What is the Grief Process?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Some psychiatrists specialize in helping patients deal with grief.
Some psychiatrists specialize in helping patients deal with grief.

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.

Acceptance is the last stage of grief.
Acceptance is the last stage of grief.

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.

Denial is a stage of grief.
Denial is a stage of grief.

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.

Depression is a stage of grief.
Depression is a stage of grief.

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.

Sadness is a stage in the grieving process.
Sadness is a stage in the grieving process.
Individuals may choose to wear black clothes when in mourning.
Individuals may choose to wear black clothes when in mourning.
Counseling can sometimes be comforting during the grief process.
Counseling can sometimes be comforting during the grief process.
Religious or spiritual support may help people dealing with grief.
Religious or spiritual support may help people dealing with grief.
While grief is a normal reaction to a loss, it can sometimes become a pathology.
While grief is a normal reaction to a loss, it can sometimes become a pathology.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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