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Understanding the grieving process

Change, crisis and loss

Everyone experiences grief in a different way. Learn how you can help yourself or someone else who is grieving.

The loss of a loved one, natural disasters and layoffs all involve a change from an old reality to a new one. As you experience these shifts, you may also experience grief, which is a natural and normal part of the process.

Stages of grief

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, MD, was a well-respected grief expert who identified 5 nonlinear stages of grief. The stages can change from minute to minute. This is normal. Grief takes time to work through.

Denial and shock
You may find yourself thinking “This can’t be happening.” “They will walk through that door again.” Or “Surely they made a mistake when they laid me off.” You may feel numb.

Anger or blame toward oneself or the person who passed away or others is common.

Many people have thoughts of negotiating with a higher power or someone they see as in control of the situation. For example: “Please God, I won’t ever _____ again if you give me _____ back.”

Sadness and depression
Crying, intense sadness and withdrawal are normal responses to grief. This phase is an integral and important step in the grief process.

In this stage, the person learns to live with the new reality. There are usually more good days than bad ones. It may sound like this: “I’ll be able to find a way forward from here” or “I am fortunate to have shared so many memories with my loved one.”

A sixth stage of grief has been identified by David Kessler, an expert in the field of grief who collaborated closely with Dr. Kübler-Ross. That stage: finding meaning.

Finding meaning
Looking for ways to grow personally and to honor and remember loved ones as you move forward.

The stages are not linear; people go through different stages at different times and in different orders.

How you experience grief

As you move through your grief, you’ll likely experience changes from minute to minute. Here are the different ways that people experience grief:

How you may think

  • Poor concentration
  • Shorter attention span
  • Slowed problem solving
  • Memory problems
  • Difficulty making decisions

What you may feel emotionally

  • Depression
  • Grief
  • Guilt
  • Anxiety or fear
  • Feeling lost or overwhelmed

How you may feel physically

  • Headaches
  • Chest or stomach pain
  • Muscle tremors
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Elevated blood pressure

How you may behave

  • Excessive silence
  • Social withdrawal
  • Changes in sleep and eating habits
  • Lower work performance

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How to help yourself

  • Take care of your physical health. Attend to basic needs like food, shelter and safety. Get plenty of rest. Eat well-balanced and regular meals, even if they don’t seem appealing.
  • Acknowledge the loss and your reactions to it. Give yourself permission to feel bad without labeling or judging yourself.
  • Take time to grieve. Journal. Attend the funeral or memorial service. Let yourself cry.
  • Create everyday routines. Familiar habits can be comforting.
  • Connect. Talk to someone who will listen and allow you to experience your feelings. If you don’t feel like talking, just being with a companion can help ease your grief.
  • Don’t try to “numb the pain” with drugs or alcohol.
  • Be kind to yourself. Realize that recurring thoughts and feelings associated with the death are normal. They’ll decrease over time and become less painful.
  • Look for ways to find meaning. Is there a way you can use what you have learned through the change, crisis or loss to help others? Did you learn something about yourself that will help you in your life? Is there a way you can honor and remember a loved one who passed?
  • Ask for support when you need it. Remember, it’s a sign of strength to acknowledge when you need additional resources or support. Contact a support group or your employee assistance program (EAP). This confidential service, provided by your employer at no cost to you, helps you manage stress, overcome anxiety and depression, and cope with change, grief and loss. Our EAP specialists are available any time, every day.

How to help others

  • Extend grace when possible. People experience grief differently. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Be aware that people who are grieving may say or do things they would not normally. Emotions may change quickly. Don’t take these emotional outbursts personally. At work, tasks may take longer to get completed. Productivity may decline for a bit.
  • Help meet the basic needs of others. Do they need food, shelter, clothing, transportation, childcare, etc.? How can you help them to meet those needs?
  • Connect. Share feelings and check on how others are doing. Allow other people to talk about their feelings. Listen and respect their point of view, even if you don’t share it. Respect that different people grieve in different ways. There is no one right way to grieve. If the person does not want to talk, respect that but find other ways to show you care, such as a note, flowers or a meal.
  • Help others create meaning. Can you organize a memorial? Can you help identify a positive opportunity available because of a change?
  • Suggest available help, such as your EAP or a support group. It may take longer for some people than others, but with time and acceptance, the pain will lessen.

Find mental health resources that fit with your life. Work 1-on-1 with a virtual coach or therapist from AbleTo. Find support.

The information featured in this site is general in nature. The site provides health information designed to complement your personal health management. It does not provide medical advice or health services and is not meant to replace professional advice or imply coverage of specific clinical services or products. The inclusion of links to other web sites does not imply any endorsement of the material on such websites.

Optum does not recommend or endorse any treatment or medications, specific or otherwise. The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not meant to provide medical advice or otherwise replace professional advice. Consult with your clinician, physician or mental health care provider for specific health care needs, treatment or medications. Certain treatments may not be included in your insurance benefits. Check your health plan regarding your coverage of services.

If you or someone you know is in crisis— seek safety and get help right away. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911 or go to the closest emergency room.

To reach a trained crisis counselor, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). You may also text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org. The lifeline provides 24/7 free and confidential support.

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