It is natural to feel a wave of sorrow and despair after losing someone or something important to you. Grief is a universal human experience, but offering support can feel uncomfortable and daunting.
Whether you are healing from a loss or supporting a loved one through their grieving process, here is everything you need to know about recognizing and moving through 12 types of grief, plus specific ways to provide support in different situations.
Disclaimer: Grief is a serious experience that shouldn’t be taken lightly. If you or someone you know is struggling to find the help you need, please note that all content found on this website is not to be considered professional medical advice. It is always best to consult a licensed therapist or grief counselor to help you or a loved one move through the grieving process. You can check out Mental Health America’s helpful list of good resources for therapists.
What is Grief?
Grief is a feeling of deep anguish, sorrow, or despair caused by the significant loss of someone or something you love. It is a normal and natural reaction to loss. Grief most commonly comes from the death of a loved one, but it can also be caused by:
- Going through a divorce
- Losing people due to divergent life paths
- Experiencing a natural disaster
- Experiencing a traumatic event (such as a war or pandemic)
- Experiencing discrimination or hate crimes
- Regretting a major decision
- Getting diagnosed with an illness
- Ending a significant chapter of one’s life (by moving, breaking up, etc.)
- Losing a pet or non-human companion
- Losing a part of one’s identity (such as a job, old version of yourself, etc.)
Signs and Symptoms of Grief
Grief is an intense emotional state that can completely destabilize your life as you know it. It can feel overwhelming and even incapacitating. Many of us did not learn how to cope or overcome grief healthily.
Fortunately, psychologists and therapists are helping the general public become more aware of the signs of grief in our friends, families, coworkers, and ourselves. Recognizing these signs of grieving can help us feel less alone and more equipped to support each other.
Mental symptoms of grief
Mental health struggles are becoming less stigmatized, but the darker side of grieving is still under-recognized. When someone is grieving, it often seems like the topic is avoided altogether. This is why it’s so important to recognize changes in people’s behavior so that we can be better friends and supporters. Someone who is grieving may feel one or all of these mental symptoms, but they may not always show them.
- Intense feelings of sorrow or sadness: Sadness is a fundamental and natural emotion that people shouldn’t suppress. It is normal to cry, sob, and feel sorrow after a loss. Toxic positivity doesn’t help anyone move through grief. But note that while there is a clear link between depression and grief, not all feelings of sadness are necessarily signs of depression.
- Anger: Anger is a well-known grief phase that can appear unexpectedly. For example, someone who is usually very patient could be easily triggered or frustrated by seemingly small things. While it’s unhealthy for people to take out their anger on their loved ones, showing grace and patience for someone grieving is also important.
- Forgetfulness or inability to focus: Brain fog or a failure to think straight is completely normal after facing a major loss. The emotional mind becomes overwhelmed and may get caught in a “fight or flight” panic mode. This makes it hard to “turn on” the prefrontal cortex, where logic and reasoning are processed.
- Guilt: Some people feel guilty or responsible for a loss or for not being able to recover quickly enough. Researchers assert that grief guilt is normal, but it is an unnecessary burden. It’s important to forgive yourself as you grieve a loss.
- Low self-esteem: Feeling confident when you feel super sad is undeniably challenging. And you don’t have to! Avoid negative self-talk like “I’m so pathetic” or “I look so ugly” with positive reminders like “I am doing my best” and “I give myself the freedom to grieve, and I know I’ll return to my normal self soon.” Here are 20 Ideas to Build Self-Esteem.
- Loneliness: Losing a spouse or a close family member can make life seem lonelier. Leaning on a support system during this grieving process is more important than ever. Here are 10 Tips to Deal With Loneliness and Depression.
Physical symptoms of grief
If the mental anguish of grief isn’t enough, the body can quickly respond to psychological changes. These responses to the mind-body connection are clear reminders of why self-care is vital during grieving.
- Lack of sleep and insomnia: Lack of sleep is one of the most common symptoms of grief. While the underlying causes for insomnia vary, a study of bereaved college students found that nighttime rumination and dreams of the deceased were the most common sleep disruptors. Researchers have found that insomnia can cause prolonged grief, but sleep improvement treatments show promise for reducing symptoms of grief.
- Impaired immunity: Spiritual leaders have taught for centuries about the links between emotional state and physical health, but scientists have recently found a clear link between mental health problems and immunity. Stress can dramatically increase inflammation and make it more difficult for your body to fend off sickness.
