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What Is Grief?

Grief is bigger than we'd ever expect. It usually lasts longer, and involves more of who we are, than we would guess, looking at it from the outside. Grief is big — and it's also the normal, natural response to the death of someone who was (and still is) very important in our lives.

Boy holding photo

Grief is different

When someone important to us dies, the feelings are different from anything else we know, unless we've already experienced a significant loss.

The death of someone close is not simply a single event that is over and done with. That death is the first day of weeks, months, years — a lifetime — of living without that person.

In the same way, grief is not just a reaction to the moment of the person's death. Grief is a reaction to trying to figure out every day how we're going to live without that very important person in our lives.

Expectations in Grief

  • Your grief will take longer than most people think.
  • Your grief will take more energy than you would have ever imagined.
  • Your grief will entail mourning not only for the actual person you lost but also for all of the hopes, dreams and unfulfilled expectations you held for and with that person, and for the needs that will go unmet because of the death.
  • Your grief will involve a wide variety of feelings and reactions, not solely those that are generally thought of as grief, such as depression and sadness.
  • You may experience grief spasms or acute upsurges of grief that occur suddenly with no warning.
  • You will have trouble thinking (memory, organization and intellectual processing) and making decisions.
  • You may feel like you are going crazy.

Grief is chaos

Grief is much more chaotic than a series of steps or "stages" that we travel through, one after another. More than anything, grief is just a mess. It encompasses more than we would expect — our feelings, our thoughts, our physical sensations, our other relationships, our self-image, our plans, our hopes, our dreams…. And it takes longer than we would expect to sift through all these areas in our lives and take stock of where we are now.

People generally expect that that they'll feel sad after a death. But it's hard to predict beforehand the tidal wave of so many feelings — and such strong feelings — happening in such a chaotic way.

That chaos, that not knowing what's going on, is normal. Grief is feeling out of control.

Grief is a new world

Chaos is normal because we're not just missing a person. We're trying to figure out a whole new life. We're trying to figure out where we fit in the world now that this person is no longer there, in the world with us.

When a person we love has died, we go through a door into a new world.

Grief is questions

Grief also brings up a lot of questions — Why did this happen? Was it my fault? Who am I? Where do I fit? Who else will die? Who will take care of me? What is life now? What is my life now? Why me?

Part of grief is the process of discovering answers to some of these questions, and discovering that some of these questions have no answers. Thinking through these questions, over and over, takes a long time.

Grief is your own personal natural disaster

Some at the Caring Place have said that after someone you love dies, it feels like you're in a dream. Others have said that it feels like you're falling into a big crack that has opened up in front of you, and you don't know how far you're going to fall or what it will be like when you land. Others talk about going through an emotional hurricane or tsunami when a loved one has died.

These are all ways of describing grief. What they have in common is that grief is big, strange, surprising, or even downright bizarre. But grief is also absolutely normal.

You can learn more about what you can expect as you or your child continues to grieve:

You can also learn more about support for yourself and your children: