Home > Health & Wellness > Health Library > Grief, Bereavement, and Loss (PDQ®): Supportive care - Patient Information [NCI]
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Grief and mourning are part of the normal process of dealing with a loss. Bereavement is the period of grief and mourning after a death of a loved one. Most people will adjust to the loss over time. Others will have longer periods of bereavement and may benefit from treatment.
This summary explains how grief, mourning, and bereavement are different and describes the different types of grief, treatments for grief, and important issues for grieving children.
Grief is the emotional response to the loss of a loved one.
Common grief reactions include:
Mourning is the way we show grief in public.
The way people mourn is affected by beliefs, religious practices, and culture. Grief and mourning are closely related.
Bereavement is the period of sadness after a death of a loved one.
Grief and mourning occur during the period of bereavement. People who are grieving are described as bereaved.
There are three types of grief: anticipatory, normal or common, and complicated.
Anticipatory grief occurs before death.
Anticipatory grief is grief that occurs leading up to a death. It may be felt by the person dying or person's family. When a patient experiences distress, pain, and medical complications, it can add to anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is different from grief that occurs after the death.
Anticipatory grief does not affect everyone.
Research has shown that about one in four patients with incurable cancer feels anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is less likely to occur when the patient and family accept death. Talking with someone who is trained in grief and bereavement may help patients and their family come to terms with impending death.
Normal or common grief begins soon after a loss and symptoms go away over time.
Normal grief occurs in most people who have experienced a loss. During normal grief, the bereaved person accepts the loss and continues with daily activities even though it is hard to do. Common emotional reactions include:
Grief bursts or pangs are short periods (20-30 minutes) of very intense distress. These bursts are caused by reminders of the deceased person, such as during holidays, the anniversary of the loved one's death, or when giving away items that belonged to the person. At other times they seem to happen for no reason.
In normal grief, symptoms will occur less often and will feel less severe as time passes. Recovery time will vary with each person. For most bereaved people, symptoms lessen between 6 months and 2 years after the loss. Although many bereaved people have similar responses as they cope with their losses, there is no typical grief response.
Normal grief is different from major depression.
When a person grieves they can have symptoms that overlap with major depression, such as sleep problems, feelings of guilt, repeated thoughts, and lack of interest. Normal grief is different from major depression in the following ways:
A bereaved person can be diagnosed with major depression if they have symptoms that occur outside of the normal grief process.
Complicated grief lasts longer than normal grief.
Complicated grief is when symptoms don't improve and last for a long period of time, cause extreme distress, affect multiple areas of their lives, and decrease the ability to take part in daily activities.
There are factors that affect the response to grief.
A person's grief is affected by their:
The personality, age, and gender of the bereaved may affect whether they are more likely to experience depression with their grief.
Studies have found that people with certain personality traits are more likely to have long-lasting depression after a loss. These include people who are dependent on a loved one (such as a spouse), and people who deal with distress by thinking about it all the time.
In general, younger bereaved people have more problems after a loss than older bereaved people do. They have more severe health problems, grief symptoms, and other mental and physical symptoms. Younger bereaved people, however, may recover more quickly than older bereaved people do, because they tend to have more resources and social support.
Men have more problems than women do after a spouse's death. Men tend to have worse depression and more health problems than women do after the loss. Some researchers think this may be because men tend to have less social support after a loss.
Culture and religion play a part in grief and bereavement.
Grief occurs in all cultures. However, some cultures have different beliefs about death that affect the attitudes and practices of the bereaved. They use what will best meet their needs to deal with death.
Some studies show that religion helps people cope better with grief, while other studies show it does not help or causes more distress. Regular church attendance and social support from a religious setting are linked to positive grief outcomes, such as coping and understanding the loss.
Coping skills and mental health history affect the response to an expected or unexpected loss.
It may seem that any sudden, unexpected loss might lead to more difficult grief. However, studies have found that bereaved people with high self-esteem and/or a feeling that they have control over life are likely to have a normal grief reaction even after an unexpected loss. Bereaved people with low self-esteem and/or a sense that life cannot be controlled are more likely to have complicated grief after an unexpected loss. This includes more depression and physical problems.
Social support for the bereaved.
Lack of social support increases the chance of having problems coping with a loss. Social support includes the person's family, friends, neighbors, and community members who can give psychological, physical, and financial help. After the death of a close family member, many people have related losses. The death of a spouse, for example, may cause a loss of income and changes in lifestyle and day-to-day living. These are all related to social support.
Normal grief may not need to be treated.
Most bereaved people work through grief and recover within the first 6 months to 2 years. Researchers are studying whether bereaved people who have normal grief would be helped by treatment. They are also studying whether treatment might prevent complicated grief in people who are likely to have it.
