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, numbness or even denial and anger. For most people, healing occurs with time.
Grief is a process or journey that affects everyone differently. It can be exhausting and emotionally draining, making 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 grief private.
Most people find the grief lessens with time. They may always carry sadness and miss the person who has died, but are able to find meaning and experience pleasure again. Some people even find new wisdom and strength after experiences of loss.
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 – unemployment, retirement, retrenchment
- the diagnosis of a terminal illness
- the loss of good health due to 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?
The effects of grief can often resemble depression and some people do go on to 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 are able to start to understand the reality of death, they can experience intense sadness, emptiness or loneliness, and sometimes anger or guilt.
The feelings can be painful, constant or overwhelming. Grief can come in waves, seeming to fade away for a while and then return again. But over time, the feelings gradually subside.
Everybody reacts to grief differently. Common feelings include:
- numbness, a sense of unreality
People might feel or act differently to usual. They might have difficulty concentrating, withdraw and not enjoy their usual activities. They might drink, smoke or use drugs, or have thoughts of hurting themselves or that they can’t go on.
Grief can be exhausting and this may weaken the immune system, making 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.
Some people may experience dreams about their loved one, feeling their presence or hearing their voice. People who are grieving often search for meaning and examine their spiritual beliefs.
Some people find 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, and it 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.
When should I seek help for my grief?
If you are experiencing persistent feelings of sadness and despair, and are unable to experience happiness, you may be experiencing the symptoms of depression. If your feelings are getting in the way of your everyday life, then it’s important to seek help.
Signs that you may need to seek help include:
- appetite changes (loss of appetite or overeating)
- intense sadness
- difficulty sleeping
- feelings of emptiness feelings of despair
- thoughts of harming yourself
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How can I cope with grief?
Healing happens over time. If you are experiencing grief or loss, you may always carry 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.
Allow yourself to grieve
It is natural to cry. Many people find crying a relief. Exploring and expressing emotions can be a part of the healing process. 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.
Talking to your doctor, people at a support group or a relative or friend you trust can be a big help.
It’s also 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
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?
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 clichés or giving advice.
Do something together
Spend some time doing ordinary and positive things like watching a movie, going for a walk or having a meal together.
Cooking meals or looking after children can be a great gift to people dealing with grief.
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. And remembering that moving on doesn’t meant that your grief will end, but that you 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 — 8 am 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.
- 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).
Do you prefer another languages to English? These websites offer translated information: Health Translations: Bereavement, grief and loss (video)
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: March 2020