What is Grief?

Jan 24, 2020 | 8 comments

Talking about a familiar topic like grief, it is easy to read this on autopilot. “Yup, I know what grief is.” But stick with me, I think you’ll be surprised how much more grief is in your life than you might realize.

When you lose a person or something that is deeply important to you, grief is the psychological response and intense sorrow and pain ensue. Grief follows the death of a loved one (including pets), as well as the losses of other types; you might have experienced a divorce, a career change, your cross-cultural work ending/changing, physical abilities ceasing, an athletic injury, teammates leaving, or you moving from one place to another. 

When you lose something that has grounded you and is a major part of who you are in any capacity loss takes place. 

Relationships are connected to your sense of self and give you meaningful purpose and well-being. Your relationships, whether to people, animals, work, or even to a culture are part of who you are and part of what makes life meaningful to you. 

After you lose something that is deeply meaningful or integral to you, life is never the same again. You are forced to adjust whether you want to or not. Life is not as it had been nor will it return to the previous state. When this takes place our understanding of the world, ourselves and our anchors in life are altered or knocked loose altogether. This can leave you directionless and many feelings arise. Often, you feel out of control and sometimes you wonder “What is wrong with me?” 

Grief affects your mind and body. Your brain stores memories of your loved one in a unique way, which creates an attachment and a deep sense of connectedness.

Because of this connected bond, you experience the loss intensely. Each person and relationship are unique; therefore, each grief experience is individual. Your grief is informed by the relationship to the loved one, your own attachment to them and your style of connecting to others. In addition, your history, your ability to manage stressors, your support system and your current circumstances, including the culture you live in influence how you grieve. (Anyone else feeling compassion for all of us? So many variables!)

There is a universal process that grievers go through and it is also very individual. There is no correct way to grieve or proper stages to go through, however there are similarities, emotions that are often shared and experiences that resonate as you share them.

Grief is a combination of different thoughts, behaviors and emotions. This experience is often unfamiliar. Initially you experience acute grief, the most intense part of grief. At times acute grief lingers and resurfaces. You feel longing for your loved one or what you lost, coupled with sadness and often some form of anxiety, shame, anger or guilt. Uncontrollable behaviors and emotions may surface. It is common for irritability to surface during circumstances that would have been minimal before or perhaps not even noticed. 

Grief places the griever in a vulnerable position. It often can feel uncontrollable when experiencing acute grief. It can feel as if you are drowning and will never find air again. Feelings of relief are also a normal emotion when grieving, relief from taking care of a person or perhaps relief from the pressure of your current “work,” teammate, or location. Positive emotions are also often part of the grieving process. Laughing when thinking fondly on the one you loved or the achievement or joy in something you accomplished. 

As losses take place you wonder, “How do I grieve well?” I have asked this question of myself many times. How is this done “well” when I feel so completely out of control? Grace and freedom to yourself is essential when grieving. Allowing emotion—or lack of emotion—to come and to go; to allow relief, sadness, anger, guilt, numbness, anxiety to come in and to go out. It is normal and part of your healing process. 

When a loss takes place, one of the most difficult things about it, is the presence of the loss. The number one desire is often to wish away the reality of the loss and the reality of the pain. It certainly was for me. We must allow the loss to be present, and we must move through it to heal. The process of grief takes time, and one is never “finished” grieving, but hopefully you are able to accept the loss into a new reality/identity. The relationship with the person, place, or time has changed and is integrated in your identity in a new way. When grieving, you are managing intense emotional pain and stress, as you work to accept the reality of the loss. In time, the hope would be to restore life’s purpose, continue bonds, and understand yourself in the midst of this new reality. 

On Thursday we will talk about complicated grief and how it affects you as well. As we end today, I have found this quote from Albert Camus helpful as I grieve. “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.” 

As you think about grief, what topics would you like us to explore?

With January winding down, the clock is ticking on this month’s workshop. TCK expert Lauren Wells explores 4 challenges TCKs face in forming their identity and how to prevent each one. Practical and encouraging, learn how to help a TCK you love. Get it before the price doubles.

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

Katie Brown

Wife, Mama, Counselor, Friend, Grief Specialist




  1. Amy Young

    Katie, thank you for this post — it brings form and definition and clarity to something that can feel swirly and like fog. You help us feel less alone and able to talk about the losses we all experience. Thank you!

    • Katie Brown

      Amy, Such a gift to be a part of this. Thank you for this forum and for inviting me to be a part of it! Swirly, such a good word for grief! It feels confusing, unknown and overwhelming. I look forward to unpacking more on this topic through the year!

  2. Michele

    I would love to have more understanding about “cumulative grief.” I realized a few years ago that this term and the brief descriptions I read about it fit where I was at, and I have since completed the to understand the effects it was having. But I’d really like to understand it better from a professional perspective. 🙂

    • Amy Young

      Oh that’s a great question Michele. Me too!

    • Sarah Leonard

      Yes, I was just having this conversation with other long termers like me about the weight of cummulative grief that is not often talked about. How do we manage that? How do we do a better job acknowledging it? How do we help others identify and process it? How do we keep engaging when the possibility of grief (goodbyes, for example) is very real?

      • Amy Young

        Sarah, yes! These are conversations that need to be had . . . and circled back to. Thank you!

      • Katie Brown

        Sarah, Yes, such good questions! It looks like we have a future article on this topic. 🙂 The first step is to talk about it and to bring it to light. I love that we are discussing it here! One of the biggest things I have learned about grief is that acknowledging the presence of grief brings us more freedom than we realise. The mere acceptance that something is present and okay brings freedom. When we experience loss after loss, there is a layered effect that makes it very difficult. In addition, the presence of the anticipation of further loss is very challenging to navigate. I would love to hear other concerns, questions on this topic. What is the most painful/difficult?

    • Katie Brown

      Michele, Thank you for this comment! Yes this is a much needed topic to discuss. Many of us go through “cumulative grief” in one form or another. I will add this to my list to talk more about. Also, our past losses have great impact on how we process future losses!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This