Grief is the biological process of the brain for healing and recovery from loss.

Grief affects everyone differently. There are no hard and fast rules about how you will grieve.

Did you know that the extreme stress that results from grief affects you physically too?

It can manifest as both chronic and acute disease. As you know, stress plays a major role in how your immune system functions.

The majority of bereaved people experience some kind of physical illness in the first four to six months after the death of a loved one. For most the illness can be directly tied to the extreme stress of their loved one’s death.

Loss and grief can also impact blood pressure, cholesterol levels, brain chemistry, blood sugar levels and hormonal balance.

When experts have looked at grieving people’s brains through imaging studies, they’ve found that there is increased activity along a broad network of neurons.

These links are also associated with mood, memory, perception, conceptualization and even the regulation of the heart, digestive system and other organs.

The more we dwell on negative thoughts, the more developed these neural pathways become. Which can result in chronic preoccupation, sadness and depression.

If your relationship with the deceased was difficult or strained, this will add another dimension to the grieving process. It may take some time before you can look back on the relationship and adjust to the loss.

The first phase (also know as the alarm reaction) occurs immediately on contact with the stressor. When you learn of the death the brain translates the stress of grief into a chemical reaction in your body.

The pituitary gland at the base of your brain is stimulated to produce a hormone called adrenocorticotrophin or ACTH.

This reaction is protective. It readies the body for battle. The ACTH then travels to the adrenal gland, a gland at the top of the kidneys, which causes a chemical reaction that ultimately produces cortisone.

As the cortisone level increases it causes the production of ACTH to level off.

When a death takes place, you may experience a wide range of emotions, even when the death is expected. Many people report feeling an initial stage of numbness after first learning of a death, but there is no real order to the grieving process.

So how can you deal with loss and grief?

1. Remember that you will survive this. The emotional ups and downs that you are feeling are normal and part of the grieving process.

2. Don’t try to speed up this process. If you don’t heal properly, your grieving will be incomplete. The energy of your present will remain bound to your past.

3. Take care of yourself. Pretend you are your best friend. What would you encourage her to do? Probably get a lot of rest, eat well and get adequate exercise.

4. Others may get impatient with your grief process. They may think you aren’t getting past the loss fast enough. Well, tough. Avoid these kinds of people because they aren’t helping you.

5. If you don’t want to be alone, seek out someone that is compassionate and perhaps has had a difficult loss of her own. She will know what you are experiencing and be able to help guide you gently through your grief process.

6. Write about your loss. How you feel about it, what thoughts keep cropping up in your head. Write down your dreams. Writing all this down encourages the grieving process to move along.

7. Create new rituals. I sing to Charlie after I turn the lights off before we go to sleep. He seems soothed by it, and it helps me relax as well.

8. You can also create your own memorial. Maybe plant a garden to symbolize your loss. Or fill a big container with herbs and flowers that symbolize your feelings for your loved one.

9. Avoid making big decisions during this time when you are so vulnerable. Your thoughts are skewed right now. It’s much better to put off big decisions until you can think more clearly.

10. Follow your gut. Too often we let others tell us how to feel. And then we feel guilty if we can’t feel that way. No one knows you better than you.

The five stages of grief are:

Denial: When I learned that there was nothing more they could do for Abi, I felt so many emotions all at once. I was in shock. I was overwhelmed.

Anger: After I saw her body stop moving, I was faced with the finality; the beginning of my loss and grief. I felt helpless and sometimes hopeless. I was frustrated because I had no control. This had happened under my watch and I felt guilty.

Bargaining: I went over everything that had transpired in the past weeks and wondered if I or the vet could have done something different. How could this have been prevented? What should I have done?

Depression: After about a month, the shock was gone and the loss really sunk in. I cried as much if not more.

Acceptance: I know I will regain some normalcy in my life. I know I will move forward and the pain will lessen with time.

