Periodic Trends: Grief and Loss

Graphic by Kathryn Messinger

Graphic by Kathryn Messinger


Grief: it is a subject we will all inevitably face at some point in our lives.

Whether it’s caused by the death of a loved one, a breakup, the loss of a pet or some other unfortunate occurrence, it’s an emotion, or amalgamation of many emotions, that varies in duration and intensity between individuals. Grief is not some disease or disorder that can be “treated” or “cured.” The grieving process must be allowed to run its course over time and is a natural part of life.

Most societies would agree that grief is associated with complex emotions, such as sadness, anger, hopelessness, confusion, fear, anxiety and guilt. Physical effects such as fatigue, insomnia, irritability, difficulty concentrating and weight fluctuations due to loss of appetite or stomach knots are common. In some cases, a form of heart failure called takotsubo cardiomyopathy occurs in patients due to stress and anxiety — it is otherwise referred to as “broken-heart” syndrome, but is thankfully fixable.

Animals such as dogs, gorillas, dolphins and elephants grieve the loss of other individuals and recognize any loss with their own customs such as depression, crying and holding the dead. Even as a kid you may remember grieving for a hamster. Unfortunately, grief becomes more common and complicated with age and experience.

How an individual grieves depends upon the circumstances. The death of an elderly individual elicits a different response than the death of a child. A sudden breakup may be completely different than one after daily arguments and problems.

There are several types of grief that exist according to psychologists, including anticipated grief, unanticipated grief and ambiguous grief. Anticipated grief is when loss is just around the corner, like a terminal illness or lots of fighting in a relationship. Some psychologists believe many emotions have been felt before the loss, so the period necessary to recover is lessened. Unanticipated grief is unexpected, like an accident and therefore the grief may be more sudden and severe. Finally, ambiguous grief offers a paucity of or even no closure to the individual. This may include a pet running away, abandonment as a child or suicide of a loved one.

The response, length and severity an individual has to any type of grief depends on factors like closeness of the relationship, coping abilities, resiliency, past experience and support. Many know the outlined five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, although the model is more complex than that— you may be in two stages at once, skip a stage, go out of order or back and forth.

There is also a difference between grief and trauma. Trauma may feel like a nightmare characterized by terror, whereas grief is a reality trademarked by sadness. It’s normal to hurt when grieving, but fear of danger and panic attacks aren’t. If left untreated, trauma can worsen with disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, whereas grief should run its course.

Professionals advise people to not grieve alone and to avoid suppressing emotions. It only prolongs the process, while friends and family help the individual in bereavement heal quicker and healthier. It is important to eat well, get exercise and plenty of sleep. While channeling sadness in a constructive way, by writing in a journal, working on a scrapbook or creating a memorial, can be helpful, alcohol and drug use are heavily discouraged.

Anyone experiencing symptoms including thoughts of suicide, anxiety, aggression, sleeping or eating problems, lack of social interest, self-destructive attitudes or feelings of guilt for several months should contact a professional. Normal grief is not a psychological problem or disorder. The depression that may result for an extended period of time, however, is a disorder.

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