Grief, Bereavement and Healing

What is Grief?

Grief is one of the deepest pains we experience. It is the normal and adaptive process of adjusting to any experience of loss or unwanted change. It is always a shock, whether the loss was expected or not.

Although each person's expression of grief is unique, it is a universal human experience. No one who has loved another can escape the pain of loss or the process of grieving that goes with it.

Although we live in a time when the social norm is focused on "getting over it," grief is a process that deserves our utmost respect. Neither we, nor others, can brush aside, judge or placate away our grief.

If you would like assistance with coping with your grief, please contact the UCSF Social Work Department at (415) 353-1504 for a referral to speak with someone who can help.

Understanding Your Grief

It can be helpful to think of your grief as a journey through an unknown land with trails that are often difficult to find. The following are some markers to help you know that, although you are experiencing loss, you are not "lost." There are some guideposts on the journey, placed there by others who have traveled this path.

There are no "right" or "wrong" emotions

Strong emotions are normal, and it is common for us to judge ourselves for experiencing them. Much depends on the unique relationship you had with the deceased, the circumstances surrounding the loss and our own personal comfort with strong emotions. Accepting the whole range without self-criticism is one of the major challenges of grief.

Common emotions include intense feelings of sadness, anger, fear, despair, loneliness, guilt, resentment, relief, regret and irritability. It is also common to feel numbness, withdrawal, disbelief and to have difficulty concentrating.

Deep emotional pain is a natural part of the grief process

Though it is understandable to try and avoid the intense distress connected with the grief process, feeling and processing all that arises is a necessary part of healing.

Mourning is hard work, often invisible to others

No one else can feel the pain in our hearts, nor heal it, though their support and encouragement can help.

There is no right or wrong time for grieving

The death of a loved one naturally brings about emotional, physical and spiritual pain. Since encountering this pain all at once would be overwhelming, most often we touch into it and out of it, in doses. Sometimes we need to distract ourselves; other times, we need to dive into it.

Respect this natural rhythm of grieving. In general, grief is a process that takes longer than anyone expects.

Guilt, real or imagined, is a normal part of grief

Guilt surfaces in thoughts and feelings of "if only." In order to heal this guilt, it is most helpful to share these feelings with trusted others. Ultimately, we must forgive ourselves for whatever ways we failed in our relationship with the deceased. This is a challenging process that takes time and effort and is necessary to release yourself of the emotional burden.

Telling one's story is a natural way to process grief

Seeking and accepting supportive people to listen to our stories is a vital part of successfully navigating the grief journey.

We don't "get over" grief

Grief is a life altering experience that will continue to reverberate throughout our lives. The sense of loss softens, but does not completely disappear. Ultimately, grief transforms us. However, there is often a period of intense disorganization and distress before a sense of meaning and purpose return. During that time, the bereaved may feel that there is nothing to live for and may think about a release from this inner pain. Be assured that the pain will lessen and healing through grief will happen.

Bereavement Support Groups

Bereavement support groups provide opportunities for you to discuss your experiences and learn about grief with others who have experienced loss. Although most groups are facilitated by trained professionals, the true source of support is others who are also experiencing grief and loss.

Sometimes well-meaning friends or family try to protect the griever by not mentioning the dead person's name, or by removing reminders of the loss. This strategy communicates that the pain of dealing with the loss would be overwhelming. Often, although friends and family mean well, they may either be experiencing loss as well or simply do not know how to "be there" in the most helpful way.

Because of one's extreme sensitivity during a time of loss, others' responses may be disappointing or feel hurtful. In this situation, it can be very helpful to have a safe place to express your thoughts and feelings where you know everyone will understand and accept you.

When You Might Need Extra Help with Your Grief

Sometimes the natural process of bereavement can get shut down or go off track. The grieving process can be very tumultuous. However, if you are experiencing some of the following symptoms after a few months, they may be indicators that you need extra support:

  • Feeling irritable and angry much of the time
  • Feeling a sense of numbness or inability to feel sad that doesn't let up
  • Feeling very anxious about your own or others' loved ones dying
  • Preoccupation with the details surrounding the death
  • Self-harming behaviors

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, please contact your doctor, nurse practitioner, social worker or counselor.

Supporting Children

Children suffer grief when someone they know and love dies, although they may express their feelings somewhat differently than adults. Although they may seem relatively unaffected, they are processing their feelings through age-appropriate play and conversations. The child's age determines the degree of understanding she or he will have, and adults need to modify their explanations and support to meet the developmental maturity of the child.

It is not uncommon for children to feel left out of the experience of the adults, so a special effort needs to be made to help them find age-appropriate ways to participate in the events surrounding the death. Writing a letter to the loved one, drawing a picture, participating in the funeral or memorial service, or sharing stories and tears with others who are also grieving, helps them feel included and supports their healing. Be prepared to answer questions about death and what happens after a loved one dies.

Ways to Support Children

The following are a few ways to support children during the grieving process:

  • Offer physical closeness, comfort and reassurance.
  • Talk about special memories and relationships with the deceased.
  • Read books about grief, look through photo albums together.
  • Acknowledge and validate feelings.
  • Talk about your family's ethnic or faith tradition about life, death and the afterlife.
  • Be patient.
  • Know that it's alright not to have all the answers. Children need adults to contemplate with them on important matters.

Helping Children with Funerals and Memorials

Allowing children and teens to say goodbye to the person who died is an important part of their grieving process. Participating in a service will show children how important their loved one was to others, and will let them know that it is okay to grieve.

Before the service, it is helpful to let children know what to expect: What is going to happen, who will be there, when and where it will take place and why it's important. Let children's questions and natural curiosity guide the discussion. If you are also grieving, it is helpful to assign another adult to share responsibility for observing and supporting children during the funeral or memorial.

Some children may wish to participate in the service. Bereaved children feel that their feelings matter when they can share a favorite memory or read a special poem as part of the funeral. Shy or young children can participate by lighting a candle or placing something special in the casket or on an altar. Depending on age and emotional maturity, children can also help pick out the casket, select clothing or jewelry for a loved one to wear, or select songs, music or readings for the ritual.

Should children choose not to participate, invite them to create their own ritual or activity for saying goodbye — for example, lighting a candle or planting a special flower or tree.

More Information


Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.

This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or health care provider. We encourage you to discuss with your doctor any questions or concerns you may have.