Grieving - Facing Illness, Death and Other Losses

2011 rev.
College of Family Physicians of Canada

This information provides a general overview on this topic and may not apply to everyone. To find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject, talk to your family doctor. 


Ask Your Family Doctor

What is grief?

Grief is a normal, healthy response to different types of losses. It is the emotional and physical response that occurs when a loss is expected or after the loss has happened. One of the greatest losses that can occur is the death of someone you love. Other losses that may be followed by grief include the loss of your health or the health of someone you care about, or the end of an important relationship, such as marriage. Healing from a loss involves coming to terms with the finality of the loss and the meaning of the loss in your life.

What are the normal feelings of grief?

As you face a loss, you may have different feelings at different times. These feelings include shock, denial, anger, guilt, sadness and acceptance. You may find yourself going back and forth from one feeling to another. For example, right when it seems that you're starting to accept your loss, you may find yourself feeling sad or guilty again. Your grief may never completely go away. But the pain you feel will lessen with time as you work through these feelings.

What usually happens first?

In the first hours or days after the loss, you may feel shocked, numb and confused. You may not remember what people have said to you. You may feel dazed and as though you're going through things like a robot. You may think and act as though the loss hasn't occurred. This is called denial.

As the shock wears off, reality will slowly break through. You'll begin to realize that the loss has happened. It's normal to feel abandoned and angry. You may direct your anger toward God, religion, doctors and nurses, the one who has died or other loved ones, or even yourself.

Symptoms of grief

Blaming yourself
Crying spells
Fast heartbeat
Feeling like there’s a lump in your throat
Feeling like what’s happening around you isn’t real
Hyperventilating-sighing and yawning
Not being able to get organized
Not feeling hungry or losing weight
Restlessness and irritability
Sadness or depression
Seeing images of the dead person
Shortness of breath
Tightness in your chest
Trouble concentrating
Trouble sleeping

What happens after the anger wears off?

After you get through some of the anger and denial, it's normal to try to pretend things are like they used to be. If someone you love has died, you may play memories over and over in your mind. You may also feel the presence of your loved one, think you see him or her, or think you hear his or her voice.

You may also find yourself talking to your loved one as though he or she is in the room with you. As you begin to realize that your loved one is gone and that you can't bring him or her back, you'll begin to feel the full impact of your loss. These feelings may be scary because they're so strange and so strong. They may make you feel like you're losing control.

What happens then?

When you begin to realize the full impact of the loss on your life, you may feel depressed and hopeless. You may also feel guilty. You may find yourself thinking things like "if only" or "why me." You may cry for no apparent reason. This is the most painful stage of healing. But it won't last forever. In normal grief, the depression will begin to lift with time.

What is the first sign of relief?

You may start to feel better in small ways. For example, you may find it's a little easier to get up in the morning, or you may have small bursts of energy. This is the time when you'll begin to reorganize your life around your loss or without your loved one.

What is the final stage?

The last stage of accepting a loss is when you begin to reinvest into other relationships and activities. During this time, it's normal to feel guilty or disloyal to your loved one because you're moving on to new relationships. It's normal to relive some of your feelings of grief on birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and during other special times.

Tips on dealing with a loss

  • Talk about how you're feeling with others.
  • Try to keep up with your daily tasks so you don't feel overwhelmed.
  • Get enough sleep, eat a well-balanced diet and exercise regularly.
  • Avoid alcohol. Alcohol can make you feel more depressed.
  • Get back into your normal routine as soon as you can.
  • Avoid making major decisions right away.
  • Allow yourself to grieve — to cry, to feel numb, to be angry or to feel however you're feeling.
  • Ask for help if you need it.

How long does grief last?

You'll probably start to feel better in 6 to 8 weeks. The whole process usually lasts 6 months to 4 years, but everyone's experience is different.

If you feel like you're having trouble getting through the process at any point, ask for help. People who can help include friends, family, clergy, a counsellor or therapist, support groups, and your family doctor.

Be sure to talk to your family doctor if you have a lot of trouble eating, sleeping or concentrating for more than the first week or two. These difficulties can be signs of depression. Your family doctor can help you get through the loss and depression so that you can start to feel better.



  1. Information from your family doctor. Grieving: facing illness, death, and other losses. Am Fam Physician. 2003 Mar 1;67(5):1053-4.
  2. JAMA patient page. Grief.  Ringold S, Lynm C, Glass RM.
    JAMA. 2005 Jun 1;293(21):2686.



This health education material was developed and adapted by The College of Family Physicians of Canada from online materials developed by The American Academy of Family Physicians, with permission. It is regularly reviewed and updated by family physician members of the CFPC Patient Education Committee, who refer to the current evidence-based medical literature. Support for this program has been provided by a grant to the CFPC Research and Education Foundation by Scotiabank.

These pages may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only.  



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