Unfortunately grief and loss is a part of life. Knowing that doesn’t make it any easier of course.

Grieving is a process. Don’t try to deny your feelings and emotions. That will only make the process take longer.

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  1. My cousin is having a hard time with her grief because she lost her best friend this summer and she hasn’t been dealing with it well. I’ll be sure to tell her about how she can create her own kind of memorial and symbolize feelings for them and not make too many big decisions. She would really like to get some help from a professional so that they can hold it at a better funeral home.

  2. The other day I was getting my hair done and I said to her “I can’t wait until I can pass a picture of my son’s (we lost our thirty-one-year-old son in February of 2016 and our 28 year old son in June of 2017) and look at them and smile instead if breaking down in tears.” Her reply was “you’re still doing that?” I literally thought someone had punched me in my chest. The 31 year old left 5 kids behind. There are days where it literally feels like the very first moments all over again.

  3. Thank you, Brenda, for being here for all of us. You make such a difference with your honest words and caring attitude.

  4. Brenda, thank you for this post. It is factual and to the point but gentle and kind. I am a counselor and it is the best think I have read to explain grief. With your permission I would like to share Printed copies with my clients. I will give you credit on each printed copy. Please respond by email when you have time. Thank you, Diane

    1. I thought I knew what grief was when my dad died, and then my mother, 3 months later. It was beyond any thing else..until a year after, in 2000, my oldest son, 34, died, 6 months after finding out he had cancer inside his heart, which was rare. Two weeks after that I checked into the ER, thinking I had a heart attack, the pain was so intense. It was stress, and grief, and it took very very long to overcome. Thankfully, My husband and I were there for each other, I don’t think I could have made it without him. Now, 18 years later, I remember Eric, with a smile. Time doesn’t make the hurt go away, but it makes the pain softer..

  5. This comment section has turned into a wonderful grief support group today. Your post is certainly thought provoking, Brenda. And what you’ve said here opened my eyes to what I’ve been living with too. My beloved border collie, Lucy died of old age last October. My mother was put in hospice care last January and still lingers on deaths doorstep. Then my brother died unexpectedly last month at the age of 52. I am still waiting to find out his cause of death. I was told yesterday that my mother hasn’t much longer to live. I’m still focused on Lucy being gone and the emptiness in my heart and home as a result. You’d think my grief would be more focused on the humans. I think it’s because Lucy was here with me while my brother and mother lived/live far away and were/are not a part of my everyday life. Maybe this is testament to the powerful love and emotional attachment we have with our dogs, cats, any kind of animal. And maybe this has happened because Lucy was a nicer person. I doubt I will have another pet due to the expense of aquiring a cat or dog and ongoing maintenance as well. I haven’t found any foundations in my area that assist with these issues here in MN. I wrote to you about that a few weeks ago.

    1. Hi Kim. I was reading through all of the comments on Brenda’s post and yours really struck me as something I could feel myself. My dog, Milo, was diagnosed with lymphoma back in October of last year. He would have been gone in about a week had I not gotten to the vet. We decided to do chemo to get more time with him. Five treatments and he has been in remission since March. The bad news is that his age is taking a toll on him…he’ll be fifteen in September. His legs give out, he is deaf, if he gets too excited when someone comes over he sometimes loses his bladder. It is so, so hard watching him decline, seeing the demise of this goofy, lovable, energetic ball of fur. My vet has assured me that we will know when his life no longer has any quality. I feel it everyday when I have to pick him up after he’s fallen. That said, I wonder why I am so crazy with this whole thing—when I talk about losing him, I think people look at me like I’m odd…he’s not a human being! But truly, not only do our pets love us unconditionally, they are there for us during stretches of time in our lives, they represent and embody moments, days, weeks, years of our lives. When we got Milo as a puppy, my daughter was just preparing to go into high school. She now teaches high school. I do know grief, I’ve lost my mother and father as well as my very sweet sister. within the past 10 years. I know that grief. This is a whole new ballgame. I guess I’m just going to have to cry alone. Please feel that there are so many people like you struggling with your feelings.

