Loss and grief

Learn about the responses to grief and ways you can cope after the death of a loved one or another significant loss.

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A natural response to loss

Grief is a natural response to losing someone or something that’s important to us. Most of us will experience grief at one time or another. It can trigger all kinds of emotional responses that can sometimes be overwhelming or unexpected – and they’re not right or wrong. Many factors influence how individuals experience and work through grief. Here’s just a partial list of considerations that make each person’s grief unique:

  • Circumstances
  • Life experiences
  • Age – of the person who died and of the bereaved
  • Feelings of attachment to other human beings
  • Culture
  • Spiritual beliefs
  • Coping strategies
  • Resilience
  • Personality 

What it might look like

Symptoms of grief can include things like:

Grief can also show up as physical symptoms like:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Aches and pains
  • Insomnia

Because the grieving process can take several months to a year and beyond to work through, it’s perfectly natural that grief will come to work with us. It may show up as:  

  • Low motivation
  • Trouble making decisions
  • Memory loss
  • Withdrawal from collaboration or social interaction
  • Crying or other strong emotions at unexpected, and sometimes less than ideal, times

Grief can be a painful process. It’s important we understand this and be kind to ourselves as we go through the very natural emotions and other responses. They help us move forward with life. 

It’s not just the loss of a loved one

Though losing a loved one is one of the most painful sources of grief, grief can occur whenever we lose anything important to us.

You may experience strong feelings of grief when:

  • A loved one (partner, family member or friend) dies
  • A serious relationship ends
  • A loved one is seriously ill

However, we can experience grief to varying degrees for other losses, like:

  • The end of a friendship
  • Disability, illness or injury
  • A change to the health of someone you love
  • Moving to a new location
  • Job loss, work relocation or change in job role
  • The death of a pet 
  • The death of someone you looked up to that you never met
  • Pregnancy, birth of a child or going back to work after a maternity leave
  • Having a child leave home
  • The loss of a dream or goal that was important to you, including dreams for your loved ones such as marriage or children
  • A change in financial situation
  • A change in habits or responsibilities including the end of a caregiver role

Whatever loss you’ve experienced, its important to know it’s okay to feel how you feel. In fact, acknowledging the loss is an important part of the grieving process.

Grief touchstones

Dr. Alan Wolfelt is a well-known grief expert whose work is often quoted and used by the bereaved and those who support them. Dr. Wolfelt identified 10 touchstones – or benchmarks – he describes in Understanding Your Grief as “essential physical, emotional, cognitive, social and spiritual actions for you to take if your goal is to heal in grief and to find continued meaning in life”: 

  • Open to the presence of your loss.
    • Honouring the pain and suffering of your grief isn’t self-destructive – it’s necessary to working through grief.
  • Dispel misconceptions about grief.
    • There are 10 misconceptions. Here’s a few:
      • Grief and mourning progress in predictable, orderly stages. It’s inaccurate to think about dying, grief and mourning this way – and trying to follow this model can harm a grieving person.
      • After someone you love dies, the goal should be to get over your grief as soon as possible. You don’t get over your grief; you learn to live with it.
      • Nobody can help you with your grief. The opposite is true. Social support is key. 
  • Embrace the uniqueness of your grief. 
    • No one will grieve exactly the way you grieve. Explore what makes your grief unique and consider taking a one-day-at-a-time approach so you can mourn at your own pace.
  • Explore your feelings of loss.
    • Rather than seeing your feelings as strange, denying them or feeling victimized by them, recognize and learn from them.
  • Recognize you’re not crazy.
    • Thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing may seem crazy. Often, what’s unusual in life is common in grief.
  • Understand the 6 needs of mourning.
    • Unlike stages, these central needs of the bereaved aren’t orderly or predictable:
      • Accept the reality of the death.
      • Let yourself feel the pain of the loss.
      • Remember the person who died.
      • Develop a new self-identity.
      • Search for meaning.
      • Let others help you – now and always. 
  • Nurture yourself.
    • Self care doesn’t mean you’re feeling sorry for yourself or being self-indulgent. Allowing ourselves time and loving attention as we grieve helps us find meaning in our continued living.
  • Reach out for help.
    • Embrace support from people in your life who are caring, nonjudgmental listeners.
  • Seek reconciliation, not resolution.
    • Your grief journey never truly ends. It’s essential that you mourn intentionally by going through your grief – not around it.
  • Appreciate your transformation.
    • Grief changes us. While you’d rather avoid a significant loss in your life, you’ll grow and be forever changed from the experience. 

