Self-Help Information: Grief & Loss
What is Grief?
Grief is a normal and natural response to loss.
When you love someone, you inevitably experience pain and grief
when that love is lost. Grief is experienced in all major aspects of
your life, impacting your thoughts and feelings, your behavior with
others, and your physical health. Grief is an ongoing process with
many changes over time. It is different and unique for each
individual, for each type of loss, and at each point in the grief
process. In addition, many different types of loss can trigger
grief. Though you may expect to grieve the death of a family member
or close friend, other significant losses such as a divorce or
breakup of a relationship, moving to a new location, or the death of
a pet may also need to be grieved.
How do we Grieve?
"You should be strong." "You have to get on with your life."
"Don’t wallow in self-pity." These common but inappropriate
responses to grief reflect the fact that our society has not taught
people how to grieve well and, as a result, many of us don’t
appreciate the reason for grieving and the process of grieving. When
we lose a significant relationship, we must go through a process of
adapting to that loss. Therese Rando, in the book How to Go On
Living When Someone You Love Dies, discusses how grief work is
necessary to enable you to move beyond the loss and make the changes
required to accommodate the loss. "The purpose of grief and mourning
is to get to the point where you can live with the loss healthily,
after having made the necessary changes to do so."
Grief is an ongoing process. A common myth concerning grief is
that there are a series of stages that everyone goes through in a
particular order. While this is not true, there are main categories
of responses that most people experience. These tasks or phases of
mourning are fluid and experienced differently by different people
and with different types of losses.
"This can’t be true." The first reaction many people have,
particularly to a sudden death, is a sense of shock accompanied
by denial and disbelief. It is common to hope that, somehow,
this is a terrible mistake and the person is not really dead.
Accepting the reality of the loss and experiencing all the pain
and other feelings that accompany it is a second task of grief.
Rando terms this the "Confrontation" phase. Although you may
want to avoid these intense, painful, feelings, you need to
experience them to move on with the grief work.
A third task involves adjusting to life without the person and
investing emotional energy into other relationships. Termed the
"Accommodation" phase by Rando, a gradual decline of grief is
experienced during this time. You begin to be able to enjoy
other relationships again and begin to feel more like your old
self. You begin to establish a relationship with the deceased
that has a special feeling, but allows you to go forward and
form new relationships with others.
Although we generally progress through these tasks, most people
tend to move back and forth between them at different times. All of
these tasks or phases vary in intensity, length of time, and
individual experience. Your experience will not be the same as
Common Reactions to Loss
Denial, shock, numbness.
Fear and anxiety – "How can I go on?" "Can I survive this
Sadness and depression – feelings of loneliness, isolation,
Sorrow, pain and longing.
Anger – "How could she do this to me?" "How could God let this
Guilt – "I should have been more caring." "I should have told
her I loved her." "My life is going on and his isn’t."
Confusion and lack of concentration.
Grief spasms – intense periods of emotional release, usually
with a lot of crying.
Search for meaning.
Withdrawal from social relationships.
Physical symptoms – decreased appetite, energy, motivation;
difficulty sleeping; weight loss or gain; lethargy; chest pain,
pressure, or discomfort; feeling that something is stuck in your
throat and many other physical sensations. You also may be more
vulnerable to physical illness.
What Can I do to Help the Grief Process
Specific suggestions for resolving your grief (adapted from
Give yourself permission to feel your loss and to grieve over
Accept social support and tell others what you need – find
others you can talk to.
Be realistic in your expectations of yourself as a griever –
give yourself some slack. Don’t expect yourself to perform at
peak capacity while you are grieving.
Take care of yourself – allow yourself time to do special things
Give some form of expression to all your feelings.
Participate in social and cultural rituals – funerals, personal
Be patient – take whatever time you need. Don’t give yourself a
deadline to be "over it".
Allow yourself to have good times and enjoy yourself without
Maintain contact with others who have experienced the same loss.
If you are a college student away from home and have lost a
family member, keep in close contact with those at home
experiencing the same loss.
Talk to a professional or your clergy.
How Can I Help Someone Who is Grieving?
Be active. Don’t wait for the grieving person to contact you.
Make a call, send a card, and help with practical matters. Don’t
avoid others who are grieving because it feels uncomfortable –
it can mean a lot to show a gesture of caring.
Listen. Give him or her a chance to talk about whatever thoughts
or feelings are on his/her mind. Try to be accepting and
Don’t minimize the loss. Avoid clichés like "They lived a good
Allow the person to grieve as long as he/she needs to. Don’t
place your expectations on him/her.
Take time for yourself.
Recommended Books to Read
How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies.
Therese A. Rando, Ph.D., 1988.
The Grief Recovery Handbook: A Step-by-Step Program for
Moving Beyond Loss. John W.James & Frank Cherry, 1988.
Good Grief Rituals: Tools for Healing. Elaine Childs-Gowell,
ARNP, Ph.D., 1992.
Grief’s Courageous Journey: A Workbook. Sandi Caplan
& Gordon Lang, 1995.
Need Additional Help?
Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine
Counseling and Wellness Services offer free individual counseling
for these and related issues for veterinary students (WSU Veterinary
Students ONLY). For more information or to schedule an appointment
call or e-mail:
Donna J. Scott, PhD
The information contained in these self help
documents is not to be used as a substitute for professional
care. Neither the authors, Washington State University nor the
College of Veterinary Medicine assume liability for injury incurred
by following the information presented in these self-help documents