The experience of loss and grief is universal, and almost everyone will encounter it in some form or another during their lifetime. This experience is often difficult, and it can be challenging to face the accompanying emotions ourselves or comfort others when we do not have an adequate understanding of the process. Terms like grief, mourning, bereavement, and loss are often used interchangeably. However, there are nuances between these concepts worth exploring, as they can help us understand our own feelings and provide support to others who have lost a loved one.
Coping with loss
Loss is a difficult circumstance to process. It is often defined as separation from a valuable person in our lives. The impact of a loss can vary depending on how close a relationship was, how expected or unexpected this loved one’s death was, and other life factors like the surrounding support system—like friends and family—a person has. Often, a loss is a stressful, difficult, life-altering event. Naturally, a person’s response to loss will be complex, with an array of emotions that may change over time. Grief, mourning, and bereavement are all parts of this response.
What is grief?
Grief is a natural, and deeply personal, response to loss. Everyone experiences and expresses it differently. A person’s response may depend on their personality, upbringing, culture, religious background, age, or several other factors. The way teens deal with grief can look very different from an older adult’s response, and that is okay. There are many emotions that can accompany grief, such as shock, sadness, pain, anger, and anxiety. The expression of these feelings is called mourning, which will be explained in more detail below.
Regardless of how a person expresses their grief, the feeling itself is universal. Swedish psychologist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross studied this experience closely, eventually defining the five stages of grief commonly known today as “The Kübler-Ross Model.” While the model is a great starting point for understanding grief, it is important to note that there is no specific time stamp on how long each stage might or should last, and that each stage does not necessarily occur in this order.
The five stages of grief
- Denial. Denial may seem like a strange response at first, but it is actually a common defense mechanism to help reduce the impact of the sudden and intense flood of emotions. A person in the denial stage may feel numb, confused, or stunned. They may even question their belief systems or the meaning of life during this time, as the loss has upended their sense of reality. While there is no specific time that denial might last, this initial response provides the impacted person with an opportunity to gradually process this new reality.
- Anger. When denial subsides and the person impacted is met again with a difficult reality, it is not uncommon for them to respond in anger. Some people may look for someone or something to blame for the pain, or they may act in anger to mask the difficult emotions underneath. While anger is not always a pleasant emotion, it is important to find healthy ways to express it, and to ultimately make way for healing.
- Bargaining. Grief can trigger intense feelings of vulnerability and helplessness. A person grieving may find themselves looking for ways to change the situation or regain control over it. Some people may attempt to make deals with God or a higher power to change the outcome, and others may experience a sense of guilt or responsibility for the circumstance. Bargaining often manifests itself as “what if…” statements, like “What if I had done something differently?”
- Depression. Depression is one of the most commonly associated and accepted forms of grief. A person experiencing depression may withdraw from social interaction, cry often, have difficulty sleeping, or have feelings of hopelessness. This is a painful time, and it is important to find emotional support through friends, family, and counselors to get through it. Again, there is no length of time depression should or shouldn’t last. It cannot be rushed, and it is an essential part of the healing process.
- Acceptance. Acceptance is the final stage of grief, but reaching this stage does not mean a person is “over it.” Feelings of sadness and anger may linger, but at this stage, the affected person’s overall emotions will begin to stabilize. During the acceptance stage, a person may begin to re-engage with daily life activities like socializing with friends, attending events, and participating in recreational activities. However, bad days will still come. Grief is an ongoing emotion, and it never fully disappears. Over time, though, we can come to understand and make peace with this major life change.
Other symptoms of grief
As stated, the way people express grief can vary greatly. While the stages of grief are outlined clearly above, they may not present themselves so cut-and-dry in real life. Emotions may fade and re-emerge, overlap, change, and grow over time. This is normal, and the best thing we can do is find healthy ways to express them to allow ourselves to heal. If you are looking to identify external symptoms of grief, they may include:
- Frequent crying
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Changes in appetite
- Headaches or body aches and pains
- Existential questions (regarding life, spiritual beliefs, etc.)
- Detachment, isolation, and/or avoidance
- Worry and/or anxiety
- Anger, frustration, and/or irritability
- Mood swings
- Lack of interest
While this list does not cover every way in which grief can be externalized, it can be a starting point for helping you identify your own response to grief or supporting a loved one as they cope with their own grief. Although grief can make us feel lonely, it is important to remember that we do not have to shoulder it alone. It can be beneficial to meet and discuss your feelings with a grief counselor. Verbalizing our emotions can make them easier to process, and trained professionals can help us identify our emotions and find healthy ways to express them.
What is mourning?
While grief is the natural, internal response to loss, mourning is the outward expression of the emotions that come with grief. Although the two concepts are slightly different, they are closely tied. As stated, the way people express their grief, or mourn, can vary greatly. A person’s personality, culture, upbringing, religious background, and more can play a role in how they grieve or mourn.
Mourning is often associated with cultural customs that accompany a loss. This may be driven by religious traditions, family traditions, or a person’s heritage or country of origin. For example, wearing black is a common custom of mourning. While some people may wear black for an extended period of time, some may wear black only to a funeral, and others may not wear black at all. Some cultures and religious backgrounds may restrict wearing jewelry or decorative items or discourage loud crying or wailing, while others may encourage those actions.
Of course, cultural customs are only one part of mourning. The outward expression of grief can take many forms. That external expression is necessary for healing. To grieve internally without ever mourning externally would likely slow or halt the healing process.
What is bereavement?
Bereavement refers to the period of time that the person suffering the loss (the bereaved) faces grief and mourning. There is no set period of time bereavement should be, as each person will need to process grief in their own time.
While grief and mourning are part of bereavement, the term itself is often associated with our professional lives. The term “bereavement leave” may sound familiar. While there is no federal law that requires bereavement leave, many employers still offer some sort of policy to aid in this circumstance.
For those who have lost a loved one, taking bereavement leave can provide time to focus on logistical matters like arranging services, notifying the necessary people, sorting a will, and attending memorial services. However, bereavement leave can also help the affected person take the necessary time to process their emotions before jumping back into their daily routine.
If you are considering contacting your employer about bereavement leave, be sure to notify your employer as soon as possible. You may also want to review your workplace’s bereavement policy and work with HR, if you can, to ensure you take all the necessary steps to sort your affairs.
Grief, mourning, and bereavement are all important parts of a natural process. At Bateman-Allen Funeral Home, our experienced staff is committed to doing everything in our power to make your experience meaningful and memorable. Each family we serve is treated the way we would want our own families to be treated. Our goal is to lessen the burden on your family so that you can focus on celebrating your loved one’s life and begin the healing process. Contact us today.