural emotional response to the loss of someone close, such as a family member or friend. Grief can also occur after a serious illness, a divorce or other significant losses.

Grief often involves intense sadness, and sometimes feelings of shock and numbness, or even denial and anger. For most people, the intensity of grief eases over time and the episodes of grief become less frequent.

Grief is a process or journey that affects everyone differently. It can be exhausting and emotionally draining. This can make it hard to do simple things or even leave the house. Some people cope by becoming more active.

Grief has no set pattern. It is expressed differently across different cultures. Some people like to be expressive and public with their emotions, while others like to keep their feelings private.

Most people find that grief lessens with time. A person who loses a loved one may always carry sadness and miss the person who has died, but they are able to find meaning and experience pleasure again. Some people even find new wisdom and strength after experiences of loss.

Video provided by CarerHelp — Chris Hall: Tips for managing grief.

Are there different types of grief and loss?

Grief is usually described in relation to the death of a loved one, but other types of major loss can also lead to feelings of grief. The more significant a loss, the more intense grief may be.

People may feel grief over:

  • the death of a loved one — grief can be particularly severe following the death of an infant or child, or a suicide
  • divorce or separation
  • the loss of a beloved pet
  • giving up something that mattered
  • work changes — for example, unemployment, retirement or retrenchment
  • the diagnosis of a terminal illness
  • the loss of good health because of an illness, accident or disability
  • miscarriage or infertility
  • having a child with a disability, a terminal illness, a mental illness or a substance abuse problem
  • moving away or separation from family or friends
  • having an ‘empty nest’ when children leave home

What are the effects of grief?

A person may have intense feelings of grief. This can feel overwhelming, making it seem hard or even impossible to think about anything else. For some people, these feelings or thoughts may be so difficult to deal with that they push them down or mask them, either all or some of the time.

The effects of grief can often resemble depression, and some people do develop depression following a significant loss. If you are dealing with a major loss and finding it difficult to cope, see your doctor.

Immediately after a death, those left behind often feel shocked, numb and in denial, particularly if the death was unexpected.

When they begin to understand the reality of death, they can feel intensely sad, empty or lonely, and sometimes angry or guilty.

The feelings can be painful, constant or overwhelming. Grief can come in waves, seeming to fade away for a while before returning. But over time, the feelings gradually subside.

Everybody reacts to grief differently. Common feelings include:

  • sadness
  • shock
  • denial
  • numbness, a sense of unreality
  • anger
  • guilt
  • blame
  • relief


People might feel or act differently to usual when they are grieving. They might have difficulty concentrating, withdraw and not enjoy their usual activities. They may drink, smoke or use drugs. They may also have thoughts of hurting themselves or that they can’t go on.

Physical health

Grief can be exhausting, and this may weaken the immune system. This makes people prone to colds and other illness. Grief can affect the appetite and lead to changes in weight. It can affect sleep and leave people feeling very tired. It can also lead to stomach aches, headaches and body aches.

Spiritual life

Some people may have dreams about their loved one in which they feel their presence or hear their voice. People who are grieving often search for meaning and examine their spiritual beliefs.

Post-traumatic growth

Some people have positive experiences following grief and loss, such as a new sense of wisdom, maturity and meaning in life.

Complicated grief and depression

In some people, grief can be prolonged or more intense. This may interfere with their ability to cope with everyday life. This may be more likely if the loss was particularly traumatic, such as a suicide or death of a child.

Prolonged grief (also referred to as complex or complicated grief) is a persistent form of intense grief where people find it very difficult to live with the loss. Instead of gradually thinking more positively, thoughts may become stuck in a dark, sorrowful place. Some people may describe this time as being emotionally paralysed and unable to think past the grief and loss. They may feel very lost and alone. In this state, it is common to:

  • feel confused
  • feel a sense of overwhelming sadness
  • have more extreme thoughts and behaviours, which may or may not be linked to the experience
  • have an ongoing longing for the past

Someone with prolonged grief may have a fixed preoccupation with thoughts and memories of the person who died, making the future seem empty and hopeless.

When should I seek help for my grief?

If you have persistent feelings of sadness and despair, and are unable to experience happiness, you may be experiencing depression. If your feelings are getting in the way of your everyday life, then it’s important to seek help.