- Digestive problems: The cascade of stress hormones released during the grieving process often results in intense gut upsets that can lead to indigestion, diarrhea, nausea, or a loss of appetite. Most people don’t realize that their mental state is closely correlated with their digestion due to the gut-brain axis. The vagus nerve connects millions of neurons in the stomach to the brain, which means that the microorganisms in your GI tract quickly respond to a grieving mind. Many mindfulness exercises like EFT tapping can help reduce stress hormones and tone the vagus nerve to calm the stomach.
- Aches and pains: Mental pain can manifest as physical pains throughout the body, including back pain, neck pain, muscle aches, and unexplainable soreness. This natural reaction to grief may be alleviated through physical care like stretching, yoga, massage, or exercise.
- Overindulgence or addiction: In an attempt to numb or avoid the symptoms of grief, some people engage in addictive behaviors with alcohol, substances, overeating, gambling, sex, or other harmful behaviors. Psychologists note that trauma and grief-related addiction shouldn’t be seen as a weakness but as neurobiological illness that typically needs professional help. If you or someone you love is returning to an old addiction or forming a new one, the SAMHSA National Helpline is a free resource for finding help.
Grief is undeniably tragic and often traumatizing, whether you experience a few or all of these symptoms. But it’s important to remember that there is a silver lining in the clouds. Researchers Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun discovered an interesting phenomenon called post-traumatic growth in over 50% of trauma and grief survivors.
Post-traumatic growth is a positive mental shift after experiencing adversity.
Here is an actionable guide on Post Traumatic Growth: How to Move Forward When Bad Things Happen.
12 Types of Grief
Grief is a universal experience that surpasses cultural and linguistic barriers. However, everyone processes grief very differently.
To help people healthily move through the grieving process, psychologists have defined 12 different types of grief based on specific experiences and mental states. Identifying these types of grief in yourself and others can help you find healing strategies that work.
#1 Normal grief
Normal or “uncomplicated” grief describes the typical feelings of loss after the death of a loved one or a challenging life event. This type of grief improves with time as someone learns to cope with their loss and return to everyday life.
The intensity and length of time vary among people and cultures. In some cultures, there is a designated period of mourning followed by a ritual of honoring and releasing the deceased.
Scientists agree that there is no concrete or productive way to judge someone’s grief. However, a mental health clinician can determine if grief is “normal” by assessing whether a person is adapting to their grief and progressively improving over some time.
Note that “normal” grief does not imply that other types of grief are “abnormal” or shameful. It is the most common type because it has a clear cause and effect.
#2 Complicated grief
Complicated grief occurs when grief is unresolved or highly traumatic. It is an intense, long-term impairment of daily life caused by grieving for an extended period. One study found that complicated grief significantly affects social interactions, professional life, and mental and physical health in ways that alter an individual’s regular functioning far beyond the stages of “normal grief.”
Psychiatrists assert that one way to differentiate between normal grief and complicated grief is a person’s level of long-term coping skills. They may be dealing with complicated grief if:
- Grief symptoms stagnate or worsen with time
- They lack coping mechanisms or practice maladaptive coping (for example, excessive alcohol consumption or self-destructive habits)
- They cannot return to regular daily functioning in the months and years after the loss (e.g., the grief is disabling their ability to live their life)
- Psychiatric complications like major depression appear in the period after grieving
Ultimately, complicated grief can be highly traumatic and needs to be worked through with a mental health professional.
#3 Absent grief
According to the American Psychological Association, absent grief is a form of complicated grief where someone doesn’t seem to respond to a significant loss. They may experience denial or shock from a sudden loss and have an impaired response that makes it look like they are grieving. This is called absent grief because there is an apparent absence, suppression, or numbing of emotions.
Whether due to denial, avoidance, or a lack of coping skills, those who are absently grieving show little to no signs of distress after losing someone or something close to them. Some people keep moving through their life as if nothing happened. Absent grief can lead to delayed grief, where someone grieves their loss several months or years after the event.
#4 Delayed grief
It is considered delayed grief when someone’s grieving reaction doesn’t happen for a long time after a loss. This could happen when someone doesn’t have the proper time to grieve, for example:
- They are too busy caring for a young child at the same time as a parent passes away.
- They are forced to relocate and return on their feet after losing their home in a natural disaster.
- They are overwhelmed by the loss and suppress or avoid their challenging emotions.
The symptoms of grief may reappear down the line when triggered by another loss or negative experience. Sometimes this happens several years later. This could lead to a cascade of mental health struggles because they couldn’t process the grief immediately after their loss.
This is why being patient with yourself or your loved one as they move through the emotional process of grieving is essential. In most cases, it is healthier to face the discomfort and sadness now instead of putting it off until later.
