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What is grief?

Grief is the natural reaction to loss, and can influence the physical, emotional, cognitive, behavioural and spiritual aspects of our lives. Grief can be experienced in response to a variety of loss-related events, such as the death of a loved one, separation or divorce, the loss of a sense of safety or predictability, physical incapacity through disability, or the loss of one’s home or community due to disaster.1

People respond to loss in a variety of ways. Whilst some might find it helpful to talk openly about the experience, others might prefer time alone. The intensity and duration of the grieving process also differs between individuals. For most people, the experience of grief will dominate their emotions, thoughts, and behaviours for a number of weeks or months. As time passes, most individuals learn to cope with their grief and go about their daily lives, although for many the loss will remain a part of them.2 Most bereaved people will not need professional help, however a significant minority (estimated at 10 to 20%) seek and require professional support.3

Signs and symptoms

Grief is an individual experience and, as a result, there is no prescribed trajectory that people will progress through. Rather, a variety of emotions, thoughts, sensations, and behaviours can be associated with the grief experience, including4:


  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Guilt and remorse
  • Anxiety
  • Loneliness
  • Helplessness
  • Shock and disbelief
  • A sense of yearning
  • Relief.


  • Confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Preoccupation with the loss
  • A loss of interest in pleasurable activities
  • Vivid dreams or nightmares.

Physical and behavioural

  • Muscle tightness
  • Fatigue/reduction in energy
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Social withdrawal
  • Changes in appetite
  • Crying
  • Restlessness
  • Avoiding places or people who remind the individual of the loss
  • Treasuring objects that are associated with the loss.

In addition to these, there can be significant changes in spiritual or philosophical views and beliefs.

Evidence-based psychological approaches and strategies

Grieving is a difficult and challenging process. Its nature depends on a number of factors, such as the person’s coping style and personality, and the type of loss.5 However, regardless of the circumstances, losing a loved one can cause great pain and suffering. Most people learn to manage their grief and adjust to their loss in their own time. Maintaining self-care activities and routines,6 and having adequate social support available,7 can also be helpful during this time of adjustment. For people who experience prolonged or complicated grief reactions, a number of more targeted psychological interventions and strategies can be of substantial benefit.2, 8, 9


Sometimes loss and grief can make it harder for a person to look after themselves, which has been associated with poor health outcomes. Research has suggested that maintaining self-care activities and routines can benefit both the physical and mental health of a grieving individual,6, 16, 17 including:

  • medical check-ups
  • physical exercise
  • healthy and regular meals
  • limiting alcohol and drug use
  • enjoyable activities
  • normal sleep patterns
  • relaxation activities.

Social support

Research has shown that, for some individuals, appropriate social support can reduce the psychological burden of grief.7, 18 However, it is important to note that individuals might require different types and/or quantities of social support at different times during the grieving process. Types of social support include:

  • Instrumental support, such as assistance with funeral arrangements, help with housework and meal preparation, or help with insurance claims.
  • Emotional support, such as providing comfort and reassurance, talking about the loss, listening with compassion, or sharing memories.
  • Information support, such as financial advice, or helping the individual understand how and/or why the loss occurred.

Psychological strategies

Research has also supported the benefits of psychological treatment for more complicated or prolonged grief, including:

  1. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for complicated grief,8 which targets unhelpful thoughts and behaviours10
  2. Focused family grief therapy,11 which aims to enhance the functioning and communication within a family, in turn preventing the complications of bereavement12
  3. Complicated grief treatment,9 which addresses the symptoms of loss by helping individuals re-establish relationships and focus on personal life goals13
  4. Meaning reconstruction approaches,14 which help people to find meaning and significance in their loss and in their ongoing lives.

Online bereavement support groups may also be effective for people experiencing complicated grief.15

How a psychologist can help

Grief is a normal response to loss, and while many people will learn to adjust to the loss on their own, some individuals may require assistance by a psychologist to help them adjust to their loss and cope with their grief. Through discussion with the client and an assessment of their wellbeing, the psychologist gains an understanding of the client’s situation and a treatment plan is developed.

When to seek professional help

If grief is affecting a person's work, school, home life, or relationships, psychological assistance should be considered. The APS Find a Psychologist service can be used to locate a psychologist in your local area: call 1800 333 497 or visit the website at A GP can also organise a referral to an APS psychologist under the Better Access to Mental Health Care items.

