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What is Grief?

This page contains more general information about grief and mourning, including symptoms, needs, coping, and tips for the bereaeved and for caregivers.

The reactions to a loss can be collectively described as grief. To grieve or mourn, is to experience a process which unfolds over a length of time.


Upon learning of the death of a loved one, each of us embarks on a journey of healing. Although at first it is characterized by painful feelings, once the realization of the death comes, the therapeutic process of bereavement begins. Shock and denial will overwhelm the bereaved individual before he or she begins what is usually called the “grief work”.


Grief is highly complex, but an absolutely normal reaction to a death. It affects each person differently. As their relationship was unique with the person who passed away, so too will be the way in which they grieve. Because grief is something that is so personal, it cannot be avoided by ignoring it or by frenetic activity. The grieving process must occur as there is no way around it; grieving is nature’s way of healing.


Symptoms of Grief

Overwhelming sadness

Inability to sleep

Appetite changes

Cry easily

Lack of desire to do anything


Feeling like you are going “crazy”




Inability to concentrate


Grief & Sleep

It is difficult to sleep during bereavement. A grieving person may have distressing thoughts about their loved one, such as regrets, worries, anxieties, or sadness about their time together or how they passed. If they shared their bed with the deceased loved one, it can be especially heartbreaking to sleep without them.


Advancing Better Sleep (link to: https://mindfulnessandgrief.com/grief-sleep/)


Grief vs. Mourning

(Adapted from Bold Steps: Achieving our Best in Bereavement Care by Jessica Easton and Toby Snelgrove)

Grief: The process of experiencing the psychological, behavioural, social, and physical reactions to the perception of loss.

Grief is experienced in four major ways:

  • Psychologically (through affects, cognitions, perceptions, attitudes, and philosophy/ spirituality)
  • Behaviourally (through personal action, conduct, or demeanour)
  • Socially (through reactions to and interactions with others)
  • Physically (through bodily symptoms and physical health)

Grief is a continuing development.

Grief is a natural, expectable reaction.

Grief is a reaction to all types of loss, not just death.

Grief is dependent upon the individual’s unique perception of loss.


Grief response expresses one or more of a combination of four things:

  • Feelings about the loss and the deprivation it causes (e.g. sorrow, depressions, guilt)
  • Protest at the loss and wish to undo it and not have it be true (e.g. anger, searching, preoccupation with the deceased)
  • Effects caused by the assault on the mourner as a result of loss (e.g. disorganization, confusion, fear and anxiety, physical symptoms)
  • Personal actions stimulated by the above (e.g. crying, social withdrawal, increased use of medication and/or psychoactive substances)


Mourning: The cultural and/or public display of grief through ones behaviours.

Mourning refers to the conscious and unconscious processes and courses of action that promote three operations, each with its own particular focus:

  • The undoing of the psychosocial ties binding the mourner to the loved one.
  • Adapt to the loss
  • Learn how to live in a healthy way without the deceased
  • Mourning involves processes related to the deceased, the self, and the external world.

The purpose of active grief and mourning is to assist the mourner in recognizing that the loved one is truly gone and making the necessary internal (psychological) and external (behavioural and social) changes to accommodate this reality. Grief helps the individual recognize the loss and prepare for the processes of mourning.


How to Ease Grief

Allow yourself to mourn

Realize your grief is unique

Talk about your grief

Expect to feel a multitude of emotions

Allow for numbness

Be tolerant of your physical and emotional limits

Develop a support system

Make use of ritual

Embrace your spirituality

Allow a search for meaning

Treasure your memories


The Mourner’s Six Reconciliation Needs

(Dr. Alan Wolfelt, PH.D., C.T., centerforloss.com)

Grief is what you think and feel on the inside after someone you love dies, whereas mourning is the outward expression of those feelings. To mourn is to be an active participant in our grief journey. We all grieve when someone we love dies, but to heal we must also mourn.

The “reconciliation needs of mourning” are six “yield signs” developed by Dr. Alan Wolfelt that people are likely to encounter on their journey through grief. All mourners must yield to these basic set of needs, even though each person’s grief journey will be very personal and unique.


Need 1. Acknowledging the reality of the death

The first need involves gently confronting the reality that someone you care about will never physically be back. This acknowledgment can take place over weeks or months, and it is important to be patient.


Need 2. Embracing the pain of loss

It is easier to avoid, repress, or deny the pain of grief than to confront it, yet in confronting our pain we learn to reconcile ourselves to it. Doing well with your grief means becoming well acquainted with your pain, however you should take your time and not overload yourself with hurt all at once.


Need 3. Remembering the person who died

“Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship” – Robert Anderson. You must allow and encourage yourself to pursue this relationship, because remembering the past makes hoping for the future possible.


Need 4. Developing a new self- identity

Part of self-identity is built from relationships with others, and when someone you have a relationship with dies, your self-identity naturally changes. The way you define yourself and the way society defines you changes (i.e. “wife” or “husband” to “widow” or “widower”). Every time you do something that used to be done by the person who died, you are confronting your changed identity.


Need 5. Searching for Meaning

It is natural to question the meaning and purpose of life after someone you love dies. This is normal and part of your journey toward renewed living.


Need 6. Receiving ongoing support from others

The quality and quantity of understanding support received will have a major influence on your capacity to heal. You should not try to do this alone, drawing on the experiences and encouragement of others is not a weakness but a healthy human need. Because mourning takes place over time, this support must be available months and even years after the death of someone in your life.


Grieving During the Holidays and Special Occasions

The Delta Hospice society has compiled some resources for getting through special occasions while grieving.

Coping with Special Days and Holidays - A list of helpful tips to guide you through the occasion.

