Grief is a reaction to a major loss of someone or something. It is most often an unhappy and painful emotion.
Grief may be triggered by the death of a loved one. People also can experience grief if they have an illness for which there is no cure, or a chronic condition that affects their quality of life. The end of a significant relationship may also cause grieving.
Everyone feels grief in their own way. But there are common stages to the process of mourning. It starts with recognizing a loss and continues until a person eventually accepts that loss.
People's responses to grief will be different, depending on the circumstances of the death. For example, if the person who died had a chronic illness, the death may have been expected. The end of the person's suffering might even have come as a relief. If the death was accidental or violent, coming to a stage of acceptance might take longer.
One way to describe grief is in five stages. These reactions might not occur in a specific order, and can occur together. Not everyone experiences all of these emotions:
- Denial, disbelief, numbness
- Anger, blaming others
- Bargaining (for instance, "If I am cured of this cancer, I will never smoke again.")
- Depressed mood, sadness, and crying
- Acceptance, coming to terms
People who are grieving may have crying spells, trouble sleeping, and lack of productivity at work.
Exams and Tests
Your health care provider will perform a physical exam and ask about your symptoms, including your sleep and appetite. Symptoms that last for a while may lead to clinical depression.
Family and friends can offer emotional support during the grieving process. Sometimes, outside factors can affect the normal grieving process, and people might need help from:
- Mental health specialists
- Social workers
- Support groups
The acute phase of grief often lasts up to 2 months. Milder symptoms may last for a year or longer. Psychological counseling may help a person who is unable to face the loss (absent grief reaction), or who has depression with grieving.
It may take a year or longer to overcome strong feelings of grief and to accept the loss.
Complications that may result from ongoing grief include:
- Drug or alcohol use
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your provider if:
- You can't deal with grief
- You are using excessive amounts of drugs or alcohol
- You become very depressed
- You have long-term depression that interferes with your daily life
- You have suicidal thoughts
Grief should not be prevented because it is a healthy response to loss. Instead, it should be respected. Those who are grieving should have support to help them through the process.
Mourning; Grieving; Bereavement
American Psychiatric Association website. Trauma- and stressor-related disorders. In: American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. 2013:265-290.
Powell AD. Grief, bereavement, and adjustment disorders. In: Stern TA, Fava M, Wilens TE, Rosenbaum JF, eds. Massachusetts General Hospital Comprehensive Clinical Psychiatry. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 38.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Tips for survivors: coping with grief after a disaster or traumatic event. HHS Publication No. SMA-17-5035 (2017). store.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/d7/priv/sma17-5035.pdf. Accessed June 24, 2020.
Review Date 5/10/2020
Updated by: Fred K. Berger, MD, addiction and forensic psychiatrist, Scripps Memorial Hospital, La Jolla, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.