Understanding Your Grief
At its core, grief is our emotional response to loss. While we most commonly think of grief in response to the loss of a person, the truth is we can experience grief in response to the loss of anything hoped or planned for. We can also experience grief when we hear or read about traumatic losses that don’t directly affect us, such as reading about a school shooting or hearing about the death of someone you know of. Grief happens to everyone more than we think, but somehow it can still be difficult to speak about. This is partially because grief is full of contradictions:
It’s universal: everyone has lost someone or something important to them.
But it’s also personal: everyone experiences grief differently.
It’s isolating: Our different responses to grief sometimes make it feel like we’re the only ones on earth hurting that deeply, that no one has been through what we’ve been through.
But it’s also connecting: loss can bring us closer to others and make us feel more united with humanity.
These contradictions make it hard to know how to talk about grief, whether you’re experiencing it yourself or you want to support someone who is. This is why we decided to cover the topic of grief..
The Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us of the universality of loss. Because it can be so difficult to talk about loss, it may surprise you to know just how many of your peers have experienced loss recently. Our survey of Fiveable students found that 49% of students knew someone who died in the last year, and 53% experienced the death of someone close to them this year. Even more pervasive, 63% of students lost the opportunity to do something they had been looking forward to.
Another way to interpret this is contemplating that more than half of your peers have experienced a significant loss within the last year, a good reminder that you’re not alone.
It’s common to wonder whether your reaction to grief is “normal.” In fact, this was the second most frequent question we received about grief. What we saw in our survey responses is consistent with our own personal experiences of grief and what we see in the clients who come to us: there is no such thing as “normal.” There are common experiences, but the combination and timing of emotional responses vary widely. The most common response to loss is sadness: 92% of students reported feeling sad after a loss. But, the second most common reaction is numbness (75% reported this). Other common responses include anger (52%) and fear (48%), as well as loss of motivation, loneliness, and worry about more loss in the future.
These statistics also demonstrate that the majority of respondents answered with multiple emotions. Sometimes our initial reaction after a loss is shock. It’s very common to experience a sense of “numbness,” or the sense that you’re not able to feel anything. This can lead you to feel guilty that you’re not feeling more. It’s important to understand that shock is one way your body and mind protects itself from overwhelming feelings. A deep loss can vault you into “survival mode,” in which you’re taking care of immediate tasks and growing demands that can result from the loss; it may feel that experiencing sadness or anger is impossible or a luxury you can’t afford. It’s also very normal to cycle through different stages of intense emotions, followed by exhaustion and numbness, only to cycle back to a renewed sense of loss. This rollercoaster of emotions is one reason why connecting to others can be one of the most important antidotes to grief - this is an intense ride to take on your own!
It can feel overwhelming to know where to begin when you experience a loss. It’s interesting to note that the majority of survey respondents felt they were able to cope with their grief “only sort of.”
Let’s address the most common questions we received to demystify this experience and help you feel empowered to reach out.
How Do I Process Grief?
More than any other question, our respondents are wondering HOW to do this seemingly impossible task of moving forward through loss. There are many well-researched models of the grief process and how to navigate it, but they share some universal themes. We refer to these themes as “parts” instead of “steps” because it’s important to emphasize that this is not a linear process in time - you can enter at any stage and cycle through many times.
Part One: Pause to Identify.
Take a moment to identify how you are feeling, with the knowledge that there is no wrong way to feel. Identifying what you’re experiencing will allow you to better know how to cope. It’s common to try to power through the emotions and avoid them (92% of respondents do just this!); however, this only delays the onset of our emotions.
Part Two: Tailor Your Care.
We react differently to others when they are angry vs. sad - you should react to yourself the same way. Are you feeling tired and therefore need rest in this moment? Are you feeling overwhelmed and need someone to take something off your plate? Are you feeling ok and need to push forward? We need different things at different times, so give yourself space for this.
Part Three: Connect.
The first two tasks cannot always be accomplished alone. Remember the universality of loss and how connection is the antidote. We cover more of the HOW to this part in the next question.
How Do I Talk to Someone about Grief? How Do I Get Someone to Talk to Me?
When our survey respondents were asked what has been helpful in coping with grief, one of the largest themes was talking to someone, whether that is a friend, parent, therapist, school counselor, or another trusted adult. It can be hard to know how to start these conversations once you feel ready. Maybe the loss affected others close to you and you’re caught up in comparing your reactions, or maybe it feels like they don’t understand or feel the same way. If you don’t know where to turn, we recommend widening your lens. Is there a safe friend you’re not as close to, but is reliable and kind? Is there another family member who might get it? What about your coach, pastor, or aunt?
If it feels like there’s no one, or that others around you are overwhelmed, counseling can be the perfect solution. School counselors and therapists have extra experience helping people talk through the toughest experiences in life - especially for people who aren’t used to talking. Counselors can also give you practical steps to take to cope, which can be hard for friends or family to come up with.
When you’re wanting to support someone else going through grief, keep in mind that their experience is unique and may not be the same as what you’ve gone through (even if you’re experiencing the same loss). Normalize the varying range of emotions, and do your best to help them feel supported and not judged.
Don’t be scared to bring it up. If you’ve gone through a big loss, you probably know what it feels like to sense everyone around being very careful. Others are hoping to spare you pain by not bringing up the loss, but in reality this ends up feeling very isolating. Say the lost person’s name, ask how they are really doing, and show them your desire to support them is genuine. If you feel overwhelmed, remember the counseling solution - sometimes others need help making this connection, too.
Does it Get Better? How Long?
Yes and no, forever and every day. Like the rest of the contradictory truths about grief, the answers to these questions are equally full of opposites. For those living with loss, most will tell you that it does get better in time, but that the “better” is different than they would have thought. It may feel like they have learned how to include loss as a part of their life, and found there is still space for joy and love next to the pain.
Emotions that were once very intense will become more manageable, or change into new emotions. They may come back stronger at certain times, only to change again with more time. One common theme is that making space to remember what was lost is central to healing, often sharing these remembrances with important others. This may mean celebrations or stories told with family to honor the lost family member, or a tradition you enact at certain times. While the loss may always cause pain, the pain can become more balanced with memories in time.
If the one truth we know about grief is that it is full of contradictions, learning to embrace contradiction is the best way forward, from a therapist’s point of view. You can learn to experience happiness in the midst of pain, and know that one does not diminish the validity of the other. Grief does not need to be eliminated in order to feel joy, love, and connection, just like loss does not eliminate your caring. If you are feeling grief, embrace contradiction, embrace connection, and the path forward will open up.
For additional resources on grief, visit Joon’s mental health resources page
Katey Nicolai, is a licensed clinical psychologist who received her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Seattle Pacific University. Dr. Nicolai provides services to adolescents and adults using evidence-based treatment rooted in cognitive-behavioral and psychodynamic therapies, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy, interpersonal therapy, and family systems. Dr. Nicolai has specialized training in treating trauma and PTSD, personality disorders, self-harm and suicidailty, family problems, emotion dysregulation, and mood and anxiety disorders.