Grief 101: Some Common Facts and Characteristics of Grief

Helen Fitzgerald, CDE and author

by Helen Fitzgerald, CDE

Grief is what you experience when you have suffered a loss. "Loss" is the key word here because grief not only applies to the way you feel after the death of a loved one but also to the way you feel whenever you suffer the loss of something valuable to you. For example, grief often follows a divorce, separation or breakup of a relationship, loss through fire or theft, loss of a job, the shattering of a life-long dream, the loss of one's youth, loss of control, the loss of one's role as a parent when children leave home, and the loss of one's health, eyesight or hearing. In looking at and understanding grief in a broader sense, you may be grieving for something almost your entire lifetime. Fortunately, the grief you experience over your many losses differs in intensity and longevity.

 This is a timeless article that provides some excellent information.

Understanding the grief process, insofar as there is such a thing, will help you understand what you and your loved ones may be going through right now. But you must appreciate that grief is different for everyone for the following reasons:

  • The importance of the loss will vary with the importance of the relationship that has been severed.

  • Individual support systems and resources differ. Do you have friends and family members who encourage you to talk about your feelings? Are there support groups or specialized counselors that you can talk to?

  • Individual coping styles are different. Some people just cope better than others.

  • Gender differences. Men and women express their feelings differently. Even though I know many men who are comfortable showing their emotions, I know many more who have a need to work out their feelings, burying themselves in their work or in projects around the house.

  • Cultural and religious differences can play an important role in how you approach your grief. Within the different religions and cultures different rituals and customs are practiced.

  • Life is not always a smooth ride allowing you to work through one event at a time. Things pile up and your experience with grief will depend on what else is going on in your life. Sometimes grief has to go on hold because other things are demanding your immediate attention.

Grief takes a long time. It will take as long as it takes and it is important for people to not only have patience with themselves but with others as well.

Grief is an emotional roller coaster. It is an up and down ride. If you have a couple of good days and then a bad one, don't think of this as a setback. This is normal for grief.

Grief is a high stressor. Stress affects our immune system. Common complaints are colds, lingering flu, back and neck pain, headaches, stomach upset, dizziness, insomnia and new flare-ups of pre-existing illnesses. It is always a good idea to let your physician know when you are suffering a major loss so he or she can monitor your health.

Strong feelings of grief return on holidays, birthdays, anniversaries--and especially the yearly anniversary of the loss. This is normal and usually the anticipation of these days is worse than the actual day. Let people around you know that such a date is approaching and ask for their understanding and support.

Characteristics of Grief

It is difficult for the person experiencing grief to function 100%. Thus, this is not the time to make major decisions or changes in your life like selling your home, moving to another city, or taking a new job. If possible slow down and allow yourself time to adjust to your loss. Avoid adding to your losses by making major adjustments to your life.

  • FORGETFULNESS-- Because appointments may be missed, keys locked in the car, purses left behind, work reports left at home, etc., write things down. Don't leave important things to memory. Develop a check list to review before leaving the house.

  • DISORGANIZATION-- You may find that it takes longer to finish a task. Time may not be managed as well. All this is normal; you aren't losing your mind!

  • INABILITY TO CONCENTRATE AND RETAIN INFORMATION-- It may be impossible to stay focused on a task. It may be difficult to read a book or even stick with a favorite TV program. Reading may take longer and it might help to highlight important points, outline or even read "out loud" rather than to yourself. Since mistakes or errors may increase, routinely double check your work or ask someone to do it for you.

  • PREOCCUPATION WITH THE LOSS-- This is a time when one's mind wanders and it is hard to stay on a task. Unplanned thoughts of the loss may enter your head at any time or at any place. Be extra careful while driving your car. This is so often the place where your mind wanders anyway, and concentration is not what it should be. I know of dozens of people who have reported going through red lights, just not seeing them or bumping into the car in front of them, not seeing the brake lights go on. Being aware of this, have someone else drive you, if possible. If you must drive, use extra caution, and stay out of the fast lane!

