What is grief?

Grief is a normal response to loss. The process of grieving is one of gradually adjusting to the loss and working out how to live without the person who has died. There is no set time frame, and the grief may never go away completely, but with support and understanding you will find a way forward.

Everyone grieves differently

Everyone responds to loss in their own way and in their own time. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.

You may experience grief when someone close to you dies or after another significant loss, such as the loss of a relationship, a job, a pet, your good health, your way of life or treasured possessions. This section focuses on grief after a death from cancer, but much of the information applies to any type of grief.

Grief is not an illness and does not need to be fixed, but it can be a confusing and overwhelming experience causing strong emotional and physical reactions. You may find it helpful to learn more about common grief reactions and ways of coping.

How you experience grief depends on a number of things, such as:

  • your age and gender
  • your personality
  • the circumstances of the death
  • your relationship with the person who died
  • the support you have from other people
  • how much your life will change as a result of the death
  • the losses you have had in the past
  • your cultural background, including any rituals or customs
  • associated with death
  • your spiritual view of life and death.

Sometimes people find that a death brings back memories of other losses, and they feel they are grieving those again as well.

Family members mourning for the same person may misunderstand each other's ways of grieving. Some people express grief through crying and talking, others prefer to keep busy or shut the world out. People may behave differently at different times. It is important to respect individual ways of grieving and not take reactions personally. This can be an opportunity to offer mutual support.

We usually grieve in the same way as we live, so people who tend to cope during tough times often find that they show this resilience after a loss. This does not mean they are not grieving, but they already have coping strategies. Thinking about what has helped you deal with stressful events in the past may help you now.

Bereavement, mourning and grief

The terms bereavement and mourning are closely related to grief, but they have slightly different meanings. Bereavement usually refers to the fact that you have experienced a loss. Mourning is the outward expression of sorrow for the loss, often influenced by cultural customs and rituals. Grief is the internal process of responding to the loss and it can affect all parts of your life.

Circumstances can affect your grief

What happened in the hours and days before the death can make a big difference to how you grieve.

Sometimes knowing a loved one is dying, however difficult that is, prepares you in some way. You may have been able to spend time

with them, talking about their death and what it will mean. This is often helpful in the months that follow, even though you may feel you could never have been truly prepared for their death. If the person died peacefully, you might find you draw comfort from that peace; there is perhaps a sense of acceptance about the loss, even if you feel sad.

If the death was very sudden, or in traumatic circumstances, there may be a sense of things being left unfinished or unsaid. It is not unusual for grief to feel more complex when this happens. Grief may also be complicated if you had a difficult relationship with the person who died, but still cared about them.

Grief can begin before someone dies

When someone is ill for some time, their family and friends often begin to grieve their death before it happens. This is known as anticipatory grief.

While a lot of attention may be taken up with caring for a sick person in the family, it is common to think: "How will it be when they are not here? How will I cope on my own?" Even when a death is expected, it may still feel like a great shock. This can be especially hard if the person has rallied again and again in the past, and you may have thought that they would always `pull through' somehow. Sometimes the experience of anticipating the death actually makes you become closer to the person, and you feel intense grief when they die.

On the other hand, sometimes people are surprised by how little they feel (or by feeling a sense of relief) when the person actually dies, and say that they have done much of their grieving already. This is also a normal response, and doesn't mean they are denying their loss or that they did not really care for the person.

In some cases, people are not greatly affected by their loss at the time of the death, but find it harder as time passes, and they experience their loss in a delayed way. Again, this is quite common.

Cancer Council produces a number of resources, including Living with Advanced Cancer, Understanding Palliative Care and Facing End of Life, which may help prior to the death of a loved one. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for more information.

The person who is dying may also experience anticipatory grief as they process the fact that their life will end soon. They may find it worthwhile to talk about how they are feeling with someone on their palliative care team, to call Cancer Council 13 11 20, or see Facing End of Life.

Expert content reviewers:

Kate Jurgens, Bereavement Coordinator, Southern Adelaide Palliative Services, SA; Gabrielle Asprey, Facilitator, Telephone and Internet Support Groups, Cancer Council NSW; Leigh Donovan, Bereavement Coordinator, Paediatric Palliative Care Service, Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital, QLD; Dr Kathryn Dwan, Senior Policy Officer, Palliative Care Australia; Philippa Kirkpatrick, National Policy Manager, Palliative Care Australia; Mary Klasen, Pastoral Care Manager, Mercy Hospital for Women, VIC; Tracey Newnham, Consumer; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Kerrie Noonan, Clinical Psychologist, Palliative Care, Liverpool Hospital, and Director, The Groundswell Project, NSW.

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