3 Cs of Coping with the Holidays - Fantastic article by Kenneth J. Doka (Courtesy Hospice Foundation of America) on getting through special occasions and holidays while grieving.

A Widow's Story - A lovely story about what it's like to be a widow during the Christmas season; written by by Lisa Scott, an editor of the Globe & Mail.

Helping Grieving Children Handle the Holidays - Adapted from an article by Ralph Klicker, some helpful advice for grieving children.

The Holiday Help List - A fantastic checklist that can help you prepare for any holiday situation.

Anticipating the Holidays and Special Occasions While Grieving - A lovely video put together by Debra Wolinsky M Ed, RCC, Bereavement Counsellor and Program & Team Lead and Kristen Shin MTA, Music Therapist at the Delta Hospice Society.


For Caregivers


5 Tips For You to Help the Grieving

(Jane Galbraith, BScN, R.N., theadventurouswriter.com)


Who hasn’t heard or said themselves “I just don’t know what to say” or “I feel so helpless – there’s nothing I can do!! Well, there are things that you can do or say to help those in pain due to the death of a loved one. We can help; and not just in little ways, and it makes a tremendous difference to those we see in pain.


Talk about the person who has died. We may not want to mention the loved one who died to grieving friends because we don’t want to upset them. But, people love to speak the name of the person they lost! To not talk about them as if they have never existed is very distressing to your friend who is grieving. Speaking about lost loved ones may produce tears, but it’s often more comforting than feeling that the name can never be mentioned. So, when your friend loses a loved one, don’t be afraid to talk about him or her.


Ask your friends how they feel – and don’t let them get away with “I’m fine.” We are so polite in our society that we don’t want to burden others with our problems. Ask your friend how they feel many months after the death. In the beginning, people are in shock and the pain sometimes takes months to hit. By then the world feels you should be “getting over it”! To support mourning friends, don’t just ask when you see them at work or at a social function. Pick up the phone and call.


Acknowledge that it’s a difficult time when your friend loses a loved one. It takes an enormous amount of energy to “be strong” or look “normal.” Many would win Oscars for their performances, looking and acting as they did before so their friends would not be uncomfortable. In actuality they are trying to discover what their new “normal” is, and that takes time. Just because people look good doesn’t mean they feel good, so don’t let the façade fool you. Your mourning friend may need someone to acknowledge that this is a difficult time. To learn the importance of expressing grief, read tips for grieving widows or widowers.


Avoid clichés about “getting on with life” and “getting over it” because they irritate your friends who have lost a loved one. They know these expressions do not represent the reality. They won’t get over it, but they will learn to live with it or adjust to their new world. Your mourning friend isn’t just dealing with the absence of the person they loved, but also how that person affected their lives, and the loss of future plans and dreams. Continue to love your friend as he/she changes and adapts to a new world.


Keep supporting your mourning friends by reaching out. Sometimes they don’t know what they need and don’t have the energy to figure it out, so it would be better if you figure out what your friend needs and just do it. If it is an invitation to go somewhere, don’t be offended if you are turned down. Keep asking. Every day is different and by continuing to ask you are staying in touch and connecting with someone who is in pain. Continuing to invite someone will let him or her know you are there for him or her and you care.


Eleven Tenets of Companioning the Bereaved

(Dr. Alan Wolfelt, PH.D., C.T., centerforloss.com)


Tenet One: Companioning is about being present to another person’s pain; it is not about taking away the pain.


Tenet Two: Companioning is about going to the wilderness of the soul with another human being; it is not about thinking you are responsible for finding the way out.


Tenet Three: Companioning is about honoring the spirit; it is not about focusing on the intellect.


Tenet Four: Companioning is about listening with the heart; it is not about analyzing with the head.


Tenet Five: Companioning is about bearing witness to the struggles of others; it is not about judging or directing these struggles.


Tenet Six: Companioning is about walking alongside; it is not about leading or being led.


Tenet Seven: Companioning is about discovering the gifts of sacred silence; it does not mean filling up every moment with words.


Tenet Eight: Companioning is about being still; it is not about frantic movement forward.


Tenet Nine: Companioning is about respecting disorder and confusion; it is not about imposing order and logic.


Tenet Ten: Companioning is about learning from others; it is not about teaching them.


Tenet Eleven: Companioning is about compassionate curiosity; it is not about expertise.


Links to Online Resources About Loss – General


Living Through Loss Counselling Society of BC

Living Through Loss Counselling offers professional grief counselling and emotional support to anyone who is experiencing stress due to life change or loss.


Lower Mainland Grief Recovery Society

The Lower Mainland Grief Recovery Society provides support groups for the bereaved in the greater Vancouver area.


Creating Memorial Albums After Loss

How to make a memorial album after loss.


Grieving and Ritual Podcast

Author and activist Sobonfu Somé on the importance of grieving and ritual.


Roberts Press

Roberts Press provides information and resources on grief and bereavement.


Recommended Reading – General


Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing in Your Heart, by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.


Grief One Day at a Time: 365 Meditations to Help You Heal After Loss, by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.


Finding the Words: How to Talk with Children and Teens About Death, Suicide, Funerals, Homicide, Cremation, and Other End-of-Life Matters, by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.


Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss, by Patrick O'Malley PhD and Tim Madigan.


Life After Loss: A Practical Guide to Renewing Your Life after Experiencing Major Loss, by Bob Deits


Grief is a Journey: Finding Your Path Through Loss, by Kenneth Doka


No Enemy to Conquer: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World, by Michael Henderson


Facilitating with Heart: Awakening Personal Transformation and Social Change, by Martha Lasley


See more reading options at www.centerforloss.com/bookstore/ for more books by grief counselor and educator Dr. Alan Wolfelt.