When you lose someone or something dear to you, it's natural to feel pain and grief. The grief process is a very normal response, and most people experience it. But when grief encompasses your life and you begin to feel hopeless, helpless, and worthless, then it's time to talk to your doctor about grief and depression.

What is grief?

Grief is a natural response to death or loss. Each year, between 5% and 9% of people sustain the loss of a close family member. But that's not the only kind of loss that can cause grief. People can feel loss when:

  • A loved one dies
  • They become separated from a loved one
  • They lose a job, position, or income
  • A pet dies or runs away
  • Children leave home
  • They experience a major change in life such as getting a divorce, moving, becoming an "empty nester" or retiring

While we all experience grief and loss, each of us is unique in the ways we cope with our feelings.

Some people have healthy coping skills. They are able to experience grief without losing sight of their daily responsibilities. The grieving process is an opportunity for someone to appropriately mourn a loss and then heal. It's facilitated by acknowledging grief, allowing time for grief to work, and finding support.

Other people, however, don't have the coping mechanisms or support they need. That lack actually hinders the grieving process.

How do people react to grief or loss?

There are specific stages of grief. They reflect common reactions people have as they try to make sense of a loss. An important part of the healing process is experiencing and accepting the feelings that come as a result of the loss. Here are the common stages of grief that people go through:

  • Denial, numbness, and shock: Numbness is a normal reaction to a death or loss and should never be confused with "not caring." This stage of grief helps protect the individual from experiencing the intensity of the loss. It can actually be useful when the grieving person has to take some action such as planning a funeral, notifying relatives, or sorting out important paperwork. As the individual moves through the experience and slowly acknowledges its impact, the initial denial and disbelief will diminish.
  • Bargaining: This stage of grief may be marked by persistent thoughts about what "could have been done" to prevent the death or loss. Some people become obsessed with thinking about specific ways things could have been done differently to save the person's life or prevent the loss. If this stage of grief is not dealt with and resolved, the individual may live with intense feelings of guilt or anger that can interfere with the healing process.
  • Depression: In this stage of grief, people begin to realise and feel the true extent of the death or loss. Common signs of depression in this stage include difficulty sleeping, poor appetite, fatigue, lack of energy, and crying spells. The individual may also experience self-pity and feel lonely, isolated, empty, lost, and anxious.
  • Anger: This stage of grief is common. It usually occurs when an individual feels helpless and powerless. Anger can stem from a feeling of abandonment because of a death or loss. Sometimes the individual is angry at those in authority, at the doctors who cared for the loved one, or towards life in general.
  • Acceptance: In time, an individual can move into this stage of grief and come to terms with all the emotions and feelings that were experienced when the death or loss occurred. Healing can begin once the loss becomes integrated into the individual's set of life experiences.

Throughout a person's lifetime, he or she may return to some of the earlier stages of grief, such as depression or anger. Because there are no rules or time limit to the grieving process, each individual's healing process will be different.