Signs to look for (symptoms)
While loss affects people in different ways, there are patterns of emotions and responses that occur, such as:
Shock and disbelief – Straight after a loss, like when someone passes away, it can be hard to accept what happened. You may not believe what you are hearing and expect the person to turn up at any moment.
Sadness – Complete sadness, emptiness or loneliness are what most people describe when they talk about their experience of grief. You may cry a lot or feel emotionally unstable, or you may not cry at all and feel numb.
Guilt – You may feel terribly guilty about things you did or didn’t say or do, or about how you are feeling.
Anger – Even if the loss was nobody’s fault, you may feel angry and have a desire to blame someone for what has happened – yourself, God, the doctors, or even the person who died.
Fear – After a significant loss, you may feel anxious, scared, helpless, or insecure. If you have lost a loved one, you may worry about how you can manage on your own without them.
Physical symptoms – We often think of grief as an emotional process, but it can contribute to physical problems, including fatigue, nausea, weight loss or weight gain, aches and pains, or sleep changes (sleeping less or more than usual).
Signs that you might need further support
It’s important to remember that almost every feeling you have when you first suffer a loss is normal. However, if you do not notice some changes in your grief after some time, or you don’t feel as though you can handle things on your own, you should consider speaking to your doctor.
It’s especially important to seek help if you:
- feel like life isn’t worth living
- wish you had died with your loved one
- are having difficulty trusting others since your loss
- are unable to perform your normal daily activities
- are unable to care for your children or dependants
- are using alcohol or other drugs excessively
- are unable to do self-care tasks, such as showering or preparing meals
- have had a breakdown of relationships with those close to you.
These symptoms, if present for a long time after the loss, could indicate that a person is experiencing “complicated grief”, a term used when a person is struggling to process and adjust to a loss.
Sometimes a loss can be a traumatic experience. Most of the time, people can process these experiences appropriately with time. However, sometimes that is not the case. If, after six months following the loss, you are experiencing flashbacks, nightmares or panic attacks frequently, or still notice that you are more irritable, impulsive or easily startled than in the past, your brain may be struggling to process the event.
In these situations, your GP may be able to help by suggesting support and treatment options.
Important strategies to support someone through grief
If you’re supporting someone through grief, take things at their pace. Grief can’t be “fixed”, and the process cannot be sped up – it will take as long as it takes.
Those who have experienced grief and helped others cope suggest the following:
- Let the person grieve in their own way. They may want to look like they’re coping, but inside they’re hurting. They may find it easy to express what’s inside – or impossibly difficult. Just because their expression of grief is different to yours does not mean that either is “wrong”.
- Check in regularly – help them feel connected and cared about.
- Recognise when they need their own space – don’t make them feel guilty for this.
- Help them to keep normal routines going as much as possible. Support with practical things such as cooking them a meal, grocery shopping, or childcare can help to maintain overall routine when someone is struggling with grief.
- Encourage them to keep connected with others, while also giving them permission to decline your offers if they are not feeling up to socialising. Include them and keep offering invitations, even if they’re declined.
- When a whole family, whānau or group is grieving the same loss, a young person can get overlooked. Give them time and attention, and involve them in making plans and choices.
- A long time after a loss, even years afterwards, a young person can experience new waves of grief. At different ages and stages, or as new milestones are reached, it’s normal for them to sometimes think about the loss and feel grief. Expect this. They may have new questions. Look out for when some extra support might be needed.
- Comfort them in the toughest times with hugs, making time for tears, encouragement or just being there. Or offer practical help, like driving them somewhere, fixing something broken or sorting something out for them.
- Help them take a break from grief. You could watch a movie, watch a comedy on TV, listen to music, hang out with friends, or play sport together.
- If you’re very concerned about how intensely grief is affecting them, encourage them to see a doctor or other support professional, such as a counsellor, psychologist, social worker, community or youth worker, or local family/youth support agency. You could support them practically to do this, e.g. by researching options, helping them make a booking, or driving them to the appointment.
Thanks to Madeline Dykes, psychologist, for reviewing this content. Last reviewed: December 2022