Grief Basics


What is grief?

Grief is what happens to you on the inside when you lose something or someone. Grief happens to everyone. It happens when you lose one of your favorite things, when a friend moves away, and when someone dies. In the beginning, grief doesn't give you a choice—you will experience it.

What is mourning?

What you choose to do with your grief is called mourning. Mourning is how you express on the outside what you're experiencing on the inside—it's "grief gone public." You do have a choice about how to mourn, and it really matters what you choose to do with your grief.

"A Big Deep Hurt"

One way to understand grief and mourning is like this:

Let's say I walk out to my car and someone has left a broken bottle near where my car is parked. I accidentally trip and fall with my hand landing right on top of a big broken piece of glass. I get up and I have this big piece of glass sticking deep into my hand—I have a big deep hurt. This hurt is the grief. I didn't want it and didn't choose it, but it's there and it does hurt. What I choose to do about this big deep hurt is the mourning. I could just ignore it, think to myself, "I'm a big guy, this doesn't bother me," get in my car and drive away with the glass still in my hand and with blood running down my arm. Obviously, this would not be a good idea. If I ignore this big deep hurt, my hand could get infected, the infection could spread, I could get very sick and I might even lose my hand. It might be such a big hurt that I have to get some help from others to clean out the glass and gravel, stitch and bandage it up, and do exercises to help my hand learn to work again. Even if I do all this, I will still have a scar. This scar will always remind me of the hurt I had, and it can also remind me that healing took place to help the hurt get better. If I make some good choices, it won't hurt like it did in the beginning, but I will always remember it.

Grief Effects

A loss and the grief that comes with it can affect us in many different ways. It's different for each person, but here are some of the effects that many people have when they have a loss and grief:

  • Physical - Sleeping may change - sometimes it's hard to go to sleep or stay asleep, and sometimes a person can feel sleepy all the time. Appetites can change - some people eat more and some eat less than before. In grief some people get headaches, stomachaches, chest pains, and feel tired more often.
  • Thinking - Concentrating and remembering things can be harder to do, and sometimes this affects a person's schoolwork.
  • Emotions - Emotions and attitudes can be unpredictable - up and down like riding on a roller coaster or bungee jumping. In grief people can feel that their emotions are really out of control. Feeling out of control can be scary or feel "crazy" (but they're not "crazy" - it's just how grief can be).
  • Spiritual - A big loss, especially through death, can bring big questions like "Why did this happen?" or "What kind of world is it when something like this can happen?" Most spiritual leaders say it's OK to ask these questions and to talk about them with someone in your faith community or family.

How to Cope

Because everyone is different, there is no one way to cope with grief and to mourn. Below are some ideas about coping with loss and grief. The important thing is to do some of all of them - not just do one of them.

  • Denial - Many people talk about denial like it's always a bad thing, but everybody uses denial. Denial is when something just doesn't feel real in the beginning - we feel numb or in shock and we say, "I just can't believe it." It's OK to feel this way, especially in the beginning. Denial helps us to get used to the reality of the loss more gradually - we can't feel the pain all at once.
  • Distraction - It doesn't help anyone to think about loss and grief all the time - everyone needs a break. Part of coping is doing the things that you used to do like go to school, listen to music, go out with friends, do sports, watch movies and play games - sometimes doing these things even when you don'.
  • Deal with the grief - If you try to ignore and bury feelings before they're ready to go, it won't work. It's like in scary stories when someone buries someone who's not dead - the one who is buried comes back to haunt the person. Grief feelings are strong and ignoring them will just cause problems somewhere else in your life. This means that sometimes you will need to go with the feelings - talk about them, write about them, think about them, do things in memory of someone. You will need to find ways to mourn - ways that fit your grief.

There are no rules with grief. Life can get better. It may take a long time, and what you choose to do with that time matters. When we have a big loss, we don't "get over it", but we can learn to live with it.

Thank you to Alan Wolfelt for his concepts of grief and mourning adapted in the first sections above.