Understanding Grief and Loss

May 29, 2012
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Grief is a natural response to loss. It is a process that occurs over time and involves a wide range of emotions, as well as thoughts, behaviors, and physical sensations.


You're listening to a podcast from Cancer.Net. This cancer information website is produced by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, known as ASCO, the world's leading professional organization for doctors that care for people with cancer.

Today we’ll talk about the process of grieving and coping with loss.

Grief is a natural response to loss. It’s a process that happens over time, and it involves a wide range of difficult feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and physical sensations. While grief is often a response to the death of a loved one, people with cancer and their families also grieve other cancer-related losses, such as the loss of a body part, the loss of fertility, or the loss of independence. 

The terms grief, mourning, and bereavement are often used interchangeably, but they actually mean different things. Grief is how a person experiences and responds to loss. Mourning is the outward expression of that grief, including the cultural and religious customs and rituals surrounding death. Mourning can also be the process of adapting to the loss of a significant person. Bereavement refers to the state of having suffered a loss and to the experiences that follow the death of a loved one.

Now, let’s talk about some common reactions to loss. Grief varies widely from person to person, and the same person may also react differently over time.

Grief is often experienced in waves or cycles, with periods of intense and painful feelings that come and go. People who are grieving may feel they are making progress in adapting to the loss, and then suddenly face renewed and overwhelming grief. This may occur at significant dates, such as holidays or a birthday, but the renewed grief can also appear for no specific reason. Over time, these periods of intense grieving typically become less frequent and intense as the person adjusts to the loss.

Right after a loss, a person may feel shock, numbness, and disbelief or denial that the loss has occurred. There may be feelings of relief, loneliness, or yearning. The grieving person may also feel disconnected from the world around them during mourning rituals, such as a funeral. There can be physical effects, such as nausea, dizziness, fatigue, and sleeplessness. These initial reactions may last six weeks or more, and may help to distance the person from the pain of loss.

Another common reaction, called confrontation, often comes after the initial grief reactions fade and can last months or longer. This reaction can be intensely painful as the person who is grieving comes to accept the reality of the loss. A person can experience waves of emotional upheaval with conflicting and difficult feelings. The person who is grieving may feel angry at the person who has died or feel guilty for still being alive. He or she may cry often, have trouble sleeping or getting up in the morning, feel disorganized, and have trouble concentrating.

Slowly, a person who is grieving adapts to a new life without his or her loved one, called the acceptance phase. Life does not return to the “old normal”. But the person is able to create a “new normal” with new goals and a new identity.

Keep in mind that each person who loses a loved one will go through their own grieving process, and their reactions often won’t occur in order. Reactions to grief and loss depend on the person’s relationship with the deceased or the cause of death. The grieving person’s personality, religious beliefs, and support from friends and family can also affect the time and intensity of grief reactions. It’s important to allow people to grieve in ways that feel right to them.

Understanding the basic grief process can help a person know what to expect, and help to reassure them that these experiences are normal. It can also be reassuring to know that the intense pain of grief will not last forever. However, people who are struggling with severe or complicated grief are encouraged to talk with someone who can help, such as a social worker, psychologist, or spiritual counselor.

For more information on this topic, contact your doctor or visit www.cancer.net. Cancer.Net is supported by the Conquer Cancer Foundation, which is working to create a world free from the fear of cancer by funding breakthrough research, sharing knowledge with physicians and patients worldwide, and supporting initiatives to ensure that all people have access to high-quality cancer care. Thank you for listening to this Cancer.Net Podcast.