Although death is the most common source of grief, there are many other kinds of losses that can trigger a grief reaction. Divorce or marital separation, relocation, news of a fatal illness, loss of physical or mental ability due to accident or disease and even unemployment are all common sources of grief. Grief affects us both emotionally and physically. Grief is expressed emotionally through feelings of:
- Denial: In the early days after the loss, you may find it hard to acknowledge that the person or thing is really gone.
- Anger: You may feel anger at the person or thing you lost for “letting you down.” Your anger may be directed at the doctor or hospital who cared for your loved one.
- Guilt: This feeling can range from regrets (“I should have spent more time with him/her”) to irrational thoughts (such as believing the person died because you left for a business trip).
- Despair: Once you’ve truly acknowledged the loss, a deep depression often sets in. You may feel intensely sad, cry often, have trouble sleeping, lose your appetite or eat more to comfort yourself.
Other emotional reactions include apathy about the loss (numbness), mental confusion and inability to make decisions, forgetfulness, and fearfulness. Anxiety/panic attacks are also common during a grief reaction.
Physical reactions to grief include sleep disturbances: appetite changes: lack of energy: and difficulty breathing. Grief also appears to weaken the immune system and cardiovascular systems, increasing vulnerability to infection and providing a medical basis for the phrase “died of a broken heart”.
While many researchers divide these reactions into “stages”, grieving is a very individual process. Some people many not exhibit these feelings, and it is important that families, friends and helping professionals do not interpret this as an absence of grief. No two people grieve exactly alike, and there is no “right” way to grieve.
There are many factors that influence the grief process. In addition to personality differences, the type of death (expected or unexpected, violent vs. peaceful); the relationship to the deceased (close or conflicted); as well as self-image, sense of control and even earning status (those with higher incomes and a positive self-image are often more depressed following a loss) have been linked to how we grieve.