Grief

Grief is the natural reaction to losing someone or something that you love or value. It is a normal part of life and includes emotional, physical and mental responses.

Key points

  1. Grief can be very painful. You may feel a range of emotions such as sadness, shock, anger and distress.
  2. There is no correct way to grieve or time it should take: your grief is unique to you. Ways of grieving may also vary in different cultures and religions. Be kind to yourself. Acknowledge how you are feeling and allow yourself time and rest.
  3. It helps to talk to a friend or a professional, or express how you are feeling in some other way.
  4. Numbing out from your feelings with alcohol or drugs doesn’t help and may lead to depression. But it can help to take breaks from your grief to stop it becoming overwhelming by doing something distracting, such as catching up with a friend, watching a movie or reading a good book. 
  5. If over time your feelings of sadness and grief change into feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and loss of interest in life, talk to your doctor. Your grief may have turned into depression. 

What causes grief?

Grief is the natural response to the loss of something you value and find important. This may be loss of:

  • people – due to death or moving away
  • relationships – due to breaking up or divorce, or other changes for the worse
  • a location – through changing schools, moving houses, cities or countries
  • your sense of place – from losing your spot in a sports team or being made redundant in your job
  • pets – losing a long-term companion can be traumatic and sad
  • good health – due to accident or sickness
  • things you own – by mistake or from theft
  • an old identity – this may be due to getting married, becoming a parent, retiring
  • as you age, a sense of loss or regret regarding things in your past and your life.

What does grief feel like?

Everyone experiences grief differently, but common feelings include the following: 

  • Shock/disbelief: You might feel in denial, as if you’ve woken from a nightmare. You may feel jaded, disoriented, emotionless or vacant. It may take a while to come to terms with reality. Sometimes an event can be so terrible you won’t want to accept it as reality.
  • Sadness/wanting to cry: Crying can help to release sadness, and it’s better to do this than suppressing your feelings. After crying you tend to feel clearer and relieved.
  • Anger/blame: You might feel angry. You may want to blame a specific person for the event. If you have lost someone, you may feel angry at them for leaving you.
  • Guilt: In some situations, you might feel guilty and feel that you caused the event. Or you may feel guilty about feelings of anger, blame or relief you experience.
  • Fear/anxiety: After a significant loss you may feel anxious, helpless, or insecure. If you have lost a loved one you may worry about how you can manage on your own without them.
  • Yearning: There is a space in your life where that thing or person used to be. You know that you can’t have things how they were again, but you dream about it, discuss with friends and family and think about it very often.
  • Out of control/overwhelmed: You might not be able to stop crying and have tears want to escape without warning. This may make you feel overwhelmed or out of control, but if you go with the crying, you’ll find that it passes.
  • Physical symptoms: Grieving happens at a physical level as well as an emotional one. You might feel unwell overall,  or have stomach pains or headaches, or you may become more susceptible to colds for a period.
  • Thoughts: You may feel confused or bewildered, not being able to make sense of it, seeking explanations, trying to rationalise it.
  • Changes to eating or sleeping: You may have an appetite shift, eating less or more, or find it hard to sleep and feel tired and run down. 

Do we all grieve in the same way?

Grief has been described as a series of stages (denial, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance) that you go through. But this model assumes that everyone who is grieving experiences all 5 stages in the same order. However, for most people grief is not experienced in stages and some people may never go through any of them. 

In Aotearoa New Zealand, we have many different cultural and spiritual communities, and the ones you belong to will affect the way you grieve. For example, religious teachings often provide beliefs such as whether there is life after death, and this may affect how you feel about someone dying. 

For Māori, when someone dies, grieving is centred around the tangihanga (or tangi), a ceremony for mourning someone who has died. A tangi often takes 3 days and is often held on a marae, a longer more communal form of farewelling a dead person in Pakeha culture. The dead person will also continue to be acknowledged as part of future gatherings and ceremonies, as for many Māori, there is strong sense of the dead person still being present. This is because wairoa is present in both te ao kikokiko (the seen world) and te ao wairua (the unseen world).

Regardless of the loss, if you have a cultural, religious or spiritual tradition to draw on, you may find it gives you strength at times of loss. They can provide a way of making meaning of your losses as well as resourcing you for coping with them.

How do I cope with grief?

