Frequently Asked Questions about Grief
1. Am I normal?
Everyone experiences and expresses grief differently. Your grief reactions may cause you to experience such intense or unusual emotions, or even no emotion, and you might worry you’re somehow “not like other people.”
Everything from experiencing major upheaval and pain to feeling numb and disassociated can all be “normal” aspects of a grief response. It’s more important to understand this range is possible, and it’s OK to seek support or help. See link on common grief reactions.
2. How long is this grief going to last?
There’s no single timeline for everyone experiencing grief, and there’s no guarantee that your grief will definitely fade away after the first month or even the first year. Misguided people might bombard you with opinions about how long you “should” grieve. In reality, there’s no way to predict how each person or family will cope with loss.
Healing after a loss is a process that can feel like a rollercoaster of emotions. There may be gradual improvements that are interrupted by setbacks. How long this grieving process might take for you can also be influenced by other factors in your life at this time.
3. How do I get over this loss?
Regaining your balance after a major loss is a process of slowly integrating a new reality into your life rather than a “getting over” a hurdle. Help is available, and you can seek support and build skills to help you through this period.
Care for your personal wellness and use of contemplative practices may be helpful, as well as finding an understanding community of other grievers.
4. How do I support someone who is grieving?
Understand that a grieving person is experiencing a type of loss which no one can “fix.” Platitudes in an effort to make them feel better are likely premature and possibly counterproductive.
As we support others, usually the best we can do is to remain present and accept the way they grieve. The griever may want to talk and cry on your shoulder, or they may need quiet, or they may want to be physically active. You also might remind them of other resources and support services that are available on campus.
You may also find ways to assist a griever with practical support for ordinary tasks, such as getting groceries, responding to correspondence, taking out the garbage, cooking meals, and similar ways of helping. This kind support can help a griever by freeing time and space to focus on their emotional needs.
5. What are anniversary effects or grief triggers?
A grief trigger can be anything that causes a strong reminder of your loss or loved one. Anniversary effects refer to the common experience of feeling amplified grief on special occasions such as holidays, birthdays, or the anniversary of your loss.
Even a happy moment can trigger grief as you may acutely miss your dear one at an event like graduation or a family dinner. Sometimes very small and unexpected things, such as a familiar song, smell or taste, can be a grief trigger.
We recommend that people working through grief to be intentional about planning to set aside time for remembrance on important occasions. Grief triggers are normal, and it’s OK that the memories of your lost one live on.
Grounding exercises or reflective activities such as meditation and journaling may help with processing emotions, recognizing triggering moments, and even celebrating memories.
6. Can grief become unhealthy or dangerous?
Loss may occur in situations that have higher risk for negative complications, or can overwhelm someone’s ability to cope. Sometimes life factors can intensify the stress upon a griever, such as health issues, economic stress, or lack of social support.
When a griever is unable to function adequately, or does not feel any improvement even after a prolonged grieving period, or becomes clinically depressed or impaired, then it’s time to consult with a professional for supportive interventions.
Grief can also become dangerous if a person tries to cope with loss in an unconstructive manner such as excessive substance use or reckless behaviors.
7. Why do I feel affected by the death of someone I did not personally know?
Sometimes we are surprised by our emotional response to the death of someone who was not actually in our lives. This can be a normal reaction for any person.
Perhaps the person was a member of our community, or shared traits with us, or was a key person in our culture. This loss thus can feel relatable and close to us.
Sometimes when a celebrity or famous person has died, we mourn them because their work and their life inspired us, and their presence has touched our lives.
8. How does one talk to kids about death or grief?
Be gentle, clear, and straightforward when talking to children about death. Avoid euphemisms like “went to sleep” as that can be confusing or even frightening to young ones.
Be considerate of each child’s developmental stage as you plan what to say. Kids may not comprehend the finality of death or may feel scared about losing other loved ones.
Children’s books and videos can help you with this process. Seek out your pediatrician, child psychology resources, or spiritual and religious guidance as appropriate for talking with children and teens about death and grief.
9. How can I cope with a crisis of faith or purpose following loss?
A well-known description of grieving speaks of a “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” from Psalm 23, often recited at funerals. Even familiar terrain looks and feels different when covered in shadows and enclosed by cliffs.
When we grieve, familiar ground shifts under us and we find ourselves in a new landscape. Even when our friends and family members are nearby, they may seem far away or that they’re not paying attention to our loss. We may lack the energy to make or carry out plans.
For some, loss may prompt deep spiritual questions: Why do bad things happen to good people? How can I redeem the loss I am feeling? What would the one I’m remembering want me to learn from their life? How can I honor them in my own life?
The answers will come slowly, they have no prescribed timetable, and each of us will have a different response.
This is the time to make time for simply being a mourner, and set aside your other roles as student, child, sibling, colleague, or friend. Be patient with yourself.
Regular rituals are helpful in acknowledging and honoring the person who died. These might be traditionally religious rituals such as prayers or lighting candles, or unique ones such as listening to music they appreciated, walking a path they trod, or preparing favorite meals you shared.
Sharing with others also can help, especially with peers who also may have experienced loss. We have seen how reaching a hand out to other students can be healing in Stanford’s regular grief gatherings. And clergy in the Office for Religious and Spiritual Life are available to help you with rituals and accompany you as you navigate daunting questions.
Adjusting to a world without the person you are mourning takes time and reorientation, but it can make us stronger. After Sheryl Sandberg lost her husband unexpectedly, she wrote about post-traumatic growth in her book “Option B”: “Finding personal strength, gaining appreciation, forming deeper relationships, discovering more meaning in life, and seeing new possibilities.”
Growth, empathy, and wisdom can emerge from the valley of the shadow of death as we slowly move from darkness back into light.