Understanding grief

Bereavement is what happens to you. Grief is what you feel. Mourning is what you do.

Grief affects us all differently. It can impact our physical and mental health, and our lives may never feel the same again. It’s important to remember there is no ‘normal’ way to grieve — your grief is personal to you — but with support, time and understanding you can learn to live with your grief.

Everyone experiences the pain of bereavement at some stage in their life. Grief can be overwhelming, painful and unpredictable as we process our feelings. It’s important to be kind to yourself and recognise there is no ‘proper’ way to grieve. However you react is a natural response to what may be the one of the most emotionally challenging times of your life. Finding an outlet for your grief is important whether it is talking to someone or reaching out to Cruse Bereavement Support – we are here for you.

The nature of grief is unique for all of us and can be influenced by many things, including:

  • our age
  • our personality
  • our friends' and families’ support
  • our relationship with the person who died
  • our religious beliefs
  • how the death occurred
  • whether it was sudden or expected.

It’s important to remember grief is normal and is part of the healing process. It’s unpredictable and something we can’t always control. Learning to live with loss isn't easy, but with time and self-care, most of the feelings of sorrow, dejection, anxiety, depression, and anger can become less frequent and more manageable.

A man sitting on a sofa, looking sad with his head in his hand.

How long does grief last?

There is no set time for grief, no exact moment of recovery. Grieving is about healing, and everyone heals at a different pace. Most of the intense feelings of grief should become less frequent and less intense over time. as you come to terms with a different life without the person who has died.

Models of grief

There are different models of grief which try to understand and explain the grieving process, including:

  • The five stages of grief
  • Growing around grief
  • The dual process model

Each of these models try to describe what is a complicated set to feelings and emotions. Everyone’s experience of bereavement and their grief journey is unique and personal to them, so don't worry if these models don't seem to match your experience. But you might find some things that you recognise or that you expected to feel but haven’t, and that’s ok.

The five stages of grief

The five stages of grief model comes from a psychiatrist named Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in the 1960s. Originally, it was supposed to describe how terminally ill people come to terms with their own death. Over time, it has developed into a model for thinking about grief in general.

The five stages described in the model are:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

One important part of the model that is often overlooked is that there is no set pattern to the stages. In her book ‘On Death and Dying’, Kübler-Ross explains that the stages don’t always happen in the same order, or to a set timeline. Some people may not experience all of the stages, or they may experience different stages after different bereavements.


Denial is a coping mechanism, where the shock of death means you may feel numb or disconnected from reality. You might carry on like normal, as if nothing has happened and wonder why you feel unaffected. The truth may be too hard to face straight away, and denial can help shield you from the overwhelming reality of grief. Once the denial and shock fade, the healing process can begin.


Anger is a common and natural reaction to loss. There can be a sense of injustice when someone we love dies and we feel angry at how cruel and indiscriminate death can be. There might be anger at the person who’s died for leaving you, or anger at yourself for things about things you could have done or said differently.


The powerlessness of grief can make it a desperate time. It can be difficult to accept that we can’t change what’s happened. This is what bargaining can be - where we try to make deals to make things better and to try to reclaim the life we had before, or the life we want. Bargaining is when we try to reclaim some control, some order amid the chaos of grief.


The most accepted form of grief tends to be associated with sadness or despair. We might isolate ourselves, refuse help, and feel like there’s no point in doing anything.


As time passes, most people will feel the grief become more bearable and see a way forward with their life. They can accept the reality of their grief. This doesn't mean they have forgotten the person who has died, or that they no longer care about them. It’s not about ‘getting over’ the death but about moving on with your life, while keeping that person alive in your memories. This doesn't mean there won’t be any more bad days but the goo should outnumber the bad and you can fill your life with joy and positive experiences, so the grief takes up less space in your life.

A woman comforting a man wither her hand on his shoulder.

Growing around grief

The ‘growing around grief’ model is by Dr Lois Tonkin in the 1990s and challenges the idea that grief ever goes away. Instead, Tonkin argues that grief always stays with us - it doesn't fade or go away. What changes is that as time passes, our lives expand. We meet new people, see other places, try new things, we get older. The grief doesn’t get smaller. Our lives get bigger and grow around the grief.

Why does this matter? Tonkin’s model lets people know that grief doesn’t always go away, or fade over time. The grief may always be there and years later, it may hit you as hard as it did when the person died. The difference is that your life has grown to become bigger, and you have become stronger and more able to cope with your grief.

The dual process model

The dual process model of grief is from Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut in the 1990s. They argue that one of the ways people are able to cope with their grief is to allow themselves occasions when they forget their grief, even for small moments.

Stroebe and Schut say that there are two different processes at work during grief, and that people who are grieving are constantly switching (or oscillating) between them:

– Loss-oriented processes

These are the typical thoughts and feelings that we associate with grief - sadness, anger, pain, despair, hopelessness or depression..

– Restoration-oriented processes

There are things that let keep going though you day-to-day life and help you to feel better. Maybe you meet a friend for coffee and sit outside on a sunny day and realise that you feel happy. Or maybe you watch your favourite TV show and find yourself laughing at it, or maybe you go to the gym and feel great after a workout.

Both of these processes are normal and the dual process model that the constant moving between them is what helps people cope with their grief. You will have times of sadness and when your grief is the main thing in your life, but you are also allowed to take a break from your grief and to feel happy, if only for short periods. That break from your grief is what helps you through it.

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