There is no correct way to deal with grief. Everyone grieves differently and in your own time. Here are some things that help:

  • Be kind to yourself. Give yourself permission of grieve – it's okay and is the natural response to loss. Allow yourself time. Have more rest than usual –­ grieving can be tiring.
  • Be compassionate and put an arm around yourself (as you would to a child).
  • Your culture or religion may provide you with guidance and structure to support you in your grief.
  • Keep your routine up. Do your best to eat healthy meals, be active every day and go to bed at your regular time, even when you don’t feel like it.
  • Talk to somebody you trust about how you feel – friends, family, minister, school counsellor, phone helpline such as 1737, Youthlineor Lifeline. Talking won’t change what has happened, but it can change how you cope with it.
  • Avoid numbing your pain with alcohol, drugs, overeating or too much screen time. Instead, find other ways to take a break from your grief: go for a walk or a swim, read a book, visit friends, play some sport, watch a good movie.
  • Draw or write out your feelings. It can help to do this regularly to help you process your thoughts and feelings as they come and go. Time for reflection is appropriate.
  • If you feel your grief is not being expressed, and you would like to, look at pictures of the person, pet or thing you have lost. This may increase your feeling of loss quite intensely, so make sure you’re in a safe place before you do this. Not everyone may express their grief openly and it's okay if that's not how you do it.
  • Say farewell to the person or thing you have lost by writing a letter. You can write whatever you like because it's only for you. You can write about that person, what you loved about them, what used to frustrate you about them, the things you enjoyed together.
  • Know also that you can keep the feelings, images, thoughts, pictures and moments for as long as you want to. They can be with you every day. You can create a special place or space for the person, pet or thing you have lost. This is about integration and acceptance of the loss, but it still being with you but in a different way.
  • If it’s not a person who’s died and there hasn’t been a funeral, you can create your own farewell ritual. That may include lighting a candle, sitting quietly and remembering the relationship, pet, place, job or location. You can say goodbye in your own words or read a poem or something spiritual.
  • It can help to talk to a trained professional, such as a counsellor, psychotherapist or psychologist. They understand how devastating loss can be and know how to support you through it.
  • Grief can also be a time of change and reflection with positive growth coming from it.

How do I care for someone who is grieving?

If you have a friend or family/whānau member who is grieving:

  • tell them you realise they’re going through a sensitive time and that you are there for them if they want to talk or do something with you
  • respect the rituals and processes for grieving in different cultures and religions
  • your presence is key – just be there for them, ask how they are feeling and what they need, and most importantly, listen to them and acknowledge how they are feeling
  • offer to help with daily tasks – they may not feel like cooking, cleaning or shopping for a while
  • don’t feel like it's your job to cheer them up or minimise their feelings by telling them they shouldn’t be so upset or say that everything will be okay – in some cases, it won’t be, and they will need to adjust to a new reality. 

Can grief turn into depression? 

Grief can sometimes lead to depression. Signs this has happened include:

  • feeling hopeless, angry, or miserable all the time
  • finding you don’t enjoy anything anymore
  • having thoughts about death or harming yourself
  • if you feel that it has gone on for too long and you want to change it.

If you feel like this, talk to your doctor, call one of the helplines or support groups listed below or find a counsellor or therapist.

Support for grieving 

There are many organisations in New Zealand that provide support, advice & counselling to help those affected by loss and grief, including:

National grief support groups Health Navigator, NZ
The Grief Centre The Auckland-based centre provides counselling, support groups and training in the Auckland region, and also has information and resources available on their website.  
Skylight NZ Offers grief counselling in some centres and also has information and resources available on their website.
Hospice NZ ph 04 381 0266
Helplines and local mental health services Mental Health Foundation, NZ

Learn more

Grief and loss Mental Health Foundation, NZ, 2014
Loss and grief Skylight, NZ
Grief Mental Wealth, NZ
Cancer, wairuatanga and spirituality Cancer Society, NZ

Reviewed by

Tina Earl is a clinical psychologist with over 20 years’ experience, currently in private practice and consultancy. She has been a clinical lead for psychological services in the DHB and primary care. Tina has authored resources at a national level for mental health clinical practice and service delivery, and is a subject matter consultant for psychological practice and mental health.   
 
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team . Reviewed By: Tina Earl, clinical psychologist Last reviewed: 18 Nov 2019