A woman sits with her back to us, staring through a window at the sea. She is alone in grief.

Understand and Recognize Grief

A woman sits with her back to us, staring through a window at the sea. She is alone in grief.
Grief can make you feel alone and small. Or it can make you angry. Photo by Maria Teneva on Unsplash

Are you chronically tired, yet unable to fall asleep at night?

Are you unmotivated, and find yourself in a spiral of not completing work?

Do you sometimes get far angrier than the situation calls for, and find yourself confused why you reacted this way?

These are all common symptoms of grief. And each of these might get diagnosed differently, based on where you take your complaints. Your family might suggest  that you got to a therapist or join a group for “anger management.” A medical doctor might prescribe medicine to help you sleep, or even a medicine to calm “restless legs syndrome.”

Or you might read about depression, and self-diagnose this condition. That makes sense. In lots of ways, chronic grief, untreated, reveals itself like depression.

We are using this series to think of grief in a new way.

Treating grief like an illness like a cold, instead of as a disease like cancer, can be the first step in addressing and overcoming the grip it can have on our lives.

By taking the right steps, and diagnosing and treating deep grief appropriately, even people who have suffered deep trauma can nonetheless lead happy and productive lives.


What are the symptoms of grief

We already know that grief, when unidentified or left untreated, is associated with many poor health outcomes.

We also know that grief is one of the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that can lead to all sorts of serious consequences, as shown in the chart in this article. One of those negative outcomes, if grief is combined with other ACEs, can include a shortened life expectancy.

There are many symptoms of grief which are individual and unpredictable. We set out to list the most common symptoms of grief in the population at large.

  1. Shock and disbelief, including denial or a refusal to talk about a specific event. In school-age students, this symptom is common. They might refuse to talk about or even acknowledge that anything has changed in their life, especially after the death of a close relative. The same is true when a child has experienced trauma such as sexual molestation. A refusal to talk about a specific incident, even with trusted parties, is a sign of untreated grief.
  2. Sadness. Often stemming from a specific event, a prolonged sadness is another common – and the most widely recognized – symptom of grief. A person might find themselves preoccupied with thoughts about the person, or pet, or way of life that they lost due to some upheaval. This can include crying or feeling melancholy. There is no “right” amount of time for grief to pass after a significant loss. However, these feelings should be less pronounced, and they should happen less often as time goes by. If the feelings have debilitating effects for more than a month, it might be time to seek help.
  3. Anger. This is one of the masks that grief will frequently wear. This is especially true for men, who have often been conditioned to believe that they cannot or should not talk about their feelings. Unable to vent their grief, they suppress it. Then, when everything builds up inside, and usually triggered by something completely unrelated, they will explode. This often comes as a surprise to themselves too.
  4. Fear or anxiety. Adults who suffer from fear and anxiety are often responding to unresolved grief in their lives. Whether it is unreported trauma, an unresolved death, or some other deep wound, the person in grief can become hypervigilant. Seeking to control every part of their lives, they hope to find safety. They may micromanage others. They may become obsessive about food, or exercise, or a collection or some sort. This can be grief, seeking to protect the grieving person.


A counselor can help deal with grief

Because grief can hide and look so convincingly like other things, it is important to explore each of these situations above with a therapist. This is especially true if they interrupt daily functioning.

Persistent symptoms require meaningful intervention.

In the meantime, if you or someone you know is experiencing one or more of these symptoms, ask some questions. Look for patterns and triggers.

They might not even know that they are grieving something or someone.

For this reason, reaching out and talking with a counselor is recommended. A therapist can help identify the source of grief. Together, this grief can be resolved – not forgotten.

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Check out our related post about dealing with grief.

Is your teen showing symptoms of grief? Organizations like The Dustin Project can give individual and group treatment.

Or perhaps you know a teen who is specifically traumatized by proximity to a school shooting or or other act of witnessed violence? Organizations like Helping Hands can provide support and references.

Have questions about why your teenager is angry all the time? Or wondering how to set parenting goals? Struggling with single parenting? Or maybe you just need to talk? Sakina Issa is available for in person or remote counseling.

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