Understanding Grief and Loss

Aprobado por la Junta Editorial de Cancer.Net, 07/2022

Grief is how a person responds to loss. After the death of a loved one, you may feel sadness, anger, emptiness, confusion, and many other emotions. You may act in different ways than you normally would. Grief is a process, so you may feel different things over time. There is no wrong way to experience grief.

You may also grieve after a cancer diagnosis or during cancer treatment. Experiences like the loss of independence, fertility problems, or the sense of uncertainty that comes with a cancer diagnosis can all cause grief for yourself or your loved ones.

What are common ways to respond to loss?

The terms "grief," "mourning," and "bereavement" have slightly different meanings.

  • Grief is your emotional response to the experience of loss.

  • Mourning is the process of adjusting to life after a loss. It is influenced by your society, culture, and religion.

  • Bereavement is the period of time when you experience grief.

How you respond to a loss can be very different from the way other people respond to loss. It can also change over time. You may have some or all of the feelings, thoughts, physical sensations, and behaviors below.

Emotions. Your emotions or feelings from grief may include shock, numbness, sadness, denial, despair, and/or anger. You might experience anxiety or depression. You can also feel guilty, relieved, or helpless. You may experience yearning or nostalgia, which is wishing for the time before the cancer diagnosis. When you are grieving, a reminder like a song or comment that makes you think of your loss can make you cry. You might also cry without knowing what made you start to cry.

Thoughts. While you are grieving, you may experience disbelief, confusion, and difficulty concentrating. You might not be able to think of anything except the loss or the person who died. You may also see or hear things that other people do not (hallucinations).

Physical sensations. Grief can cause physical sensations or feelings. You might notice that your throat or chest feels tight or heavy. You can also feel sick to your stomach. Other physical feelings that you can experience while grieving include dizziness, headaches, numbness, muscle weakness or tension, pain, and extreme tiredness. You may be more likely to feel unwell or become ill.

Behaviors. When you are grieving, it is normal to act in ways that are different from how you typically act. You may have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. It can be difficult to enjoy your favorite food or activities. You may be irritable or have a short temper. Your energy level can vary while you are grieving. Sometimes you may feel like you have no energy, or you might feel restless and be much more active than usual. You may experience changes in how you experience your religion, faith, or spirituality. Grief and loss can make you question your beliefs or how you see the world. It may also deepen your faith or help you to understand the meaning of life in a new way.

Your grief is different from anyone else's. Even family members who are experiencing the same loss will have some different reactions to it.

Grief often happens in waves or cycles, with intense feelings that last a few hours or days. Between those times, you may feel like things are more "normal." You might feel like you are recovering from your loss or getting better in those times you feel less grief. But then the intense feelings might come back.

Over time, you might notice these grief cycles lessen as you adjust to your loss. Instead of experiencing grief all the time, you might just experience it around certain dates, like holidays, birthdays, or other important events. Adjusting does not mean you care less about your loss. It simply means that the grief is not as new to you.

How can I adjust to life after a loss?

Researchers have different ideas on how people adjust to a loss. One theory talks about 4 things to do to adjust:

  • Accept that the loss really happened

  • Feel the pain of grief

  • Adjust to life without your loved one or adjust to the changes that come with your cancer diagnosis

  • Find new ways to stay connected to the person you lost

The way you adjust to life after a loss depends on many factors, like the type of loss you are experiencing, how old you are, your personality, and how much support you have from friends, family, and your community. If you are grieving the loss of a loved one, your relationship with that person and how they died can also affect how you cope with this loss. The grieving process is often harder when you have unresolved feelings or conflicts with the person who died.

It can help to talk with a counselor if your grief is strong, long-lasting, or does not get much better over time. The counselor might be a clinical social worker, psychologist, or spiritual counselor, like a rabbi, minister, or hospital chaplain. Learn more about different ways to cope with your grief.

How does culture affect how you experience grief?

Your community and culture can affect how you experience and express feelings of grief. Every society, culture, and religion has their own beliefs and traditions surrounding illness, death, and loss. There may be specific rituals that give you comfort while you are grieving. There can also be taboos about death and grieving that can make you uncomfortable.

It is important for you to grieve in ways that feel right to you. If the way you want to grieve is different from your culture, religion, or society, it might help to talk with a counselor for support. If a loved one is grieving, respect how they are grieving and how their culture may impact how they grieve. Learn more about grief and different cultures.

How can I find support?

To find help dealing with grief, talk with your primary health care provider to find out if they can give you a referral. You can also check with a local hospital or cancer treatment center, a community hospice service, your health insurance company, support organizations, or your employer's employee assistance program.

Related Resources

Coping with Grief

Coping with Change After a Loss

How Survivors Can Cope With Grief After Cancer

Grieving for Your Old Life After Cancer

More Information

CancerCare: Grief and Loss

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