#5 Anticipatory grief
Contrary to grieving a shocking or unexpected loss, anticipatory grief is felt in anticipation of a major loss. This type of grief is most common among families of cancer patients and caregivers of terminally ill loved ones. They begin to envision their life without that person and prepare for it to happen.
Anticipatory grief can also happen with looming negative changes, such as
- Upcoming layoffs at your company
- An impending divorce or breakup
- Diagnosis of a terminal illness in you or a loved one
#6 Collective grief
Collective grief is when an entire community or large group of people experience suffering at the same time. For example, the 2019-2020 pandemic involved collective grief as the entire world mourned the loss of loved ones and the loss of their old lives as they knew them.
Collective grief can also happen generationally as traumatic experiences of systemic racism or poverty pass down through families. For example, one study from the University of Arizona found that collective grief amongst Black Americans amidst racial violence has led to traumatic bereavement across the population.
Collective grief experiences can occur during and after:
- A natural disaster
- War or tragedy
- Racial discrimination
- A terrorist attack
- A health pandemic
- Death of a public figure
#7 Disenfranchised grief
Disenfranchised grief is when someone’s grieving process is not recognized as legitimate by the surrounding culture. Also known as hidden grief, this form of sorrow is often unacknowledged or misunderstood.
Disenfranchised grief could include grieving:
- Death of a pet
- A breakup from a toxic relationship
- Job loss or layoffs
- Death of someone you do not know
This type of grief can be complicated because it comes with guilt and shame. It may not make sense to other people why you are so upset. It can feel like society is minimizing your grieving by causing the loss to seem small.
For example, if someone lost a sibling in a car wreck, their grief may seem more intense than someone who lost their dog to cancer. It’s important to remember that both forms of grief are entirely valid and could affect people differently. You never know the whole story.
There is no “win” in playing the grief Olympics. Everyone experiences different losses, and minimizing someone’s grief can only worsen the situation.
Pro Tip: Emotional validation is a great strategy for helping people overcome disenfranchised grief. Avoid saying, “Other people have it so much worse” or “Your loss is no big deal compared to when I lost ___.” This is toxic and unproductive. Instead, validate someone’s feeling of loss by reminding them, “It must be tough to go through this. While I can’t relate, I understand your pain and am here for you.”
If you are moving through your disenfranchised grief, provide yourself with that same verification. You can practice positive inner self-talk with phrases like, “This is a major loss for me, and my grief is fully justified. I promise to care for myself as I would care for a loved one.”
#8 Distorted grief
Distorted grief occurs when people transmute sorrow into an extreme reaction like anger or hostility. People may lash out when they have a difficult time processing their loss. For example, a child who lost a parent may engage in violent behavior at school, like instigating fights or displaying intense anger at the world.
While aggressive behavior toward others is never justified, showing grace to people experiencing this unique version of grief is essential. Be aware of episodes of rage or excessive frustration, and make sure that the griever isn’t going to hurt themselves or someone else. An experienced grief or anger management therapist is especially helpful.
#9 Inhibited grief
When someone doesn’t show any outward expressions of their grief, they are likely facing inhibited grief. They are restraining or holding back from experiencing the grief. They may do anything to keep their mind occupied and distracted.
For example, someone who recently lost a friend or went through a bad divorce may return to work or school the following day as if nothing happened. They likely won’t talk about it and will insist that they are “OK” when asked about their loss.
While this can seem like a “tough” response to grief, therapists insist that inhibiting grief can delay the healing process and often cause the grief to manifest as physical illness down the road.
#10 Abbreviated grief
Abbreviated grief is short-lived and seems to pass very quickly. This could be because someone had already made peace with the loss before it happened. For example, someone who lost their family member to a 5-year-long battle with dementia may not grieve as long as someone who experienced a sudden loss from a car wreck. The latter person may have had time to make peace with the loss they knew was coming.
*Please note that the length of grieving time for either situation above should not be judged as right or wrong. This is an example of why someone may move past grief more quickly.
Abbreviated grief can also happen when someone feels the urge to substitute the space left by a loss. For example, someone who recently lost a dear pet may quickly adopt another cat or dog to fill that void.
#11 Cumulative grief
When several losses occur in a short period, cumulative grief is experienced. There may not be time to process one loss before facing another. The difficulty of one loss can bleed into the next, resulting in a more complicated grieving process.
Cumulative grief can also happen when many seemingly “small” events build up to a large experience of grief. While losing your job or breaking up with your boyfriend/girlfriend may not seem like tragic events on their own, the combination of these two things at the same time can result in a major grieving experience.
It’s important to approach cumulative grief by understanding the root emotional experience of each loss individually. It wasn’t just losing a job, but the loss of your financial stability and identity. It wasn’t only losing a relationship but the hopes and dreams you had for the future.