More information

Australian Psychological Society
Australia’s largest professional association for psychologists

Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement
Australia’s largest provider of grief and bereavement clinical services and education

Provides information on anxiety, depression, and related disorders

Australia’s National Youth Mental Health Foundation, providing assistance for individuals aged 12-25

A 24-hour counselling, suicide prevention and mental health support service
Telephone: 13 11 14

  • Contributor(s)
    APS Member Resources team

    Christopher Hall
    Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement
  • Publish date
    28 Apr 2014
  • References


  1. Shader, R. I., & Ury, W. A. (2003). Bereavement reactions and grief. In Richard I. Shader (Ed.), Manual of Psychiatric Therapeutics (3rd ed., pp. 220-228). Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins Publishers.
  2. Wittouck, C., Van Autreve, S., De Jaegere, E., Portzky, G., & van Heeringen, K. (2011). The prevention and treatment of complicated grief: a meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(1), 69-78.
  3. Lobb, E. A., Kristjanson, L. J., Aoun, S. M., Monterosso, L., Halkett, G. K., & Davies, A. (2010). Predictors of complicated grief: A systematic review of empirical studies. Death Studies, 34(8), 673-698.
  4. Worden, W. J. (2008). Attachment, loss, and the experience of grief. In W. J. Worden (Ed.), Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner (4th ed., pp. 13-36). New York: Springer Publishing Company.
  5. National Cancer Institute: PDQ® Grief, Bereavement, and Coping with Loss. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified 06/30/2011. Available at: Accessed 28/04/2014.
  6. Utz, R. L., Caserta, M., & Lund, D. (2012). Grief, depressive symptoms, and physical health among recently bereaved spouses. Gerontologist, 52(4), 460-471. doi: 10.1093/geront/gnr110
  7. Hewitt, B., Turrell, G., & Giskes, K. (2012). Marital loss, mental health and the role of perceived social support: findings from six waves of an Australian population based panel study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 66(4), 308-314. doi: 10.1136/jech.2009.104893
  8. Boelen, P. A., de Keijser, J., van den Hout, M. A., & van den Bout, J. (2007). Treatment of complicated grief: a comparison between cognitive-behavioral therapy and supportive counseling. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 75(2), 277-284. doi: 10.1037/0022-006x.75.2.277
  9. Shear, K., Frank, E., Houck, P. R., & Reynolds, C. F., 3rd. (2005). Treatment of complicated grief: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Medical Association, 293(21), 2601-2608. doi: 10.1001/jama.293.21.2601
  10. Holcomb, L. E. (2012). Goal setting for self-care during the grieving process. In Robert A. Neimeyer (Ed.), Techniques of Grief Therapy: Creative Practices for Counseling the Bereaved. (pp. 289-291). New York, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
  11. Harvard Health Publications. (2010). Coping with Grief and Loss: A Guide to Healing. Boston, MA: Harvard Health Publications.
  12. Doka, K. J., & Neimeyer, R. A. (2012). Orchestrating social support. In Robert A. Neimeyer (Ed.), Techniques of Grief Therapy: Creative Practices for Counseling the Bereaved. (pp. 315-317). New York, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
  13. Beck, J. S. (2011). Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Basics and Beyond (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  14. Kissane, D., & Bloch, S. (2002). Family Focused Grief Therapy: A Model of Family-Centred Care During Palliative Care and Bereavement. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.
  15. Kissane, D., McKenzie, M., Bloch, S., Moskowitz, C., McKenzie, D., & O’Neill, I. (2006). Family focused grief therapy: a randomized, controlled trial in palliative care and bereavement. American Journal of Psychiatry, 163(7), 1208-1218.
  16. Wetherell, J. L. (2012). Complicated grief therapy as a new treatment approach. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 14(2), 159-166.
  17. Neimeyer, R. A. (2000). Searching for the meaning of meaning: Grief therapy and the process of reconstruction. Death Studies, 24(6), 541-558.
  18. Wagner, B., Knaevelsrud, C., & Maercker, A. (2006). Internet-based cognitive-behavioral therapy for complicated grief: a randomized controlled trial. Death Studies, 30(5), 429-453. doi: 10.1080/07481180600614385

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