For some people, grief might not lessen even after time passes. The grief can significantly disrupt their life, affecting jobs, relationships and how they interact in the community.

You may need to seek help if you:

  • feel like grief makes it very difficult to do anything
  • have difficulty socialising
  • have difficulty sleeping
  • change the way you eat (lose your appetite or overeat)
  • experience intense and ongoing emotions such as anger, sadness, numbness, anxiety, depression, despair, emptiness and/or guilt
  • have thoughts of harming yourself

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — Our Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How can I cope with grief?

If you experience grief or loss, you may always feel some sadness and miss a person once they are gone, but the painful, intense feelings should gradually subside. It eventually becomes easier to deal with life.

Griefline supports anyone experiencing different types of grief and offers resources and support so you don't feel alone.

Allow yourself to grieve

It is natural to cry. Many people find crying a relief. Exploring and expressing emotions can be a part of grief. Listening to music or writing can help. Time spent alone can allow you to connect with your emotions.

Live one day at a time

Set a regular daily routine and do something special for yourself every day. Try to go for a walk, eat healthily, meditate and relax. It’s a good idea to avoid making any major decisions for a year after the death of someone you love.

Seek help

Talking to your doctor, people at a support group or a relative or friend you trust can be a big help.

Stay connected

It’s important to spend time with supportive people. Accept offers of help, talk about your loved one, or simply spend time with others.

Create positive memories

Honour the life of the person who has died. Collect photos or keepsakes, write a journal, write a letter to the person who died, or share stories and rituals with others. These can all help to create meaning after loss.

Look after your health

Get some regular exercise and eat healthy food, and make sure you have enough sleep. Avoid recreational drugs and drink alcohol sensibly.

Experiencing anniversaries

Birthdays, anniversaries or holidays can trigger intense feelings of grief. It may help to mark these occasions with a simple ceremony like lighting a candle, playing music or gathering with family.

How can I support a grieving loved one?

Initiate contact

Get in touch and be available to spend time together. Respect that your friend may need to cry, hug, talk, be silent or be alone.


It can be difficult to know what to say, particularly if you have not experienced grief before. There may be no words that can really help but listening can be a great support. Don’t be afraid to talk about the person who has died — the person you are supporting may want to hear their name. Try to avoid giving advice or using clichés.

Do something together

Spend some time doing ordinary and positive things together, like watching a movie, going for a walk or having a meal.

Practical help

Cooking meals or looking after children can be a great gift to people dealing with grief.

Be aware

Grief may last for a long time. Birthdays and anniversaries may be difficult for a bereaved person, so calling them on that day can let them know you haven’t forgotten.

Other questions you might have

How long does grief last?

Every person grieves differently and there is no set timeframe for how long grief may last. Some people may mourn for 6 months, others for several years. There are many factors involved in how long grief may last. It is important to give yourself time to grieve and not feel rushed to ‘move on’ before you are ready.

How do I move on?

The term ‘moving on’ can be unhelpful, because as life moves forward you need to move with it. As each day goes by you are moving forward, but the phrase moving on can feel as though you need to get over the passing of a loved one. It’s important to remember that moving on does not mean forgetting but learning how to live without that person in your life. Moving on doesn’t mean that your grief will end, but that you will learn to live with it.

Resources and support

For more information and support, try these resources:

  • Lifeline offer 24-hour crisis support. If you need to talk to someone about how you’re feeling, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
  • Headspace offers excellent resources to help you cope.
  • Parentline — 8am to 12 midnight, 7 days a week, call 13 22 89.
  • Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement — bereavement counselling and support services. Call 1800 642 066.
  • MensLine Australia — 24 hours, 7 days. Call 1300 78 99 78.
  • Suicide Call Back Service— 24 hours, 7 days. Call 1300 659 467.
  • Kids Helpline — 24 hours, 7 days. Call 1800 55 1800.
  • Griefline — 8am to 8pm (AEST), 7 days a week, Call 1300 845 745.
  • If you need to know more about grief, and to get advice on what to do next, you can also call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 to speak with a registered nurse, 24 hours, 7 days a week (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).

Other languages

Do you prefer other languages to English? These websites offer translated information:

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: April 2022

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