What is the Grief Process?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Images By: Phase4Photography, Arenacreative, July Staff Sino, Andrew Lever, Michael Flippo, Auremar, Pressmaster, Tatyana Gladskih, Peter Atkins
  • Last Modified Date: 15 March 2020
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The grief process is an emotional and often physiological response to a loss. While people often associate this natural process specifically with deaths, losses can include other major life changes like separating from a partner, losing a home, or the development of a disability. Grieving is also not limited to humans, with many animal species exhibiting various forms of grief in response to losses of their own. During grief, people can experience emotions like depression and rage, along with physical symptoms like decreased or increased appetite.

One of the most famous theories to explain the grief process is the five stages of grief proposed by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross in 1969. Working with dying patients and their families, she suggested that the initial response is denial, followed by anger, bargaining in an attempt to mitigate the loss, depression, and finally acceptance of the loss and the ability to move forward. Numerous other models of the grief process have been developed, some integrating her work and others approaching it from different perspectives.


Many cultures have social rituals associated with losses, particularly death, that have been integrated into the grief process. Some members of the Jewish faith, for example, observe funerary rites and sit shiva, a process where they remain at home to grieve for the dead for a set period of time, welcoming visitors during this period to exchange memories of the deceased. Other cultures may have rules governing everything from mourning clothes to the kinds of activities people can engage in after a loss, often with the goal of providing people with time to process a loss in private.

While grief is a normal reaction to loss, in some cases it can become a pathology. Some researchers have identified issues like persistent or traumatic grief, where people experience significant impairments as a result of grieving, such as being unable to work or developing mental health issues. For these individuals, therapeutic treatment may be beneficial to help them explore the loss and come to terms with it, working with a grief counselor.

Other people sometimes find that it helps to attend support groups, counseling, and other opportunities designed for people experiencing grief, even if they are not necessarily having hardships because of their grief. Meeting people who are also going through the grief process can be comforting and may provide people with opportunities to network socially with people who have advice and helpful ideas for working through a loss. Information about support groups and other options is often available through hospitals, hospice providers, and mental health professionals.



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