Understanding grief


In this article:

  • Grief is the fundamental human experience that includes a wide range of ever-changing emotions.

  • Although you don’t “get over” the death of a loved one, it is possible to learn to live with that loss and remember a loved one without feeling pain.

  • A behavioral health expert from Swedish answers common questions about grief in honor of Grief Awareness Day on August 30.

The American Psychological Association defines grief as “the anguish experienced after significant loss, usually the death of a beloved person.” But if you’ve ever lost someone you love deeply, you know the dictionary definition doesn’t come close to capturing the complicated emotions grief can bring.

August 30 is National Grief Awareness Day. To mark the occasion, we talked to Shannon Albert, PsyD, Clinical Training Director for Behavioral Health Integration at Swedish, to get answers to your questions about grief and grieving. Here’s what she shared.

What is grief? Is it a form of sadness, or is it something more serious?

Dr. Albert: Grief is the fundamental human experience of coping with loss. While sadness is one of the common responses to loss, the emotional landscape of grief will include a big range of emotions that may vary by day and across time.

The pain of loss can be intense and complicated because it reflects a lost connection with someone or something deeply cared for. From this perspective, grief is not more serious than sadness. Rather, it is the flip side of the coin to loving deeply.

Still, there are times when the pain of loss can be so intense or so prolonged that it is difficult to resume functioning in life, and these may be good times to tap into additional sources of support.

What are the symptoms of grief? How does it affect everyday life?

Dr. Albert: Grief can affect all aspects of one’s being – mind, body and spirit. Emotionally, individuals may experience a full range of feelings — from sadness to anger, relief, and even joy.

Feelings associated with grief are likely to ebb and flow. They may surface at unexpected times, like a flood of emotions seemingly out of the blue. Or they may appear in more predictable manners at anniversaries, around holidays or when encountering other significant reminders. 

Some individuals may also experience feeling detached or numb from emotions. Or they may experience confusion at the presence of emotions that seem at odds or conflicting. For example, sadness that a loved one is gone while simultaneously experiencing relief that their loved one is physically at peace.

All these experiences can co-exist at the same time, and all are a part of the normal emotional landscape. Importantly, there is no right or wrong emotional response, just as there is no right or wrong way to grieve.

Additionally, with the recognition that grief is an extreme stressor, it makes sense, in turn, that grief can lead to physical changes by overworking our nervous system. This could mean changes like decreased immune functioning, increased risk of sickness or fatigue, changes in appetite or sleep, headaches, aches and pains, or restlessness.

Behaviorally, grief can increase difficulty completing seemingly ordinary tasks or interfere with concentration or decision-making.

What can I do to address my grief? Are there effective strategies I can use to make it easier to cope?

Dr. Albert: Grief often does not have a clear beginning, and it certainly does not have a clear ending. Even though we can define when a loss occurred, the aftereffects can last a lifetime. So, while we don't "get over" the loss of a loved one, it is possible to learn to live with that loss and to eventually remember and honor a loved one without feeling pain.

What is helpful for one person to heal through grief will be different for the next or could be useful at one point in time and not at another. There is no "normal" timeframe or right or wrong approach. Whatever your grief experience, it is essential to provide yourself with patience, allowing the process to unfold.

Some of the ways to care for yourself while grieving include:

Find and implement aspects of routine.

When a sense of normalcy is disrupted, finding and sticking to something with consistency can provide a small sense of control and help regulate emotions. A morning tea. A midday fresh air break. An afternoon shower. Beginning a bedtime winddown at the same time each evening. Holding space for breakfast, lunch and dinner even if your appetite doesn't feel the same. It is helpful to give yourself credit for each activity completed, even and most significantly, the ones that may seem minor.

Look after your physical health.

To the extent you can, work on getting enough sleep or allowing rest when needed. Eat something nutritious. Do an activity that gets your heart rate up. Take medications as prescribed.

Incorporate self-care.

Experiment with what is soothing, calming or relaxing for you. Maybe it is reading or writing. Perhaps it's taking a bubble bath. Pick up a new or old craft or hobby. Practice mindfulness or meditation.

Maintain contact with friends and family.

Often, loved ones want to help but don't always know how. Letting them know what you need, whether it is a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, or just physical presence, can provide comfort.

Connect with others with shared experience.

It is not uncommon for those in the midst of grief to feel like the rest of the world has moved on. Support groups, peer- or professionally-led, can provide one with a safe place to talk about their loss with others who are also experiencing similar feelings.

Connect with a professional.

There are licensed therapists who specialize in grief and loss. They can help work through intense emotions and overcome barriers to the grieving process. This may be particularly beneficial if grief interferes with your ability to function adequately for an enduring time.

Did fallout from COVID-19 prompt collective grief? If so, what does that mean? Is there anything we can do to make it better?

Dr. Albert: Globally, there were far-reaching and varied losses that COVID-19 contributed to. This includes the lives lost to illness and all the indirect losses such as jobs, social connectedness, previously felt securities and abandonment of dreams, among others. And these losses were pervasive across all diversity variables.

So, yes, it is fair to say there is a collective grief now. And in this shared experience of vulnerability and humanity, giving and receiving compassion is all the more critical. Honor that your pains or experiences of loss may not be visible on the surface. And know that small acts of kindness can produce large ripple effects.

What resources does Swedish offer to handle grief?

Dr. Albert: There are several ways to access support for grief and loss at Swedish, regardless of one's timeline in the grieving experience:

  • Primary care clinic resources. A visit to one's primary care provider can include support from one's medical provider, as well as connection, sometimes that same day, to a licensed behavioral health clinician on the team. Together, they can provide whole-person care and build effective strategies for coping during the grieving process.
  • Bereavement groups and peer support. Swedish has offered bereavement services to the community for nearly 20 years. They can connect you with a trained, compassionate listener or other grieving people. They offer group series for those newly bereaved, those who navigated loss knowing their loved one was dying, and those who lost their loved one suddenly through suicide or other traumatic event. Additionally, they can connect individuals with other community resources.
  • Spiritual care. The Swedish spiritual care department is available to support individuals and families across all faiths and cultural backgrounds. It is available as a part of your medical team 24 hours a day.

Learn more and find a provider

If you are struggling with grief, or have questions about your mental health and well-being, contact the experts at Swedish Behavioral Health. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual visits.

Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction, and follow up as needed. If you need to find a provider, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Related resources

Five ways to care for yourself in the aftermath of a national tragedy

Children and grief: How to support your child

Understanding mental health counseling

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

Follow us on FacebookInstagram and Twitter

About the Author

Whether it's stress, anxiety, dementia, addiction or any number of life events that impede our ability to function, mental health is a topic that impacts nearly everyone. The Swedish Behavioral Health Team is committed to offering every-day tips and clinical advice to help you and your loved ones navigate mental health conditions.

More Content by Swedish Behavioral Health Team
Previous Article
After his family’s tragedy, a Swedish caregiver logs miles to save lives
After his family’s tragedy, a Swedish caregiver logs miles to save lives

Dr. Peter Olson lost a beloved cousin to suicide. On Nov. 5, he’s running the NYC Marathon to raise money f...

Next Article
Swedish Ballard's Partial Hospitalization Program offers focused, effective care
Swedish Ballard's Partial Hospitalization Program offers focused, effective care

Learn more about our short-term, intensive day-treatment program for individuals with acute psychiatric needs.