  • LACK OF INTEREST OR MOTIVATION-- You may find that things just don't matter as much now. It is difficult to be interested in anything. Life has taken on a temporarily different meaning. All this is normal.

  • LOWERED TOLERANCE LEVEL-- Your patience may not what it used to be. Your fuse may be shorter and you may lose patience more quickly. Minor irritations may have become bigger and more quarreling within your family, at work or with friends may go on. Try to have patience with those around you and explain to them when you are having a bad day and what you need from them to help you get through it.

  • CHRONIC FATIGUE -- Grief is exhausting and in addition to that you may not be sleeping, eating or exercising as you should. Try to have patience with yourself and gradually get back on the routine you had before the loss.


Basic Health Concerns: Grief is exhausting and it is important to be aware of your daily health routines and keep them up.

1. Try to eat regular, nourishing meals. If it is too difficult to eat three regular meals, try four or five small ones. Have nourishing food available to nibble on rather than chips, candy, etc. Drink plenty of water to remain hydrated.

2. Rest is important. Try to develop regular bedtime routines.

3. Continue with your exercise program or develop a manageable routine.

4. Make sure your family doctor knows what has happened to you so he or she can help monitor you health.

OUTSIDE SUPPORT: Grief does not have to be as isolating as it seems.

1. Look for a support group, lecture or seminar that pertains to your situation.

2. Meditation is often helpful to help people get the rest they need.

3. If it has been a source of support to you in the past, continue attending your religious services and stay in contact with that part of your "family."

4. Let your friends and other family members know what your needs are.


1. Read some books or articles of the process of grief so you can identify what you are feeling and have some ideas on how to help yourself.

2. Allow your feelings to be expressed appropriately.

3. Crying is good. Almost always you feel lighter after you have had a good cry. Consider sharing your tears with other loved ones.

4. Find friends or family members to share your feelings with.

5. Be careful not to use alcohol, drugs, or tranquilizers to avoid the pain. These will only mask the pain and could lead to problems.

6. Keeping a journal is a good way to identify feelings and also to see progress.

Holidays, anniversaries, etc. need special planning. They are impossible to ignore. Look for a workshop on dealing with the holidays and make plans with your family and friends.


1. Strive for good communication.

2. Talk about what is helpful to you.

3. Be sensitive to the needs of each other.

4. By reviewing past crises in your relationship you can gain an understanding of how to handle this one.

5. Avoid competition about who is hurting the most.

6. Consult each other regarding birthdays, holidays, and other family events.

7. Try not to expect too much from each other.

8. Read and educate yourself about the grief process.

9. Be aware that there are gender differences; there are differences between men and women

and the way they deal with grief.

10. Avoid pressuring each other about decisions that can wait.

11. Take a short trip to "re-group."

12. Appreciate each other's grief and way of coping with it.

13. Ask each other what is helpful to him or her.

14. If you think it will help, seek professional guidance. Don't let this crisis destroy your relationship if it can be saved.


1. If you desire some alone time, take it.

2. Give yourself small rewards along the way, things to look forward to.

3. Look for small ways to pamper yourself, such as, bubble baths, a new cologne, a new outfit, luxurious pajamas, new hair cut, mountain climbing, biking, swimming, etc.

4. Short trips are good breaks from grief, but be aware that upon your return the pain of grief will be waiting for you. However, you will have had a rest and the knowledge that you can enjoy some things in life again.

5. Look for some new interests, perhaps a new hobby or picking up on an old one.

6. Carry a special letter, poem, or quote with you to read when the going gets tough.

7. Try to enjoy the good days and don't feel guilty for doing so.

8. Reach out to help someone else.

9. Remember, grief takes time. Learn to have patience with yourself.

10. Know that you will get better and there will be a time when you can look forward to getting up in the morning and be glad you are alive and that your life is continuing.


Helen Fitzgerald has authored several books:

The Grieving Child: A Parent's Guide (1992)

Mourning Handbook; A Comprehensive Resource Offering Practical and Compassionate Advice on Coping (1995)

The Grieving Teen: A Guide for Parents of Teenagers (2000)

This article was written for the Childhood Brain Tumor Foundation, Germantown, MD,


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