Understanding Grief and Loss

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 03/2018

Listen to the Cancer.Net Podcast: Understanding Grief and Loss, adapted from this content

When a person loses someone close to them, it is natural to grieve. This process takes time and involves many different emotions and behaviors. People with cancer and their families may also grieve other cancer-related losses. These may include the loss of a breast, the loss of fertility, or the loss of independence.

The terms “grief,” “mourning,” and “bereavement” have slightly different meanings:

  • Grief is a person’s emotional response to the experience of loss.

  • Mourning is the process of adapting to life after a loss. It is influenced by each person’s society, culture, and religion.

  • Bereavement is the state of having experienced a loss.

Common grief reactions

Reactions to loss are called grief reactions. They vary widely from person to person and within the same person over time. Common grief reactions include difficult feelings, thoughts, physical sensations, and behaviors.

  • Feelings. People who have experienced loss may have a range of feelings. This could include shock, numbness, sadness, denial, despair, anxiety, anger, guilt, loneliness, depression, helplessness, relief, and yearning. A grieving person may start crying after hearing a song or comment that makes them think of the person who died. Or that person may not know what triggered his or her crying.

  • Thoughts. Common thought patterns include disbelief, confusion, difficulty concentrating, preoccupation, and hallucinations.

  • Physical sensations. Grief can cause physical sensations. These include tightness or heaviness in the chest or throat, nausea or an upset stomach, dizziness, headaches, physical numbness, muscle weakness or tension, and fatigue. It may also make you vulnerable to illness.

  • Behaviors. A person who is grieving may struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep. He or she may also lose energy for enjoyable activities. The person may lose interest in eating or being social. A grieving person may also become more irritable or aggressive. Other common behaviors include restlessness and excessive activity.

Religion and spirituality

Grief and loss may also cause a person to question his or her faith or view of the world. Or it may strengthen the person’s faith by providing a new understanding of the meaning of life.

Experiencing grief

Each person experiences grief in a different way. Often, a person feels grief in waves or cycles. This means there are periods of intense and painful feelings that come and go. People may feel they are making progress with their grief when they are temporarily feeling less grief. But then, after some time, they may face the grief again. Such changes in grief may occur around significant dates, such as holidays or birthdays. Over time, some people experience these grief cycles less frequently as they adjust to their loss.

Tasks of mourning

There are different theories about how a person adjusts to loss. One widely accepted model describes 4 tasks of mourning:

  • Accept the reality of the loss.

  • Experience the pain of grief.

  • Adjust to life without the person being physically present.

  • Find new ways to remain connected to the person who has died.

Factors affecting grief

The following factors may affect the nature, intensity, and duration of grief:

  • The relationship a grieving person had with the person who died.

  • The cause of death. For example, the grieving process may differ depending on whether the person died suddenly or was ill for a long time.

  • The grieving person’s age and gender.

  • The life history of the person who is grieving, including past experiences with loss.

  • The grieving person’s personality and coping style.

  • The support available from friends and family.

  • The grieving person’s customs and religious or spiritual beliefs.

The grieving process is often harder when the person has unresolved feelings towards or conflicts with the person who has died. People who are struggling with complicated grief may find it helpful to talk with a counselor. This may include a clinical social worker, psychologist, or spiritual counselor.

Grief in different cultures

Although each person's grief is unique, the experience is shaped by his or her society and culture. Each culture has its own set of beliefs and rituals for death and bereavement. This affects how people experience and express grief.

The way a person experiences and expresses grief may be at odds with his or her own culture. For example, someone who feels numbness or disbelief may not cry as he or she might be expected to at a funeral. Another person may experience a level of despair that challenges his or her cultural values or beliefs. It is important for each person to grieve in ways that feel right to them. It is also important to consider how someone’s culture may be affecting their grief. Learn more about grief within a cultural context.

Related Resources

Coping with Grief

Coping with Change After a Loss

More Information

CancerCare: Grief and Loss

National Cancer Institute: Grief, Bereavement, and Coping with Loss (PDQ®)