Understanding Grief

What is grief?

Grief is a normal and natural response to a loss. Each person’s grief is unique and each of us must grieve in our own way. Grief can be painful, long and unpredictable. It can cause us to feel anxious, confused, sad, overwhelmed and uncertain.

“Mourning is the constant reawakening that things are now different.” – Stephanie Ericsson

What is the work of grief?

Although the passage of time can be helpful, it’s what you do with the time that matters. Take an active role in your healing process.
The Four Tasks of Grief below are based on the research of Dr. William Worden. He uses tasks instead of stages or steps. There’s no specific order to grieving. You may find that you work on multiple tasks at once, perhaps in subtle ways, as you move towards healing.

The First Task: Acknowledge Reality of Death

Often when a death occurs, you can’t or don’t want to believe it. A sense of shock and numbness is normal, even when the death was expected. People often go on autopilot to get through the memorial service and initial decision making. This can help protect from pain until you can better process the loss.

Allow yourself a chance to talk or write freely about what happened. With each retelling, some of the intense emotions associated with the loss are released. It’s common to have momentary lapses of memory, where we expect our loved one to be at home when we get there, or at the other end of the phone. You may know logically that a person is gone, but with each new reminder of their absence, you may have to work toward acknowledging the reality of the loss.

The Second Task: Process the Emotions of Grief

It may be difficult to sort out feelings related to the loss. Some common feelings are: anger, anxiety, sadness, irritability, loneliness, hopelessness, apathy/disinterest, guilt, regret, longing, helplessness or feeling lost. You may experience a sense of relief because your loved one is no longer suffering. Finding ways to process these emotions is an important part of this task.

Some people process by telling or writing the story of what has happened and how they are feeling. Letting tears flow freely can be important for some, but the absence of tears does not mean an absence of grief. It can be uncomfortable for many of us to experience such strong emotions, but allowing ourselves to process them can help bring healing. It’s important for you to allow yourself to experience the pain of grief. There is no easy way through grief and if you ignore or repress your feelings, you may delay healing.

The Third Task: Learn to Live Without Someone

You may have lost your best friend, confidant, source of income, handyman or cook. The absence of this person may change your world completely. You may have to learn new responsibilities or change daily routines. Your own sense of identity may change. You may need to create a new social network. You may find yourself asking: How can I and how will I live without my loved one? While you are dealing with this loss, it’s helpful to minimize other changes. If possible, it’s best not to move, change jobs, or make other changes during the first year.

The Fourth Task: Find a Way to Remember

At some point in your grief, you realize you can choose to move into a life beyond loss. This does not mean forgetting. You’re not being disloyal. Starting a new chapter in your life does not mean that you can’t stay in touch with your sadness, or that tears will stop. It means that you have decided to accept two realities: that your loved one has died and that your life goes on. This is a time to consider how you will keep their memory alive, and to reflect on what their life has meant to you. While your life will not be the same, you can find healing, happiness and fulfillment again.

Help Yourself as You Grieve

  • Take care of your health – get adequate food and rest. Schedule a physical or other appointments you’ve postponed. Exercise helps release tension, anxiety and frustration, plus help fight depression and promote well-being.
  • Make space for your loss – sometimes people keep themselves so busy, they don’t allow themselves time to grieve. Respect your need for healing and create opportunities to grieve.
  • Talk about your loss – you may need to retell the same stories as part of your healing. A support group may be helpful.
  • Write about your loss – keeping a journal can be a powerful healing tool. Writing can help focus and identify emotions.
  • Cry if you need to – trust your body’s need to cry or not to cry. When words fail, tears can help release pain.
  • Be good to yourself – plan things you can look forward to. Create pleasant times with family and friends. Schedule a massage. Take a walk. See a movie. Allow yourself to enjoy.
  • Be patient with yourself – grieving is a process that takes time. There’s no set time-table. It may be good to look back from time to time and see how far you’ve come.
  • Give yourself time – As much as possible, wait to make major life changes such as moving or changing careers during the first year after a loss. If you find it’s necessary to make a big change, seek out support.

“There is sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues.  They are the messengers of overwhelming grief… unspeakable love.”   – Washington Irving”

Coping with Anxiety

Anxiety is common in grief. Some of the signs are shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, trembling or shaking and dizziness. Other symptoms include a fear of going crazy or being out of control, and a feeling of detachment or being out of touch with your body. It may be helpful to talk about your feelings and access support from family, friends or professionals.

Expressing emotions through creativity can be valuable. Try writing, painting or music. Some find it helpful to read about grief or anxiety. Taking part in activities you enjoy can help. You may find comfort in prayer or other spiritual practices. Monitor your diet, and avoid excessive caffeine and alcohol.

Coping with Anger

Anger is an expected, common response to grief. Many people feel angry at being left behind, anger at a higher power, or anger at others for perceived insensitivity. Some feel angry at the medical community for “failing.” Journaling about anger may be a way to cope. Others may find healing by channeling anger into volunteering or service. You may be uncomfortable with anger, but recognizing and dealing with it is important to healing.

Coping with Guilt

Many people feel guilt after loss of a loved one. You may remember things you said or did that could have been hurtful, or things you wish you’d said or done. Loss may bring up old issues, feelings and conflicts from the past. Writing a letter to your loved one, and writing a response letter (what your loved one might say to you) can be good tools for coping with guilt. Talk to a trusted friend or spiritual advisor. Suppressing or ignoring guilt only adds to its intensity.

