When you hear the word “grief,” you may primarily picture tears and sadness. However, grief can actually entail a number of different stages and symptoms–some of which we don’t always expect or recognize. There’s no single description for what grief feels like or looks like.
This means that grief can go unnoticed, and in turn, hurt our body and mind. Learning about the various ways grief can look and feel may help you identify them and take the first step toward healing.
So, what are the stages and symptoms of grief, including those that we may be less apt to accept? How can we come to terms with them and move through them?
Stages of grief (what grief looks like)
What we now call the five stages of grief were first widely suggested in the 1969 book titled “On Death and Dying” by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a late Swiss-American psychiatrist. Many people resonate with these stages as they move through grief or reflect on past grief.
The five stages of grief are:
This stage is exactly what it sounds like. It is when you have not yet had a chance to process the event and are in a state of disbelief.
This can take the form of thoughts like, “If I had done ___, they would’ve stayed.”
You may experience feelings of depression while you grieve. During this stage, one may experience loss of interest in activities, social isolation, irritability, fatigue, a down, low, or depressed mood, trouble sleeping, and more.
During this stage, feel angry that the event happened, or you may experience anger in a different capacity (for example, after a breakup, it may be anger toward another person).
During this stage, we begin to accept an event. This does not mean that you like what happened, and it’s not something to feel bad about, though some do experience feelings of grief or wonder if it’s okay to accept the event and live life “as usual,” so to speak. Instead, it means that you come to terms with it and start to move forward.
It can take time to reach acceptance.
Grief isn’t linear
One important piece of all of this is that grief isn’t linear. You may experience different stages off and on. Some of these stages feel either more or less “acceptable” than others, or you may feel that they are only acceptable for a certain period of time.
In reality, all of the stages of grief are valid, and it’s important to let yourself experience them as they arise. Furthermore, there’s no real “time limit” or time frame for how long each stage should last, or how long you should grieve as a whole.
Symptoms of grief (what grief feels like)
As for the symptoms of grief (AKA, the things you may experience emotionally, physically, or socially while you grieve), what might you notice? Grief impacts your body as well as your mind. Symptoms of grief can include but aren’t limited to:
- Isolation or feeling disconnected from other people
- Feelings of depression, emotional numbness, or hopelessness
- Feelings of guilt (this may be due to survivors’ guilt, a part of the bargaining stage, or something else)
- Increased substance use
- Body aches, pain, or muscle tension
- Changes in life perspective
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty sleeping
- Irritability or anger
- Jealousy or envy
- Mood swings
Which experiences are “ok” to grieve?
Although grief is most often something we reference and connect to the loss of a loved one or someone else in our life, it can actually apply to a number of different circumstances. Some examples of events that can lead to grief are physical illness, breakups or changes in interpersonal connections, including romantic breakups and changes in family life or friendships, job loss, and virtually anything else that prompts a change in your life.
Any grief you feel is valid, regardless of the cause. Whether we let ourselves feel grief or not, its impacts are still there, so it is better to allow it and move through it, even if it’s not necessarily easy. Emotional suppression can have negative physical and mental health consequences, which may suggest that it’s best not to push down grief.
What Is “Disguised Grief”?
Just as some stages or symptoms of grief can feel less acceptable, or even less understood by ourselves and others, some can be hard to identify as grief–and may relate to events far in the past. For example, if you experience emotional numbness, jealousy, anger, or cynicism, for no apparent reason, you may wonder, “what’s wrong with me?” Eventually you might realize that these symptoms are a direct response to your past experiences. This can be called disguised grief.
Have an outlet.
Once you acknowledge your feelings, what do you do to tend to them? It can help to have an outlet that helps you express and process your feelings. Many people find that writing or journaling has a positive effect. Physical activity, art, and other activities may also be valuable.
Take care of yourself.
It can be a challenge to engage in self-care and daily tasks when you grieve. However, lack of self-care can begin a vicious cycle in some cases. For example, you may find it difficult to clean your home, engage in personal hygiene, eat regularly, or something else. Take care of yourself in the best way you can, and don’t be afraid to take the easy way. For example, taking 15 minutes to clear your space, or even 5 or 10, can help decrease clutter. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Also, remember that one component of self-care can be to ask other people to help you – you don’t have to do it all on your own!
Share about what your grief feels like.
Social support can play a major role as individuals work to heal from grief. Studies suggest that social support can lead to positive outcomes such as a decrease in depression symptoms, an increase in life satisfaction, a decrease in feelings of loneliness, a decrease in psychological stress, a lower perception of physical pain, and positive physical health outcomes, like lower blood pressure. Support groups and time with friends or loved ones, as well as other forms of peer support, can be beneficial. For those who are able, and especially for those who experience severe symptoms of grief, professional support is proven helpful.
Remember that your process is unique, and make sure that you reach out to others to talk about how you feel.
No matter what your grief looks like, make sure to feel it.
Throughout the grief process, remember that emotions are healthy. Feeling your feelings is indeed a crucial aspect of taking care of your health, and when you don’t feel your feelings, there can be negative physical and mental impacts.
Grief is a painful but worthy experience, and it is important to connect socially and take good care of yourself in the process. In short, there’s no wrong way to grieve, and grief will look and feel different for everyone. However, there are things that can help. Even if it takes some time, or if things have been messy thus far, it is possible for things to get better.