Understanding Grief

What is grief?

Grief is a normal human reaction to a loss: you may experience it before your own death or before and after the death of a loved one. Grieving is an individual journey and there’s no right or wrong way to mourn a loss. Grief can be overwhelming emotionally, psychologically and physically. Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said, “…there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grieving is as individual as our lives.” 


“I see you walking slowly through the world, learning to love everything again for the first time & I want to hold you & say exactly the words you need to hear because I have been there too and I know the courage it takes to go on when your every breath aches.”
– Learning to Love by Brian Andreas, the StoryPeople


What are the different types of grief?

Anticipatory Grief begins as soon as you accept that you or someone you love is going to die. You begin grieving the coming death and the many losses leading up to it:  loss of a future, loss of independence, loss of functioning, loss of mental abilities, and loss of hope. Anticipatory grief isn’t just about a future death but about all the losses along the way.

Symptoms of anticipatory grief, which are often the same symptoms as that of grief experienced after the death of a loved one, may include:

anger depression fear
avoidance disbelief loneliness
confusion disorganization numbness
crying emptiness over-reacting
denial fatigue yearning

Anticipatory grief begins when you hear a diagnosis of a terminal illness and you accept that death is inevitable for yourself or for a loved one. This period can be emotionally exhausting because for an indefinite length of time you live in a state of constant sadness and vigilance. But, during this time, you also begin adjusting to the reality of death and you have a chance to attend to unfinished business and seek a sense of peace.

Experiencing anticipatory grief doesn’t necessarily lessen the pain you’ll feel when your loved one dies. The period after the actual death is when normal grief typically begins.

Normal or Common Grief comes after you experience a loss. You may have the same symptoms you had with anticipatory grief and you may also experience the following:

  • Being in shock or denial. Feeling numb or like you’re “going through the motions”

  • Feeling sad and crying a lot

  • Telling the story again and again of how they died

  • Not being able to talk about the person or the death

  • Feeling helpless and powerless

  • Having trouble sleeping; being scared to go to sleep; wanting to sleep a lot

  • Having head or stomach aches

  • Feeling guilty: “It was my fault,” “I could have prevented this.”

  • Feeling angry, confused, frustrated, and/or quick to get into a fight

  • Not wanting to stay home alone or feeling afraid to be alone

  • Withdrawing from friends. Not wanting to go out as much.

  • Dreaming about the death, having nightmares about the person and death details

  • Wanting to be with the person who died

  • Finding it difficult to concentrate 
  • Worrying about who’s going to die next

  • Feeling guilty about feeling relieved if the illness surrounding the death was long or painful

  • Feeling upset and anxious that your pain, sadness and grief aren’t going away

When will my grief end?

There’s no predicting how long you’ll grieve the loss of your loved one. It may be months. It may be years. 

Up to 85% of all people experience symptoms of normal grief – which tend to come in waves – for months or years after the death of a loved one. As you progress through your grief towards acceptance of your loss, your symptoms lessen. But there’s no timetable. Grief lasts as long as it takes to adjust to life without your loved one.  

How do I get through each day?

Community Hospices offers these recommendations – based on our years of experience working with thousands of people grieving the loss of loved ones – to reassure you on this part of your journey:

  • What you eat does matter – Grieving takes a lot out of you.  Be sure to eat healthy foods and drink plenty of water. 

  • You’re resilient – Yes, grief can be tough.  But you can adjust and work through it.

  • Sleep is important – You might feel like you have so much to do.  You may be overwhelmed.  Take time to rest and recharge.

  • Much of what you experience is indeed normal – Okay, it may not feel like it’s normal to you while you’re grieving but – except for trying to harm yourself or others – there’s a wide span of normal and healthy reactions to loss.

  • Sometimes it’s okay to ignore what you’re told – Your friends may offer advice based on their own experiences but your grief is your own and no one else can tell you when to “move on” or “get over it.”  Trust your own inner voice and seek out trusted friends or counselors.

