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.

Learn more about how:

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. Here we focus 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.

This information was last reviewed in April 2017
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Support services

Caring for someone with cancer
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Cancer Council Online Community
A community forum – a safe place to share stories, get tips and connect with people who understand

Cancer information

Emotions and cancer
People who are affected by cancer in some way can experience a range of emotions, that can be very challenging to deal with at times. Learn more.

End of life 
This information may help you better cope with end of life, or support someone who may be dying with cancer