      Sending a big hug,

      Jane

      1. Thank you for sharing this Jane. Lucy was in tough shape and I was going through the same with her as you are with Milo. We were to the point where it was too painful for her to be picked up. She was refusing food and water and that was when it was time to help her go. Everything but her ability to love had failed her. Our vet was kind and made Lucy as comfortable as possible on a feather bed. Lucy sighed a release from pain as she fell asleep while comforting hands rubbed her gently and was not aware of dying. Releasing her from terrible pain was our last act of love for our dear Lucy. It sounds like you face this soon as well and I’m sorry to hear of another beloved dog running out of days of a well lived life, adored and loved. You’ll have The support and understanding from friends here at Brenda’s place. Thanks for bringing us together here on your blog, Brenda.

  6. Beautifully written post Brenda. All of these tips and the process about grief is written so clearly to help anyone going through what you are right now. I am so happy to see you trying to help others as you yourself are grieving. That is so positive for you. I think the main and most important tip you talked about is to grieve on your time line. Everyone grieves differently just like no two people are alike. Letting grief unfold on your schedule is so important. Wishing you peace as you are moving forward with your own grief. Hugs to you and Charlie.
    Kris

  7. My love, my life passed away suddenly in March 2018. He passed lying next to me. We were talking and he closed his eyes and then he was gone. He was truly my best friend. My soul mate. We did everything together for 38 years. I cried like a baby the night he died. Yet I haven’t cried since. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

    1. There’s nothing wrong with you. Your brain is trying to protect you from your trauma. From childhood I would have dissociative episodes when under great stress. A doctor told me it was my brains way of protecting me. It would just take my emotions somewhere else. The doctor said once the brain learns something, it can’t “unlearn” it. A lack of tears don’t mean you aren’t grieving. Grief is multi faceted.

  8. This article came at a perfect time.
    My children lost their dad and I lost my best friend ( divorced ) to stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He lasted 3 mos.
    My kids and I were his caregivers and I’m so thankful for that time. It was difficult and heartbreaking .
    Even though we know what was coming there is no way to prepare for the Grief Strom that follows. Some days it totally changes your plans..lock the door and cry your heart out.

    1. People say all the things they know to say: I’m so sorry. Time will heal, etc. They are trying to help something that really can’t be helped. Just endured. I agree. When the grief is overwhelming, you can’t ask it to go for a walk. So just lock the door and cry your eyes out.

  9. Thank you for making me feel comfortable about the amount of time my grieving process has been taking and its okay to just go at ” MY ” own pace….missing my husband Pauly….Rip…12/20/2015….
    Marsha

    1. Your grief belongs to you. You didn’t want it; didn’t ask for it. But now that you have it, it is yours and you take all the time you need. You spend years of your life loving. How could you get over that quickly? I don’t think it’s possible.

  10. A wonderful posting Brenda. I couldn’t agree with the words of Rose Kennedy more. Pat answers in life such as, “time heals all wounds” while used in good intention many not mean anything at all to the one who’s world has just exploded. I do question platitudes for their truth but I do not blame people who use them when the intention is to try and help the best way they know how. Trevor Halls words, very wise too.

    Eventually, time does play its part and do for us what we cannot do for ourselves because we simply cannot function in a mode of deepest grief forever. Yet, to not honour your grief is to not honour yourself. Always wary of quick fixes.

    In the book called, “The Prophet” Kahlil Gibran says, “your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding”. It suggests to me that we are to learn in our grief and that essence is not to be short changed.

