Is grief more than a negative emotion?

Grief is not a negative emotion that needs to be overcome soon but experienced just like any other emotion

M Priyanka

Megan Devine, in her book, It's Okay That You Are Not Okay, talks about how our views about grief are entirely negative."Grief is seen as an aberration, a detour from the normal happy life. Our medical models call it a disorder. We believe that grief is a short term response to a difficult situation, and as such, should be done and over with within a few weeks," she writes.

What is grief? It is an emotion experienced by an individual in the face of loss  loss of something or someone, that was irrecoverable or irreplaceable to the person.This is why a person grieves when they have been through a breakup, lost a loved one, lost a pet or been diagnosed with a chronic illness  because reality doesn't match their perceived picture of happiness. 

Often, there is a general tendency to downplay someone's grief. Like the loss of a pet or a friend moving away, according to some, does not warrant the act of grieving. But it is important to understand that grief depends on the situation that the person is in and their relationship with the loss (of person or thing) faced. It is this that defines the degree of intensity of grief  that a person experiences.

What happens to the brain while sensing and processing grief?

Prolonged grief has an impact on the brain and body. When a person is grieving, it can show on their physical health in the form of:

  • Lack of focus, brain fog

  • with reality

  • Headaches

  • Irritability

  • Lack of time management

  • Social isolation

  • Withdrawing from family/friends

  • Irregular food habits  overeating or not eating at all

Why does this happen? Research has shown that when a person is grieving, the neurons in the brain are undergoing a change, this causes changes not only to the brain but also to other organ functions such as that of the digestive system and regulation of the heart.

What are the different stages of grief?

Psychologist Elizabeth Kubler Ross, in her book Death and Dying, talks about her theory of grief and its stages:

Denial:The person is unable to accept the situation and may be telling themselves, "I feel fine, there is nothing wrong with me."   

Anger:In the face of grief, the person is either angry with themselves or with people who are close to them.This is important to note as it can help people around the grieving person look beyond the anger, helping them understand what the grieving person is going through better.   

Bargaining: For a person with terminal illness, this can be something on the lines of, "Let me live just until my daughter is married"  where they are bargaining about their life situation through the faith they have in the God they believe in. For a person grieving after a break up, bargaining could look something like, "Can we at least be friends now?".

In this stage, the person begins to truly understand the magnitude of the loss they have suffered. At this time, they may avoid their family, appear constantly sad, feel like and spend a lot of time crying. It is common for people to ask the person to stop crying and look cheerful or move on, but experts stress that this is when the person is processing the grief and is taking their time. It is important to let them feel the different emotions they are dealing with without censure. 

Acceptance: In this stage, the person has come to terms with their loss and are trying to find ways in which to overcome the situation, or, cope with the consequences. This might involve things like searching for ways to replenish money lost in a financial debacle or trying to get back to their life as a single person after a break up.

While these are usually the stages that a person goes through, it is not mandatory that everyone will experience all the stages or go through it in the exact same fashion.

"Every person's experience of grief is different from the other's  and all stages will not be experienced exactly according to theory. A lot of this depends on the person's social and cultural environment that they have been exposed to, as well as the resilience they build in themselves to deal with the grief," says Bangalore based psychologist Dr Poorva Ranade.

Talking to someone who is grieving

Often, people don't have enough understanding about how to respond to someone dealing with a lot of grief. They are worried that they may cause more pain to the other by talking to them and end up distancing themselves from the person altogether. On the other hand, some people push the person to overcome their grief as soon as possible and get 'back on track' in life. Both approaches, experts suggest, are not the right ways in which to help someone going through such a phase. Instead, here are some pointers when it comes to talking to someone in such a situation  

Empathize and reflect: Instead of saying 'you need to get over it' or 'it's okay', you could say   'I understand you are going through a tough time and are feeling sad and angry'. 

Make a suggestion in an open-ended manner: Instead of saying 'I think you should', you could say   'Would you like to consider (...)'.

Be there for them: If you feel that they are hesitant to talk, you can say, "I am here for you if you would like to talk to someone at any point".

Seeking help

The difference between prolonged grief that has been triggered versus depressive symptoms is a very thin line, often times they resemble each other.The American Psychiatric Association states that while the process of grieving is natural and may resemble severe depression, grief and depression are different from each other. 

Painful feelings come in waves, intermixed by positive feelings of the loss (usually of a loved one)

and thoughts are usually constantly negative

Self-esteem is usually preserved

Self loathing and constant feeling of worthlessness persist

If in addition to the feelings of grief, if the person is unable to function in their daily life, has suicidal thoughts (wanting to join their loved one in death) even after a long time after the loss has passed, they may require mental health intervention.

 –  Five Stages of Grief,

– Kübler-Ross model,


This article has been written with inputs from Poorva Ranade, a psychologist based in Bangalore.

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