It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles.
The Buddha

Introduction to Grief

Grief not only occurs in every culture in the world, but also appears to be a phenomenon that is not limited to humans. There have been stories for ages about birds that mate for life searching for their lost mate. When a group of elephants comes across the skull of a former member of the herd, some of them use their trunks to gently move and sniff the skull as if they are remembering. The most provocative examples of possible animal grief are those involving gorillas. For example, on December 7, 2004 the female gorilla Babs died at the age of 30 at the Brookfield Zoo. The zoo officials let surviving gorillas mourn her death in what the zoo’s curator called a “gorilla wake.” The Sydney Daily Telegraph reported on March 31, 1998 how a family of gorillas grieved the death of a three-week newborn. From these examples, and many others we see in nature that I haven’t listed, grief is a universal part of life. Therefore, we can be assured that the grief we experience after the death of a loved one is a natural reaction to loss.

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Grief and Disease

Some people may question if grief is a healthy response to loss, even if it is natural. I think there are three reasons for this concern. First, both grief and an illness make it harder to function, at least temporarily. Second, we may experience grief reactions we have never encountered before and think something is drastically wrong with us. We must be sick for this to be happening to us. Third, we tend to use words to describe grief that we associate with an illness, words such as “heal,” “symptoms,” and “recover.” (For this reason I prefer to use words like “manifestations” or “expressions” of grief rather than disease-related words.) However, grief is not a disease; it is a “dis-ease.” We are no longer “at ease” and are experiencing a disruption in the stability of our normal day-to-day lives. There is no sick condition in the mind or the body directly caused by bacteria, viruses, physiological problems, etc. like there is with a disease. Grief is a healthy reaction to a loss.

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Grief vs. Depression

Many people, including some mental health and medical professionals, have the misconception that grief and depression are synonymous. This misunderstanding has led to some people being diagnosed with depression when they are really exhibiting normal manifestation of grief. While the fifth and latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the "bible" of diagnosing mental disorders, has been criticized for various reasons, it has included a very good description of how grief manifestations and depression can be differentiated. The following table delineates the differences:

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Grief Reactions

When people lose something or someone important to them, they are bereaved and they may experience a variety of reactions.  These reactions can be so strong or foreign to them that the bereaved may believe they are “going crazy.”  They aren’t going crazy; they are experiencing grief.

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Grief Factors

What someone experiences after a death is very personal and no two people react the same way or on the same time line. Even identical twins may respond to the loss of a parent differently. Which reactions each person has can vary in intensity from time to time and from one death to another.

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Disenfranchised Grief

Unfortunately, there are situations where the grief that some people experience when they incur a loss is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported.  In other words, a person who has suffered a loss does not have the right to act as if he/she is bereaved even though he/she IS bereaved. This inexpressible and unsupportable grief is called disenfranchised grief.

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Anticipatory Grief

In a letter Edgar Allen Poe wrote to a friend shortly after the death of his wife whom he deeply loved, Poe describes well the agony of anticipating her death.  This type of grief and mourning is commonly known as Anticipatory Grief or Anticipatory Mourning.

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