What Does Grief Mean? 9 Things to Know About Grief

A quick guide to grief: what it is and how it (generally) works

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Dr. Dan Wolfson

As a clinical psychologist specializing in grief, I’ve spent countless hours over the past decade researching, treating, and discussing the topic. I’ve consolidated some of my learning here, so you don’t have to spend the same amount of time getting up to speed.

  1. The term “grief” as we use it refers to the response of being bereaved by a death-loss.
  2. Grief is a normative (non-pathological) experience and includes emotional, physiological, and cognitive responses - impacting not only our mood but also behaviors such as sleeping and appetite.
  3. Although there are common elements, grief impacts every person differently and also looks different for the same person over time.
  4. Grief is a process of adaptation- and people naturally have the capacity to move from “acute grief” to “integrated grief.”  
  5. “Acute grief” is how we typically imagine grief, and includes an intense and persistent emotional experience, difficulty accepting the loss, and disconnection from one’s social and professional world.  
  6. As a person learns to live with the reality of their loss, they move to “integrated grief.” Their grief might not be as frequent or as intense, but it is something that remains a part of a bereaved person forever, so we try to avoid language like “moving on” “getting over it” or “recovering.”  
  7. Although very popular in the media and with the public, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ “5 Stages of Grief” are no longer emphasized within psychological research and literature on grief. While experiences such as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance might all be components of an individual's experience of grief, grief is not thought to be linear or sequential.  
  8. Theories exploring how individuals adapt to loss now take into account greater oscillation between psychological processes, such as Stroebe & Schute’s Dual-Process Model. This theory discusses how adaptation to loss includes both loss-oriented and restoration-oriented pillars: essentially people must both spend time with the emotional aspects of grief  in order to process the loss, while also working towards re-engaging with their world (social relationships, professional work, hobbies) as a means towards developing a re-defined sense of meaning and purpose even in the absence of the person who has died. 
  9. In order to adapt to loss, children and adults both need to have their physical needs met, social support, oscillation between pain and respite, and opportunities for positive experience.  Although we have a map for this process, it takes a different amount of time with different areas of focus for every individual, and grieving individuals should be treated with care, compassion, and patience.

Dr. Dan Wolfson is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in grief and trauma and an advisor to Lantern. 

Categories: Grief, Managing a Death, Supporting Someone Who's Grieving

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