While the terms “grief” and “mourning” are often used interchangeably, grief is generally understood as one’s subjective reaction to loss, while mourning is one’s attempt to cope with this loss.

The mourning process can take months or years, and people’s feelings usually change over time. Every individual grieves differently and mourns in their own way, though there are some typical characteristics that people who have experienced loss describe.

Familiarity with these characteristics can help in knowing what to expect during the months and years following the loss of a loved one. The feeling that we are not alone in this situation and that what we are experiencing is entirely normal can be helpful in the healing process. Note that not everybody experiences all of these feelings.

Shock, dulling of senses, and disbelief
When we first learn the terrible news we often don’t quite believe it. This feeling of shock and disbelief may persist for several hours or days, and occasionally last even longer. Outbursts of crying, panic, and anger often characterize this period. Many people describe feeling like a robot or “zombie,” as if they are simply on autopilot. Others stick steadfastly to their regular routine and act as if nothing has happened. This feeling of shock has a purpose: it protects us from being overwhelmed by the feeling of loss. Without the initial shock, the pain would be impossible to bear.

Longings for the deceased
Losing a loved one is often accompanied by constant thinking about the departed and intense feelings of longing. We may lose interest in people and things around us. During this period we may cry when thinking or speaking of the departed, and may feel significant amounts of tension, confusion, and anger. The anger is often directed at the world, at ourselves, or even at the departed. This may be a time of very confusing feelings.

Feelings of helplessness, abandonment, and guilt are often present as well. Many people feel guilty about things they said or did, or failed to do or say, as related to the deceased. Many suffer from physical symptoms during this time such as sleep disturbances, fatigue, lack of concentration, and changes in their eating habits. Others report that they have heard or seen the deceased and many dream of the deceased. These reactions are all perfectly normal and represent the mechanisms used by both body and soul to cope with loss.

Lack of organization and despair
Gradually we begin to accept the fact that the loss is final and that we will never be the same as we were. We may now realize that we have to build a new identity without the departed. This is especially difficult when the person who died was a central figure in our lives, such as a spouse, parent, or child. This period of time may be characterized by feelings of emptiness, apathy, or depression.

As we return to daily functioning after the loss, we begin to build our lives anew. The goal of reorganization is not to erase the pain or memories, but to create a situation where loss is not the central focus of our experience of the beloved. We learn to integrate our memories into the new lives that we are building. During this period are still difficult moments, times and events. For many people anniversaries of their loved one’s death, holidays, and birthdays are especially likely to evoke memories, painful feelings, and longings.