Understanding Grief and Its Three Timelines

What is Grief?

Grief is an emotional response to loss, particularly after someone has died, involving deep sorrow, anger, sadness, and many other feelings. Everyone experiences and handles grief differently, but we are all touched by it in our lifetimes. Some may think that the grieving process is short and can only last a few months or a year, but in reality, grief can last for a long time; everyone is different. 

Most people will experience common or normal grief and then, in time, adjust to the loss, ending the grieving experience. Others will experience more severe grief and can potentially need and benefit from treatment. Understanding different timelines and varieties of grief help determine whether or not care and treatment can be beneficial.  

Three Timelines of Grief

Anticipatory Grief

Anticipatory grief describes feelings of grief in anticipation of an impending loss of a loved one. Though this term has been more often associated with the family and friends of the dying person, the individual themselves can also experience this grief reaction. The symptoms of anticipatory grief are much like those after the person has died, especially intense sorrow, escalated stress, pain, and potential medical complications. Some believe that the more grief that is felt before the loss, the easier it will be after they have passed, but that is often not the case — grief can be felt in various ways, and the experience is different for everyone.  

Normal or Common Grief

Normal grief, also referred to as common grief, involves the grief response that occurs right after a loved one has died. With normal grief, the emotional distress is focused on the separation from the loved one that has passed and the yearning for that person. Individuals experiencing normal grief often struggle to manage daily activities and experience common emotional reactions such as intense shock, sadness, guilt, anger, and fatigue; these can be heightened if the death is unexpected. As a result, one may often cry, isolate themselves, struggle with insomnia, develop anorexia, lose interest in hobbies, and more.  

Complex, Prolonged, or Persistent Grief

Complex grief, also called prolonged or persistent grief, describes the long-term feelings of grief that continue long after the loved one’s death. Complex grief differs from other grief responses not in terms of the reaction itself but the inability to cope and persistence of the disability and distress it causes long-term. Those experiencing this long-term, elevated grief reaction may benefit from medical attention and may be diagnosed with persistent complex bereavement disorder. Don’t hesitate to speak with your doctor about intense feelings of grief lasting more than six months or a year.  

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