For people who have serious grief reactions or symptoms of distress, treatment may be helpful.
Cognitive behavioral therapy may help people with complicated grief.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps a person learn skills that change negative thoughts and behaviors about grief.
A clinical trial compared CBT to counseling for complicated grief. Results showed that patients treated with CBT had more improvement in symptoms and general mental distress than those in the counseling group.
Depression related to grief may be treated with drugs.
There is no standard drug therapy for depression that occurs with grief. The decision to treat grief-related depression with drugs is up to the patient and the health care professional.
Clinical trials of antidepressants for depression related to grief have found that the drugs can help relieve depression. However, they give less relief and take longer to work than they do when used for depression that is not related to grief. Some clinical trials have found that psychotherapy while on antidepressants can improve depression and reduce the intensity of grief.
Children have a different grief experience than adults.
Children do not react to loss in the same ways as adults. These are some of the ways children's grief is different:
Several factors can affect how a child will cope with grief.
Although grief is different for each child, several factors can affect the grief process of a child:
A child's understanding of death and the events near death depend on their age and developmental stage.
Infants do not recognize death, but feelings of loss and separation are part of their awareness of death. Children who have been separated from their mother may be sluggish and quiet, may not respond to a smile or a coo, may have physical symptoms (such as weight loss), and may sleep less.
Age 2-3 years
Children at this age often confuse death with sleep and may feel anxiety as early as age 3. They may stop talking and appear to feel overall distress.
Age 3-6 years
At this age children see death as a kind of sleep; the person is alive, but only in a limited way. The child cannot fully separate death from life. Children may think that the person is still living, even though he or she might have been buried. The child may ask questions about the deceased (for example, how does the deceased eat, go to the bathroom, breathe, or play?). Young children know that death is physical, but think it is not final.
A child may think death involves "magical thinking." For example, the child may think that his or her thoughts can cause another person to become sick or die.
Grieving children under 5 may have trouble eating, sleeping, and controlling their bladder and bowel.
Age 6-9 years
Children at this age are often very curious about death and may ask what happens to the body when it dies. Death is thought of as a person or spirit separate from the person who was alive, such as a skeleton, ghost, angel, or bogeyman. They may see death as final and scary but as something that happens mostly to old people (and not to themselves).
Grieving children can become afraid of school, have learning problems, show antisocial or aggressive behavior, or become overly worried about their own health and complain of imaginary symptoms. Children this age may either withdraw from others or become too attached and clingy.
Boys may become more aggressive and destructive (for example, acting out in school), instead of showing their sadness openly.
When one parent dies, children may feel abandoned by both the deceased parent and the living parent, whose grief may make him or her unable to emotionally support the child.
Age 9 and older
Children aged 9 and older know that death cannot be avoided and do not see it as a punishment. By the time a child is 12 years old, death is seen as final and something that happens to everyone.
There are three common worries children coping with a loss have about death.
Did I make the death happen?
Children often think that they have "magical powers." If a mother is irritated and says, "You'll be the death of me" and later dies, her child may wonder if he or she caused the mother's death. Also, when children argue, one may say (or think), "I wish you were dead." If that child dies, the surviving child may think that those thoughts caused the death.
Is it going to happen to me?
The death of another child may be very hard for a child. If the child thinks that the death may have been prevented (by either a parent or a doctor) the child may fear that he or she could also die.
Who is going to take care of me?
Since children depend on parents and other adults to take care of them, a grieving child may wonder who will care for him or her after the death of an important person.
Talking honestly about the death and including the child in rituals may help the child cope with the loss.
Explain the death and answer questions.
Talking about death helps children learn to cope with loss. When talking about death with children, describe it simply. Each child should be told the truth with as much detail as he or she is able to understand. Answer questions in a way the child can understand.
Children often worry that they will also die, or that their surviving parent will go away. They need to be told that they will be safe and taken care of.
Use the correct language.
When talking with the child about death, include the correct words, such as "cancer," "died," and "death." Other phrases such as, "he passed away," "he is sleeping," or "we lost him," can confuse children.
Include the child in planning and attending memorial services.
When a death occurs, children may feel better if they are included in planning and attending memorial services. These events help children remember the loved one. Children should be encouraged to take part when they feel comfortable doing so and not be forced. Before a child attends a funeral, wake, or memorial service, give the child a full explanation of what to expect. A familiar adult or family member may help with this if the surviving parent's grief makes him or her unable to.
There are books and other resources with information on helping a grieving child.
The following books and videos may be helpful with grieving children:
For more information from the National Cancer Institute about grief, see the following:
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Last Revised: 2021-11-11
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