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What is Grief?

“The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places.” Ernest Hemingway. My last few blogs looked at the emotion of sadness. I’m now going to have a closer look at the emotion or the collection of emotions that make up grief.  What is grief? Put simply, grief is a direct result of loss – it is more than just sadness. We often associate it with the loss of a loved one but it can be experienced after many kinds of other types of loss.

We all experience grief

We live in a world where no one escapes suffering, disappointment and loss. None of us is exempt from pain, illness and death – both in relation to ourselves and in relation to people we love.

Despite the fact that none of us is going to escape grief, we tend not to talk about it and we often have little understanding of it until we are suddenly thrown into it. Especially in today’s world, we tend to attempt to keep grief separated from our lives and only begrudgingly acknowledge its presence in the most obvious of times.

What does grief feel like?

When we grieve, we can be overwhelmed by a variety of different emotions and feelings in our body.  Grief is different for everyone and it can affect one person in different ways at different stages. Similarly  everyone deals with grief in their own unique way.

Grief is a powerful emotional and physical reaction to the loss of someone or something. It is characterised by deep feelings of sadness and sorrow, and in the case of losing someone we loved, often by a powerful yearning or longing to be with that person again. Other effects of grief include feeling numb and empty, as if there is no meaning to anything, or being annoyed at yourself for how you are feeling compared to how you ‘should’ be dealing with things. You might feel angry that your loved one has gone and left you behind. Perhaps others are expecting you to be moving on and this is making you feel worse. You may also be worried that you will never feel better, or that you will not be able to cope.

Grief is also felt physically: you might be struggling to eat or sleep, or might feel sick in your stomach. These feelings may come in waves, and you may be tossed from one to another. All of these feelings are a normal part of grieving. Despite the pain, the process of grieving is an important part of how we come to terms with loss.

A whole range of thoughts, feelings and behaviours – all normal

So we can separate the effects of grief into thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. This is just a snapshot of the range – one individual who is grieving might experience some, all, or none of these: (The examples refer to loss of a loved one, but most also refer to how we feel and behave after any loss). 

Some thoughts we might have:

  • Why them? Why me?
  • How will I cope? 
  • Thoughts that I can’t go on
  • Thoughts about what I should have done or said
  • Thoughts about what I am going to miss
  • Wishing that I had done things or said things differently
  • Happy memories or unwanted memories
  • Pleasant dreams or nightmares
  • Feeling relieved that the person is now free from suffering and at peace

A whole mix of feelings and emotions:

These can vary in type and intensity from moment to moment and some of the common ones are: Fear, anxiety, guilt, regret, numbness, emptiness, hopelessness, helplessness, anger,  sadness, yearning,  longing, frustration, irritability, pain, heartache, emptiness, shock, feeling physically unwell, relief, peace

…and behaviours

Again a whole range of behaviours – some might be more prevalent on one day, different ones more prevalent the next – including unable to eat, comfort eating, unable to sleep, sleeping too much, staying in bed, crying uncontrollably, avoiding reminders, avoiding being alone,  avoiding being with other people,  carrying on as normal, keep busy, telling other people you feel ok (even if you don’t), stopping doing things that you used to do and enjoy, drinking alcohol, self medicating,  distraction, behaving recklessly, taking risks, remembering the person, visiting their resting place, talking to them, getting a calming sense of their presence, looking at photos,  sharing memories with others who were close to them. 

Waves of grief

Grief often feels like it comes in waves that can initially feel intense and overwhelming. These waves of grief can feel like they come out of nowhere, or can be triggered when you are reminded of the person you lost. When you first lose someone, it can feel as though you are constantly being hit by enormous waves of grief – sometimes so close together that it feels as though you hardly come up for air between them. With time, the size of the waves tends to lessen, with larger gaps in between waves. As the weeks, months, and years pass by you will experience many ‘firsts’ as you navigate life without your loved one – your first dinner out, your first supermarket trip, your first birthday without them. In each of these moments it will be natural to feel their absence, and for waves of grief to be triggered again.

No right way, no wrong way

Powerful feelings of grief and loss are so normal and natural that they are usually not given a ‘diagnosis’ like other conditions such as anxiety or depression. There is no right way to grieve, and unfortunately, no quick fix. Although there are no short-cuts, there are things you can do to help yourself along the way. Judging and comparing yourself to how you ‘should’ be feeling can add to your suffering and pain. Start by learning to be patient, kind and understanding with yourself, like you would with a dear friend. This is a difficult journey, and treating yourself kindly can support you along the way.

The following series of blogs will focus on what might help us to get through the grieving process.

Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.


Book a counselling session today!



See also: Grief and Loss, Grief and RecoveryGrief after the death of a child