What is Grief?

What is Grief

What is grief? Grief is the natural reaction to the death of someone to whom you feel connected, or attached. Your relationship may have felt secure (loving, respectful), or insecure (ambivalent, unpredictable).  Either way, when we feel a connection to someone, we will likely experience grief after their death.

It is worth noting that our grief is not limited to human beings. Many of us feel very distraught when our companion animals die. And what about grieving celebrities? While the intensity and duration might understandably be much shorter than the grief we feel for a close family member, we can in fact feel grief for someone we have never met.

In his insightful article, The Death of Prince, esteemed grief researcher Dr. Robert Neimeyer observes, “Rather than questioning the legitimacy of this experience in the case of the death of a celebrity with whom we are highly identified, it might be more appropriate to marvel at the human capacity to invest ourselves greatly in the lives of others, well beyond our immediate circle of family and friends.”

mindfulness grief book

The only way to avoid grief is to have no attachments. And what kind of life would that be? In the words of suicidologist Edwin Shneidman, “to grieve is to pay ransom to love.” While the pain of grief may be intense, I don’t know anyone who would trade their love of someone who died for freedom from the pain that follows.

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Grief is not a problem to be solved. It is a process–a natural one at that. It is not a mental illness, or a sign of weakness. It is natural, and your experience of grief will be as unique as your relationship to the person who died.

What is Grief? Bereavement? Mourning?

The term grief is often used interchangeably with bereavement, mourning, and loss, but grief professionals distinguish between the three to avoid confusion:

  • Grief is the uncontrolled and natural reaction to the death of someone to whom we were attached, including physical and emotional manifestations.
  • Bereavement is the objective state of having a relationship with someone who has died. In other words, it’s the fact of the matter regardless of how you react or feel.
  • Mourning is the process of managing and coping with a death, and includes internal processes (“How am I going to raise the children on my own?”) and outward social expressions (for example, wearing black or participating in funeral rituals). There is an element of cultural influence here, and to some extent an ability to choose how to express one’s bereavement.

Are the Terms Grief & Loss Interchangeable?

In addition to a death-related loss, many people use the word grief to describe their state after a relationship breakup, the loss of a job or dream, and many other non-death losses. Personally, I like to reserve the term grief to describe the reaction to a death-related loss, and loss reaction to describe the experience of non-death related losses.

This distinction is not to minimize the pain one might feel outside of grief it self, but to differentiate the two. A major non-death loss may feel very similar to a death related loss, however death is permanent.  One could certainly argue that divorce is also permanent, and yet there are rare instances where two people may reconcile, and many instances where ex-spouses cross paths (willingly or not).

What Does Grief Feel Like?

In her article “This Is What Grieving Is Like,” author offers us a first person view into the wide range of emotions and feelings that can arise during grief. In fact, grief may impact us on six different levels:

  • Physical sensations
  • Feelings
  • Thoughts or Cognitions
  • Behaviors
  • Social difficulties
  • Spiritual searching

For most of us, the experience of grief is uncomfortable and at times may seem intolerable. Many people ask “is what I’m feeling normal?” While no two people experience it in an identical way, chances are what you are feeling is normal – it just doesn’t feel good. What determines how you will feel when you are grieving?  Our reaction to loss is influenced by several interpersonal and intrapersonal factors:

  • The nature of the relationship we had with our loved one
  • The way in which the death occurred
  • Our existing coping strategies (or lack thereof)
  • Age and developmental stage
  • Amount of social support we have after the loss

With all these variables in the mix, it is no wonder that our experience of grief doesn’t look identical to anyone else’s. A word of caution: you may have been told that you need to go through the “5 stages of grief,” but research has proven that not everyone experiences all five stages, and many of us experience feelings that are not even on the list.

The most important thing to remember is that when you are feeling intense grief, take care of yourself. Get plenty of sleep and tend to your physical body first.

Heather Stang

Heather Stang, M.A. is the author of Mindfulness & Grief. She holds a Masters degree in Thanatology (Death, Dying, and Bereavement) from Hood College in Maryland, and is a certified Yoga Therapist. She has led mindfulness-based grief workshops for organizations such as the National Fallen Firefighters Association and Hospice of Frederick County, and is a member of the Association of Death Education and Counseling. Heather’s mission is to help people who are grieving to stay healthy and benefit from the transformative experience of grief, using mindfulness-based practices, relaxation, and expressive arts. She has an established practice offering Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy sessions, day-long retreats, and 8 Week Yoga for Grief groups. She is based in Maryland. You can find her on Google +.