Types of grief

We can experience many types of grief:

Normal grief

  • A broad range of responses to loss that can sometimes be marked by intense distress
  • Usually moves a grieving person towards reconciliation with the loss

Anticipatory grief

  • Reaction to an event you can anticipate or predict so the grieving process begins before the loss itself
  • May occur when a person is diagnosed with a terminal or long-term illness

Chronic or complicated grief

  • Severe feelings of loss that last a long time, impact daily functioning or are debilitating
  • Can often link to other mental health concerns like anxiety and depression

Delayed grief

  • Conscious or subconscious avoiding or burying of feelings that come with grief

Distorted grief

  • Intense, extreme or atypical responses to a loss
  • May look like anger towards oneself or others 
  • Behaviour may look odd and even self-destructive

Cumulative grief

  • Can happen when a person experiences additional loss while still grieving the initial loss 

Exaggerated grief

  • Grief that intensifies and can cause reactions like:
    • Nightmares
    • Self-destructive behaviours
    • Substance use
    • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide
    • Abnormal fears or developing mental illness

Masked grief

  • Occurs when the person experiencing the symptoms doesn’t recognize these as related to the loss
  • Symptoms may be disguised as physical symptoms or problematic behaviours

Disenfranchised grief

  • Can happen when a person feels their response to loss is not valid to others. This could be because their culture or support network deem the loss to be insignificant or shameful.  
  • Examples of disenfranchised losses could result from:
    • Overdose
    • Suicide
    • Sibling loss
    • Death or break-up of a same-sex relationship
    • Death of or end of a relationship with a lover married to someone else
    • End of a relationship because of infidelity
    • Miscarriage
    • Abuse
    • Death of pets

Traumatic grief

  • Loss is associated with an event that’s scary, unexpected, violent or otherwise traumatic
  • Normal grief can be combined with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Collective grief

  • A group of people experience a shared loss, like:
    • Death or dismissal of a team member
    • Natural disaster
    • Terrorist attack
    • Any event that leads to mass casualties or tragedy

Grief is a normal response to loss. It may be helpful to reach out to a family doctor, therapist or grief counsellor for support if you also experience signs of trauma or any of the following symptoms: 

  • Difficulty with daily functioning, like keeping to routines, going to work or cleaning your house
  • Feelings of depression that last most of the time for more than 2 weeks
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide
  • Intense feelings of guilt or self-blame

Adjusting to loss

The grieving process can last anywhere from between a few months to a year – and longer. You may feel better on some days and then have a “grief wave” with difficult emotions or thoughts. That’s perfectly natural; healing from a loss isn’t a linear process and it takes time. It can be tempting to withdraw, or you may feel like your grief is a burden to others, but it’s important to not isolate yourself.

You may lean towards unhealthy coping strategies like eating junk food or using substances like alcohol or cigarettes to numb your emotions. This is unhelpful and can make the grieving process last longer. Instead, try some of these healthier coping strategies:

  • Turn to friends and family for support – even if you’re not the type of person to share how you’re feeling or ask for help
    • It’s important to have a network of support where you can talk honestly about your loss
    • Distraction or light-hearted fun with friends can help you get through the rough patches
    • Understand others may be uncomfortable or have their own experiences of grief
      • Remember they usually mean well and want to do the best they can to support you but may not know what to say or do
      • If you can, tell them what you need, like whether you wish to discuss your loss, be invited to social gatherings or engage in small talk
  • Process your feelings
    • Keep a journal to write how you feel
    • Take time to reflect on difficult or painful experiences from your past and how you overcame or coped with those
    • Focus on happy memories about whomever or whatever you’ve lost
  • Maintain hobbies and interests
    • It may not be easy at first but taking time for activities that bring you joy or help you relax is an important part of feeling like yourself again
  • Take care of your physical health – you can better manage difficult emotions if you:
    • Eat healthy food
    • Stay hydrated
    • Keep active
    • Get enough sleep
  • Join a support group
    • Being with people going through what you are can help you work through difficult
  • Slow down your decision-making processes
    • Avoid making big personal or professional life changes for several months or up to a year – grief can impact your ability to be objective
    • Some people experience a crisis of faith after a major loss – if that’s you, reach out to someone in your faith community to seek guidance

Everyone has their own coping style, so do what feels right for you.

At work it can help to:

  • Request extra breaks, a flexible schedule or time off to attend to your personal needs or to see a counsellor or therapist
  • Ask if you can avoid taking on new projects if you feel you would not be able to absorb additional information.
  • Ask co-workers to write down or email important information for you if you feel like your concentration and memory aren’t at their best
  • Keep your supervisor aware of how you’re doing
  • Plan for what might trigger strong emotions

Supporting a grieving co-worker

Understanding the grieving process and being there to support a co-worker can make a big difference to their healing process. Here are some ways you can let them know you’re there for them:

  • Acknowledge their grief and take time to listen by saying:
    • How are you coping?
    • How can I help?
    • How are you doing today?
  • Give them a chance to talk – and to be quiet
  • Offer to pick up work responsibilities if they need to sort out personal matters or attend appointments
  • Take them a healthy meal while they’re on leave or bring it to the office when they’re back at work
  • Withhold judgment when they express difficult emotions—even if they don’t come at the “right moment”

You aren’t a therapist. You can’t make their painful feelings go away. You can take the time to show you care and offer compassion throughout their healing journey. This is a powerful way to show support.

Additional resources

Grief response for leaders. Learn how to support your employees during loss and while at work. Effective strategies can help employees who are experiencing grief remain productive while they heal. 

Someone you care about is grieving. Questions and strategies to help you have a supportive conversation when someone you care about is grieving.Questions and strategies to help you have a supportive conversation when someone you care about is grieving.

Grieving in the Workplace: Cope with Loss

Types of Grief.

Contributors include.articlesAlex Kollo Coaching and ToolsJulie MaltbyMary Ann Baynton

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