  • Planning ahead helps – Birthdays, holidays and anniversaries may make your loss even more difficult.  Look ahead on the calendar and plan how you’ll deal with these days.

  • Grief doesn’t have a specific time period – You may move through your grief faster than you expected or more slowly than you would like.  Grief takes the time it needs.

  • It’s normal to remember your loved one – There’s no need to feel that you have to cut off all thoughts of the person you lost. You’ll always have an emotional connection to your loved one and someday that may bring you peace and comfort.

How can I get through the holidays?

At holiday time, you’re bombarded with messages of the season: commercials, music, decorations, gift ideas and seasonal foods. If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, the season may be a reminder of what you don’t have any more and the person who won’t be celebrating with you this year. To lessen the stress and sadness of the holiday season:

  • Think ahead about what situations might come up and then follow your own internal guide about whether you want to participate. It’s okay to say “no.”

  • Accept that you may have less energy to do the traditional holiday preparations and less desire to attend programs, parties and family gatherings.  Decide what’s most important and then do just those things.  It’s okay if your decisions don’t please others.

  • Consider changing or limiting your traditions and rituals.  You don’t have to do things the same way this year as you’ve done in the past. This may be the year that you don’t host the party or attend the large community gathering.  Continue the traditions that are most important to you but consider scaling back a bit. Instead of hosting a large dinner party, host a small, intimate dessert party. Limit your commitments to those things that matter most to you.

  • Ask for help with decorating, shopping, hosting an event, wrapping presents, or preparing food. It takes courage to ask for help but your family and friends will feel good about you asking them to continue being a part of your life. 

  • Make a “Plan B” for whatever you decide to do. If you decide to attend a party, your “Plan B” may be arranging a ride home in advance in case you want to leave early. Or your “Plan B” may be talking with your hostess beforehand to explain that you’re planning to attend, however on the day of the party you may find that you simply can’t  do so.  Grief is unpredictable.  

  • Stay flexible so you can find some joy in the season. Maybe being alone or spending time with one or two friends would be the right thing for you this year. Maybe attending a large event seems overwhelming right now but listening to a live stream of it or watching a video of it later would be uplifting.

During the holidays, you’ll come into contact with friends, coworkers and families more so than at other times of the year. As you interact with these people at holiday gatherings, in an attempt to comfort you, they’ll often say or do things that have the opposite effect of what they intended. 

“If somebody is trying to walk alongside of you after a significant loss,” says Dr. Robert De Vries, “this person has no clue about how you feel, what you think, what you need and what you want. The only solution is [for you] to tell them.” 

H. Norman Wright says that for those people who are trying to rush you through grief, it’s best to say, “I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but my grief is going to last probably twenty times longer than most people expect. It’s going to be more intense. Let me cry; let me feel the way I’m feeling, and I would deeply appreciate it.” 

“It’s so important to be honest with people,” explains Elsa Kok Colopy. “Many times we feel like we need to cover up our bad feelings, cover up our sadness, cover up our grief for the benefit of others. You don’t have to do that. You can express what you need.” 

Here are things you might share with others: 

  • Talk about my loved one at holiday gatherings 

  • Be a quiet listener and let me talk about my loved one and share memories 

  • Ignoring my grief doesn’t make it go away 

  • If I’m sad, let me be sad. Don’t try to cheer me up. It’s important for me to feel the emotions I’m feeling even though this is a season of “cheer.” 

  • Understand that I may look fine but may be silently struggling with sadness

  • Don’t make comments about next year being better or time healing my wounds. My concerns are focused on the here and now. 

  • Understand that I can’t do everything I used to do in holidays past, but don’t hesitate to invite me to holiday events anyway 

  • Let me cry if I need to. You don’t have to say anything—just be there for me 

  • Understand that grief can go on for a number of years. There’s no established time limit. Please don’t make judgments about how long it’s taking me to grieve. 