  11. Thanks for sharing this. I have been trying to stay on my feet this month, but it’s getting harder. We’ve had so much bad happen this year so far and it’s only halfway through. Right now we are trying to stabilize my 95 y/o father in law’s life after losing his wife of 71 years on the 7th all the while reeling from a terrible prognosis for my husband, his only child. Seems everyday brings a further burden to shoulder. One daughter’s 8 y/o son broke his arm the other day, and one’s sweet 15 year old pound pup has been diagnosed this week with end stage tumors and can go any time according to his vet. It’s so hard staying positive knowing time is so limited for our loved ones.

    1. How terribly overwhelming. My heart goes out to you. I guess just put one foot in front of the other and keep going is all I know to suggest.

  12. Sending you prayers of peace. I can relate to your losses & agree. Turn the ringer off until your ready!!!! People who truly love you will always be there for you, cant worry about the rest!!! I send prayers you will have comfort during your time of healing knowing you are never alone. I too feel the tremendous void loss brings, & desperately pray our hearts to one day be free of such aching.

  13. It’s been two years, eights months, ten days since I lost my sweet little toy poodle, Precious, otherwise known as WooWoo, to renal failure. And it’s been two years and five months since I lost my significant other of 13 years completely unexpectedly. My world is shattered. Everyday seems to get harder. I’ve lost interest in pretty much everything except my beloved shih tzu, Katie. It’s become old having to repeat the same excuses to the same people so instead I leave my ringer off and door locked. The only thing I want is to be alone. I can’t picture a different life for us. I’m so lost without them. I don’t know how to pick up the pieces or re-engage. I don’t know if you read the comments people leave but if you do, thank you for writing this…much of what you wrote was as if you were writing about me.

    1. Yes, I read the comments. And give a reply if I can. You suffered two horrible losses so close together, no wonder you’re so traumatized. You sound depressed, and why wouldn’t you be? Have you talked to a doctor about maybe getting something to help you feel better? My heart goes out to you. Without antidepressants, which I’ve been taking since I was a young mother, I doubt I’d still be here. Maybe they could help you too?

  14. The body’s response is truly incredible. We lost our son 18 weeks into a pregnancy and I had to have a c-section to deliver him. When it came time to try again blood tests showed anomalies – I now had coeliacs disease. We were told by two doctors that trauma both internally and externally (our son died from a virus I had caught) can bring on autoimmune diseases.

    1. How awful to go through such a thing. Makes you wonder why life has to be so painful. How could our bodies keep working the same when our brains are trying to accept such strong emotions? One has to affect the other.

  15. Hi Brenda. This is a good compilation of information. Thanks for putting the work into it. There are so many things that one goes through after the loss of a loved one and I could give examples for all of the points you make. Here’s one thing I’ll add — if you expect a certain response or reaction from friends or relatives when you talk to them about your loss, well, just be prepared for your expectations to not be met! Someone you think will be filled with compassion will hardly acknowledge your loss, and someone you don’t expect a thing from will be the one who really listens. It’s so strange! I had to learn to let go of my expectations about who I’d be mourning with, and come to appreciate the near-strangers who went out of their way to let me know they cared about me and my family.

  16. Thank you so much for this, I lost my brother seven months ago, he had cancer. I knew he was dying but that didn’t make it easier. I was wondering if there was something wrong with me because I still cry almost ever day and I’m still so sad.

    1. There is no time table to grief. But if you’re finding that you can barely get through the day, perhaps talk to your doctor. Your own life is precious and you don’t want to miss out on life if there’s a way to help you feel a bit better. I don’t think it really matters if we know they’re dying; still hits us like a ton of bricks and hurts like hell.

  17. Thank you for writing this . We just had to put our 12 year old cat to sleep he had heart problems. His sister keeps looking for him. Its so hard as you know Its just one day at a time. Again thanks for writing this

    1. I immediately thought of getting a kitten. But then I read that you should allow the remaining pet or pets three months to grieve. I’m glad I didn’t act rashly. You can’t replace the one you loved. Sometimes it helps to have another to love and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the grief still can’t be held at bay. It’s still going to be there. And you’re quite welcome.

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