Frequently Asked Questions about Grief
Q: What is grief?
A: Grief is a healthy, normal response to the loss of something important. Although people typically associate grief reactions with the loss of a loved one, people can also experience grief in response to symbolic or social losses (e.g., ending a relationship or losing a job).1 Although people use the terms grief, bereavement, and mourning interchangeably, these terms have somewhat different meanings. More
Q: How does grief affect the mind and body?
A: People who are grieving may feel sadness, anger, anxiety, irritability, fear, hostility, loneliness, guilt, and long to be with the lost loved one. They may also experience confusion, preoccupation with the deceased, and uncertainty about the future, and may contemplate the purpose of life or feel as if a piece of them is missing.2 Physical problems may arise during times of grief, such as sleeping difficulties, changes in appetite, or increased health concerns. 1 When people are grieving they may withdraw socially, and have difficulty meeting obligations and responsibilities (e.g., parenting or work). 2
Q: Does everyone experience grief in the same way?
A: No. Some people experience brief reactions to their grief then quickly return to their normal level of functioning. For other people, the return to their normal level of functioning is more gradual. Up to 20% of individuals experiencing bereavement suffer from intense distress that can last for years following a loss.2 It has been reported that some people experience severe, delayed grief years after a loss, however this type of reaction is speculation and is not supported by research. It has also been suggested that failure to grieve following a significant loss is a sign of abnormality. However, the relative absence of distress following the death of a loved one is very common and there is no evidence that these people are maladjusted. 4
Q: Is bereavement a psychiatric disorder?
A: Bereavement is classified as a stressor that may be the focus of clinical attention, but it is not a mental disorder. This term is used identify and explain the symptoms of depression following a loss. Individuals should not be diagnosed with a Major Depressive Episode if their symptoms arise within two months of the loss of a loved one and when symptoms do not persist beyond the two months. 3
Q: What is the difference between normal and prolonged/complicated grief?
A: There are no research-based, widely supported criteria for distinguishing normal from prolonged or complicated grief. However, bereaved individuals typically struggle with moderate symptoms and have difficulty managing daily responsibilities. Most people who have experienced grief manage to struggle through and slowly, but gradually begin to return to their normal level of functioning. When someone is experiencing chronic grief, the symptoms are more intense, and daily life functioning is often more severely impaired for at least a year following a loss. This is when an individual should consider seeking treatment 4
Q: What resources are available for coping with grief?
A: Most grief reactions are considered normal and do not develop into a psychiatric disorder. Therefore, becoming educated, seeking support, and taking steps to maintain a healthy lifestyle are effective coping strategies. Most bereaved individuals are not likely to require clinical intervention.4 A small subset of people who suffer from a chronic or complicated pattern of grief may benefit from seeking medical help. View grief self-help tools.
If you develop a disorder, such as depression, anxiety, or a substance use disorder , help is available. Check out the resources for any of these specific disorders.
1National Cancer Institute, Bereavement (PDQ®).
2Bonanno, G. A., & Kaltman, S. (2001). The varieties of grief experience. Clinical Psychology Review, 21, 705-734.
3American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fourth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
4Mancini, A. D., & Bonanno, G. A. (in press). In J. E. Fisher & W. O'Donohue (Eds). Practitioner's guide to evidence-based psychotherapy. New York: Kluwer Academic.