What is Grief?

Grief is a lonely place, but there is hope.

by Judith A. Pedersen, Thanatologist, MSW, FT, Hearts of Hope Foundation Founder, Board President, and Executive Director

Grief is a BIG Deal.

I’m often asked, “What is grief?” When I hear this, my mind often thinks of questions like, “How big is the ocean?” or “How vast is the sky?” That’s because grief truly is that big and vast, and, to make things even more complex, its variations are as unique as each person it touches.

So, the challenge becomes how to take an experience as expansive as grief and describe it in ways that make something so difficult to understand – understandable.

Grief is a life experience that occurs when a relationship with someone or something we are deeply attached to has ended – something we dearly love and cherish, something or somewhere we have found enriching – those people, places, and things we have incorporated as important parts of our lives. 

We realize the grieving process is a natural and normal response to loss and includes the death of a loved one, job loss, loss of health, life changes like a graduation or moving, loss of health, loss of friendships and relationships, or any time someone or something we are truly, lovingly attached to is removed from our lives.

For young people, grief comes through experiencing their family members’ struggles, from school challenges like the pressure to get good grades or qualify for a sports team or from social challenges like bullying or rejection.

Grief – The Hidden Epidemic

“It is estimated that for every death, nine people are affected by bereavement.” Lucy Lloyd. Numbers this large have been compounded by the Covid Pandemic, where grief was so widescale it was often unrecognized and untreated because of isolation and quarantines. 

Add to this the fact that grief and loss are not topics readily discussed in most areas of society, including families. So often, in my conversations with people asking for tips on how to help grieving friends and family, I hear the words “died,” “grief,” or “loss” whispered in their questions. The desire to help is there, but the comfort in discussing grief is not. 

Research informs us that our fear of mortality lies at the center of this awkwardness. This is easily understood because of the components of finality and fear of the unknown that accompany loss. However, if the recent pandemic taught us anything, it taught us that we can’t grieve in a vacuum. We need help, and more and more people are seeking this help.

Emotional / Physical / Behavioral Grief Reactions

  • Emotional – People experience grief in different ways and for different reasons. Grief manifests emotionally as when we find ourselves angry for no reason or feel defensive, fearful, guilty, or any number of other paths our emotions take us. 
  • Physical – Grief can feel like something is physically wrong with us. We have headaches, stomach aches, chest pains, or any pain that feels raw and unexplained.
  • Behavioral – Finally, grief impacts our behaviors. Our eating and sleeping patterns may change, and our ability to interact with others can lead to isolation and loneliness.

So, when I’m asked the question, “What is grief?” I also sense that a person is feeling all these things – that they have experienced grief, and I know how hard this is to cope with, to move forward with, and the seemingly impossible challenge to discover new ways to reclaim meaningful and purposeful life.

Important Definitions

  • Bereavement is the state or condition triggered by loss. When we lose someone or something we are attached to and care deeply about, we are deprived of companionship, affection, customs, practices, and rituals. 
  • Grieving is how we feel and react following loss and includes the full range of emotions and responses to loss, including physical, emotional, and behavioral. 
  • Mourning is what we do immediately following a loss. Mourning practices follow societal/cultural norms, including funeral and burial practices, prayers, and rituals, and provide stability during acutely emotional times. These practices act as bridges from the date of loss to when mourners begin working through loss.

What’s New with Coping with Grief? 

Things have changed since my early days of working with people facing end-of-life, death, and bereavement. But there is still so much to do. Corporate HR policies are constantly being reviewed, and things are improving, especially with larger corporations. Despite this, The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of the US Department of Labor still indicates that 3-5 days of paid bereavement leave is an appropriate standard and has always implied an impossible timeline for grievers.

Bereavement theory and practice prove that the grieving process is much longer. With adequate education and support, grievers can expect acute grief reactions to lessen over time. Grievers often feel ready to reinvest in living, try new experiences, and build new relationships within the first six to twelve months. 

Complicated or prolonged grief occurs in about ten percent of those who experience loss. This condition requires interventions that occur over more extended periods, mainly with the help of expert grief professionals.

What Helps? Tips for moving forward and rediscovering meaning following a loss.

A common response among bereaved people is discomfort with “losing control,” “crying uncontrollably,” “crying in public,” etc. As grievers attempt to regain control over their lives, they find ways to help cope with and react to separation from loved ones. Many people find comfort in developing rituals. These can include:

  • Visit places that have special meaning, such as cemeteries or memorials. Talk to your loved one. Tell them exactly how you feel (lonely, angry, sad, etc.) 
  • Prepare tables with pictures of loved ones. Light candles and dedicate quiet times for meditation, contemplation, and expressions of emotion. The concept of “Make a date with your grief.” 
  • Journaling and letter writing – Many people keep journals by their bedsides. For some, this is a calming way to end the day and prepare for rest. 
  • Dream journals are useful for writing dreams and/or thoughts that disrupt sleep, allowing grievers to rest. These dreams or thoughts are not gone and forgotten. Rather, these are in a safe place for reflection at the times you choose.
  • Commemorating special days. For example, invite family and friends to celebrate lives and relationships on birthdays, anniversaries, etc.
  • Reach out for help – family members, friends, clergy, medical or mental health professionals.

Your ability to set aside quiet times for tears, emotions, and contemplation will create opportunities to alleviate stress. You choose the times and places. These are important to your self-care and your well-being and give you the strength to move forward, build, and reinvest in meaningful and purposeful life again.

For more information about Hearts of Hope Foundation and our many programs to help individuals and communities with grief and our Moving Forward Comprehensive Grief Support Program for adults, please reach out to us at 973-224-6900 or info@ourheartsofhope.org.