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Understanding grief

Grief is the natural response to loss, and is made up of thoughts, feelings and actions that focus on the person who died. Because each relationship is unique, everyone grieves in their own way. It’s important to remember that children grieve differently from adults. Although grief is painful, it’s the form love takes when someone dies. Since love never dies, grief is permanent and we need to allow it to have a permanent place in our lives. Grief doesn’t need to remain powerful, it just needs a place. This section can help you understand what to expect when you are grieving.

Acute and Integrated Grief

Grief is your body’s natural response to loss. It usually starts out strong and painful and gradually lessens. Eventually it moves into the background, but it isn’t gone. You can name its intense form as acute grief and its lasting form as integrated grief.

During the early period after the death, it’s common to have strong feelings of longing and sadness. You might be overcome with disbelief, unable to reckon with the reality of loss. Thoughts and memories tend to focus on the person who died and it can be difficult to concentrate on anything else. You might feel confused or disoriented for a while. It takes time to regain your footing and to understand that it’s still possible to be happy. It takes time to restore feelings of meaning and purpose in your life.

It’s natural to feel many different emotions during acute grief. Grief takes many different forms and there is no right or wrong way to grieve. You might find it hard to think clearly and remember things. You might avoid things that make you feel too sad or find yourself daydreaming about the past. You may physically feel bad. You might feel disconnected from other people. 

Acute grief can make you feel very alone. You might lack a feeling of belonging, even in your own community. You might even feel like you don’t know who you are, like your life as you knew it, is over. It may be hard to think about things you care about or what you feel good about. People we love have a big impact on our lives and this is why grief is so intense.

Over time you will gradually adapt to a world that’s changed by the death of a loved one. You learn to adjust to the reality of the loss and regain feelings of enthusiasm and reconnect with others. Your life will have purpose. The future holds possibilities for joy and satisfaction. The intense emotional pain and sense of disbelief lessens. Memories of your loved one take on a bittersweet nature and may become comforting and no longer crowd out everything else. Your grief will change as you adapt to this loss. It stops being the main focus of your life. Instead grief is integrated into who you are and what you think and do. Grief still has a place in your life, but it’s often in the background.

Adapting to the loss of someone you love is a natural process, but it takes time. It’s important to treat yourself with kindness and compassion as you find ways to live in a changed world. You might need to remind yourself that your life is important, too.

Barriers to adapting

Some of the natural thoughts, feelings or actions of grief might interfere with your natural ability to adapt to a loss. When this happens, grief becomes persistent and intense and it’s difficult to function normally. You may begin to second guess yourself or someone else. You might have thoughts about how things could have been different or thoughts that the death was preventable. If these get a foothold in your mind they can become a barrier to adapting.

Trying hard to avoid reminders of the loss is another barrier to adapting. If you make a decision that the best way to manage your grief is by making a list of things you will never do, this can make it more difficult to adapt. If you feel you need to grieve all the time and don’t allow yourself some respite from emotional pain, that makes it hard to adapt, as well. 

If you find yourself with persistent intense grief you may assume your life has been irreparably damaged. You might believe it is not possible that you can ever feel better. Grief can dominate your life with no respite in sight.

Relationships with family and friends may flounder. Your natural support systems might dwindle as others begin to feel frustrated and helpless and withdraw their companionship. Professionals may be uncertain about how to help. If you are having this kind of grief experience, it’s possible you are experiencing prolonged grief. This means that something is interfering with your progress in adapting to the loss. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to grieve. If you are experiencing prolonged grief, you can still find a pathway to a future that seems promising.

GriefCare for Families can help people with grief, whatever its form. If you’re experiencing prolonged grief, you might also find it helpful to work with a therapist. GriefCare for Families is compatible with other forms of support. 

Certain times are especially difficult for grieving people

Regardless of whether it is acute, prolonged, or integrated, your grief might intensify at times of the year that are reminders that your friend or family member is gone. Holidays, birthdays and anniversaries can be difficult times. You might have difficult times even when you are coping well with the loss. This can be true for many years after the death. Difficult times can be predictable.


 What it means to adapt to loss

Adapting to loss means learning to live with changes your friend or family member’s death brings to your life. It means helping your family continue to thrive. Adapting is something we all do naturally when our life changes. Adapting to loss means finding a way to understand and accept the finality of the death and what it means to you. It means accepting a changed relationship with the person who died and envisioning a purposeful future with possibilities for joy and satisfaction.

Your family can thrive after a loss, too. As you find ways to live with the loss and the changes it brings, you can help your children adapt and thrive. Children adjust naturally to new situations. Families can thrive when parents and caregivers accept the changed reality and envision a promising future for themselves and their children.


Think about your grief and yourself. Click on the “Activities” tab for reflection questions.

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