Common Reactions to Grief

Changes in Mental Functioning

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  • Inability to focus
  • Hard to make decisions
  • Difficulty processing information
  • Disorganization
  • Memory problems
  • Preoccupation with the deceased

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  • Fear of “losing your mind”
  • Physical Responses
  • Change in appetite
  • Shortness of breath
  • Deep sighing
  • Tightness in throat
  • Less resistance to illness

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  • Stomach problems
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Sensitivity to noise
  • Headaches
  • Weakness
  • Tight Muscles
  • Fatigue
  • Trembling
  • Dizziness


While these symptoms are normal, it’s a good idea to consult your doctor if these symptoms are concerning.


Emotional Responses

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  • Numbness
  • Anger
  • Bitterness
  • Feeling lost
  • Anxiety
  • Desire to run away
  • Sadness
  • Loneliness
  • Emptiness
  • Depression
  • Relief
  • Guilt

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  • Yearning
  • Apathy
  • Regret
  • Confusion
  • Behavioral Responses
  • Crying or sobbing
  • Talking to deceased
  • Looking for loved one
  • Feeling the presence of the deceased

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  • Vivid dreams
  • Restless over-activity
  • Decrease in productivity
  • Carrying objects/wearing clothing of deceased
  • Difficulty with self-care
  • Easily distracted



Social Responses

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  • Avoiding places where memories are strong
  • Visiting places that hold memories
  • Withdrawing from social activities
  • Over-engaging socially
  • Social discomfort

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  • Preoccupation with well-being of loved ones
  • Avoiding friends/family
  • Being easily distracted
  • Spiritual Responses
  • Anger prayers weren’t answered

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  • Sense of abandonment at time of deepest need
  • Loss of meaning
  • Searching for purpose
  • Asking “Why?”
  • Questioning faith


Guidance on the Journey of Grief

  • Grief Support Services – our Grief Support Specialists have backgrounds in social work or counseling, and experience working with grieving people.
  • Individual Support – one-on-one counseling helps you in person or by phone.
  • Volunteer Support – trained volunteers call for emotional and social support.
  • Education and Support – workshops and support groups are offered at several locations for adults who have lost a loved one. Topics include: understanding the grief process, dealing with difficult emotions, role changes, handling the holidays, finding support systems and learning new practical skills.
  • Expressive Therapies Series – easing grief through yoga, art or writing give alternatives to traditional grief support. A cooking for one class helps people learn practical new skills.
  • Mailings – information is mailed for a year following your loss, including articles on grief, invitations to memorial events and more. You may choose to receive information by email.  CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP
  • Website – information, articles and links on grief support is available on our website at kchospice.org/grief.
  • Solace House Center for Grief and Healing – a nurturing place to guide children and adults through the difficult time following a death. There are peer support groups for ages 3 through adult, plus individual, couples and family grief support. www.solacehouse.org
  • Passages Counseling/Mental Health Referrals – some people may benefit from counseling when dealing with multiple losses, complicated grief, trauma, emotional effects of medical issues, difficult transitions or other mental health concerns. Most Medicare and insurance plans are accepted. Learn more.
  • Grief CampsCamp Erin® Kansas City Family Camp is a free bereavement camp for youth who are grieving the death of a significant person in their lives. Families with children and teens ages 6 to 17 attend a day or weekend camp experience that combines grief education and emotional support with fun, traditional camp activities. 

Frequently Asked Questions

I have support from my family, friends and religious community. Can grief support help me?

Sometimes it helps to talk with someone outside your family or friends to focus on your own feelings. Our staff are skilled, caring, non-judgmental listeners. We’ll help you understand your feelings and teach ways to cope that work with your life.

How will it help me to talk to someone about my grief? It won’t bring my loved one back.

You may be overwhelmed, realizing that life will never be the same. We’ll help you understand what your loss means. If you join a support group, you may find sharing with others who have “been there” is very positive. It can help you feel less lonely and isolated. Being with others who are grieving can become a source of comfort.

Since my loved one died, I’ve been busy and don’t have time to grieve. How can you help?

Following a death, you may be occupied by the details of the estate, busy at work or with family – possibly needed distractions from grief. Delaying feelings of grief does not make it go away. Experiencing grief in the way most comfortable for you will help lessen painful emotions.

What are some common fears or misconceptions about grief counseling?

Some fear that needing grief counseling means they’re “crazy” or mentally ill, but grief is natural. People may feel asking for help is a sign of weakness – they should be able to pull themselves together, get on with life.

I think I’m doing all right, but can you help my family members?

Grief support is available to family members. We believe asking for help is a sign of strength and a commitment to healing. Out-of-town family may access grief support can through local hospices.

Find a Local Hospice

(Family members access to grief support in their area)
National Hospice Organization Help Line 800.658.8898

Other Resources

  • NAMI National Helpline 800.950.6264 (National Alliance on Mental Illness)
  • National Alliance for Grieving Children childrengrieve.org
  • The Moyer Foundation moyerfoundation.org
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800.273.8255
  • Veterans Crisis Hotline 800.784.2433
  • Jason Foundation 888.881.2323 (youth suicide prevention)
  • Online whatsyourgrief.com

Receive Email Updates

Sign up to receive emails on topics of interest, including grief support. kchospice.org/email-signup (No obligation and you may unsubscribe at any time.)

© 2018 Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care

Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care does not discriminate on the basis of age, race, color, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, disability or religious beliefs.

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