#12 Chronic grief
When someone is still facing intense emotions of grief for months and years after a loss, they are typically experiencing chronic grief. The feelings do not come and go nor seem to improve with time.
Tragically, researchers have found that the most painful grief is from the loss of a child, resulting in chronic grief for decades or more. In addition, youth who lost a parent to cancer often see little to no grief resolution, even 6 to 9 years after their loss. Chronic grievers have difficulty overcoming their grief and may need professional therapy or grief counseling.
We must be exceptionally kind and patient with chronic grievers. While it should seem like “they should be over it by now,” some forms of pain never go away. Remember, you never know what someone is facing. Practicing empathy with others and compassion for ourselves is integral to healing.
How to Support Yourself While Grieving
Self-compassion is essential for anyone who is grieving. Research repeatedly shows that it is healthier to move through grief now than to suppress it and face it later. Use these strategies to show yourself some extra love as you grieve:
Practice top-notch self-care
If your significant other, best friend or parent was grieving, how would you treat them? Probably with the utmost patience, generosity, and kindness! Interestingly, most people forget to give themselves that same level of self-care when they are going through a tough time.
It’s time to rewrite that narrative! One of the best ways to support yourself through grieving is to imagine that you are caring for someone you love extremely profoundly. Give yourself the gift of royalty-level self-care by doing things like:
- High-fiving yourself or telling yourself kind affirmations in the mirror
- Going to sleep early for an extra hour or two of sleep every night
- Saying no to social events you don’t have the energy for
- Buying yourself a small gift or treat
- Eating extra-nutritious, wholesome meals
- Practicing a morning or evening skincare ritual
- Watching your favorite TV show or movie
- Getting a massage at a spa or massage chair
Avoid telling yourself stories like, “I should be over this by now” or “I am being selfish/lazy/unproductive.” Be shameless about your self-care routine as you grieve. Don’t be afraid to spoil yourself, and nurture your mental health for as long as possible.
Feeling unconfident or even embarrassed about yourself while you are grieving is normal. This is why you need to be your #1 fan and caretaker. Here are 17 Tips to Love Yourself When You Don’t Know How.
Avoid overworking and prevent burnout
People who are grieving a loss are particularly prone to burnout at work. They may throw themselves into their work to avoid the painful feelings of grief. While this may work as a temporary distraction, it can ultimately lead to depression, underperformance, and reduced self-esteem.
Here is a guide on How to Get Unstuck in 11 Empowering Steps, like creating a reward system for yourself and making a power statement.
Get Unstuck And Beat Burnout
Do you need to recharge? Are you burnt out? It’s not your fault!
Learn the science behind your burnout and use my framework for getting unstuck, increasing your energy, and preventing burnout from happening again.
How to Comfort Someone Who Is Grieving
If someone you love recently experienced a loss, it can be hard to know exactly what to say or do to support them. Fortunately, it can be as simple as just spending time with them. Recent studies have found that being present to talk with loved ones can help regulate their emotions as they work their way through the stages of grief.
When supporting someone through grief, you can show you care by:
- Validating their experience with phrases like, “I understand this is a difficult time for you.”
- Keeping the focus on them (don’t shift the focus to yourself or try to relate)
- Avoiding emotional invalidation like, “You’re overreacting. You’ll be fine.”
- Asking questions about their day, their feelings, and their health
- Maintaining eye contact, nodding, and leaning inward
- Offering physical reassurance (a hug or pat on the back) if that is comfortable
Here are 76 Ways to Comfort Someone When They’re Feeling Down. Some of our favorites include:
- Remind them that you are part of their support system (e.g., “I am here for you no matter what.”)
- Invite them to do something they enjoy
- Volunteer together at an animal shelter or food kitchen
- Text them a photo of a fun memory
- Acknowledge their feelings (e.g., “That sounds very frustrating/painful/difficult. What can I do to help?”)
- Surprise them with a nice dinner
- Give them a call to let them know you’re thinking of them
Key Takeaways: Never Judge Yourself or Others for How They Cope with Grief
Grief is a painful but inevitable part of life. Everyone moves through it radically different, so it is crucial to recognize the symptoms and types of grief. Regardless of the magnitude of loss someone faces, we must always remember to show compassion and never judge someone for how they cope with grief.
Supporting others through tough times is a vital social skill that can strengthen your relationships and build community. A high IQ can get you far in school or the workplace, but emotional and social intelligence are the secrets to long-lasting connections. Here are 10 Emotional Intelligence Traits to Master for Self-Growth.