What is mourning?

Grief is how you feel about the death of someone you love and mourning is the outward expression of your grief. Most of us learn how to mourn from cultural rituals handed down through our families and we’re often influenced by personal, religious and social customs/beliefs.   

Most religions have traditions for memorializing the dead including songs, dances, works of art, articles of clothing and mourning periods.  These rituals of mourning, when family and friends help prepare for the funeral and burial, provide an immediate sense of purpose for those who are grieving.


  • Many practicing Buddhists seek increased awareness during their lives with the ultimate goal of reaching Nirvana – true enlightenment

  • At the time of death, Buddhists often use special meditations and may limit sedation of their dying loved one so that s/he can remain conscious for the meditation

  • The memorial ritual is usually officiated by a family member

  • Cremation is typical


  • Mourners are comforted by the belief that their loved ones ascend to the Kingdom of Heaven to be with God and other loved ones who’ve died

  • Christians believe they’ll reach Heaven through their strong faith in God

  • There is usually a period after death and before the funeral service when mourners visit the family and view the body to pay their respects to the person who died.

  • After the funeral service, mourners often follow the family to the burial site for a final service and the casket is lowered into the ground after everyone leaves

  • Traditionally dark clothing is worn at the funeral service


  • Each denomination of Protestantism has its own funeral traditions

  • Confession and prayers at the time of death are usually made directly to God

  • There is a strong belief in eternal life 

  • At services and memorials, it’s often stressed that the person who died is in a better place 

Roman Catholic

  • Many Catholics believe that their dying loved ones must have last rites administered by a priest so the loved ones have a chance to make a confession to the priest 

  • A priest officiates at the funeral and burial

  • In traditional cultures, the year following the death is considered an extended period of mourning


  • There are many Hindu sects that have their own traditions surrounding death

  • They typically believe in eternal life through reincarnation, with their fate in the next life depending on their virtue in this life

  • Family members wash the body in a special ritual to ready it for cremation which takes place the day the person died

  • A Hindu priest officiates at the funeral ritual where white is traditionally worn

  • There are 13 days of official mourning when friends and family visit to offer condolences


  • Jewish funerals and burials typically take place within a day or two of death (cremation is usually not practiced among Conservative or Orthodox Jews)

  • A rabbi or cantor officiates at the burial service where family members shovel symbolic soil onto the casket as it is lowered

  • During a seven-day period of mourning, called  “sitting Shiva, ” family and friends visit bringing food, offering prayers and talking about the person who died

  • Though the Jewish faith does teach the existence of life after death, it’s not usually the focus of mourning rituals


  • Death is seen as the return to the Creator Allah who will judge the soul based on how the life was lived.

  • It’s believed that the body is returned to the earth where it originated so burial is the custom and cremation is forbidden. 

  • In order to prepare the body for burial, family and friends engage in ritual washing: women wash other women’s bodies, and men wash other men’s bodies, with the exception of spouses, who may wash one another’s bodies which are then wrapped in a clean white cloth.

  • Only men participate in the burial ritual that takes place within 24 hours of death or as soon as possible. Young children are typically not present.

  • An Imam or Holy Man officiates at both the funeral and burial service.

  • The mourning period lasts for three days for most, 40 days for a surviving spouse.

Native American

  • There are many different nations that all have their own death traditions.

  • Some nations don’t have contact with the dying or advocate a very positive outlook in the presence of the dying. Grieving is done privately.

  • Death is a journey to another world but doesn’t include dualities like heaven and hell and supernatural and earthling. The Creator is in the Earth.

  • Certain spots in nature are important for sacred ceremonies including burials. Personal items are often placed into the caskets.

  • Some groups incorporate Christian beliefs into their practices.

* This information comes from the nationally recognized  Wendt Center for Loss and Healing that has helped people in the Greater Washington area rebuild a sense of safety and hope after experiencing a loss, life-threatening illness, violence or other trauma.