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What is grief?

Grief is a natural response to any loss. The process of grieving is one of adjusting to the loss. There is no set time frame or pattern for learning to live without someone. Grief may never go away completely. With support and understanding, you will find a way to cope.

Everyone grieves differently

Everyone responds to the death of someone close to them in their own way and in their own time. This information focuses on grief after a death from cancer, but much of the information applies to any type of loss, such as the loss of a relationship, a job, a pet, your good health, your way of life or treasured possessions.

Grief can be a confusing and overwhelming experience. It can involve a range of feelings and they can affect you in different ways. You may find it helpful to learn more about common grief reactions and ways of coping. The way you grieve can be affected by a number of things, including:

  • how old you are and the age of the person who has died
  • your gender
  • your personality
  • the relationship you had with the person who died
  • the support you have from others
  • how much your life will change as a result of the death
  • your cultural background, including any rituals or customs associated with death
  • past experiences of loss and death
  • how the person died – whether their death was expected, unexpected or traumatic
  • your spiritual view of life and death
  • other stresses you have in your life (e.g. financial, housing)
  • your past and present mental health and wellbeing.

How you feel and react to grief may be influenced by the person’s cancer experience and the way the disease progressed. You may find that you focus on memories of the physical changes and deterioration experienced by the person who died. Or you may wonder if the person could have received different treatment or care.

How family and friends might grieve

It is common for family members and friends grieving for the same person to deal with their grief in different ways and for different lengths of time. It is important to respect how others are grieving.

People may behave differently at different times – and their behaviour may be unpredictable. Some people express their grief through crying and talking, creative activities, outbursts of anger or keeping busy. Other people prefer to be quiet, spend time alone or join a support group. If someone’s way of grieving is uncomfortable for you, try to avoid judging them and accept that everyone is different. Let them grieve in a way that feels right for them.

This can be an opportunity to support and comfort each other and understand other ways of grieving.

Bereavement, grief and mourning

The terms bereavement and mourning are closely related to grief, but they have slightly different meanings:

  • Bereavement – usually refers to the period of sadness after a death.
  • Grief – is the process of responding to the loss and it can affect all parts of your life.
  • Mourning – is how you show sorrow for someone’s death, which may be influenced by cultural customs and rituals.

Types of grief

There are a number of different types of grief that can occur in the lead up to, and period that follows, a death.

Anticipatory grief

Grief is not just something that happens after someone dies. When someone is ill for some time and the death is expected, their family and friends may begin to grieve their death before it happens. This is known as anticipatory or pre-loss grief. It does not make grief after the death any easier or shorter, and the death can still feel like a great shock.

Knowing that someone will die soon may give you the chance to finish a project together or have important conversations. Anticipatory grief may also provide the opportunity to imagine the future without your family member or friend. This doesn’t mean you are a bad or uncaring person. If the person died at peace, having said and done what they wanted to, this may give you a sense of comfort.

Traumatic grief

If the death was very sudden, or in traumatic circumstances, you may feel that things were left unfinished or unsaid. You may not have been able to be with the person when they died, or things may not have gone as you wished. You may also be managing symptoms of shock and disbelief. Some people are traumatised due to experiences during the illness and death of a significant person.

Trauma leads to challenging physical and emotional symptoms and can complicate grief for affected people.

Complicated grief

Grief may be complicated if you have conflicted feelings about the death. This may be because you’ve had difficulties, in the past or in the present, with the person who died. Relationships can often be complex and challenging, while still being caring. If other people didn’t know about or understand your relationship with the person who died, you may feel very alone in your grief.

Preparatory grief

The person who is dying may experience preparatory grief as they process the fact that their life will end soon.

Preparatory grief means they may grieve the loss of their health, as well as the things they may miss out on, such as an upcoming family wedding or grandchild.

They may have a range of feelings about what is happening to them, including anger. Some may also see it as an opportunity to organise paperwork or prepare keepsakes such as a memory box, letters or a recording ahead of their death.

At times the sadness and pain I feel is all consuming and hard to bear, while at other times these feelings are just in the background of my day-to-day activities.” ANNE

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed October 2023 by the following expert content reviewers: A/Prof Lisa Beatty, Associate Professor in Clinical Psychology and Consulting Clinical Psychologist, Flinders University Institute of Mental Health and Wellbeing, SA; Sandra Anderson, Consumer; Dr Alexandra Clinch, Palliative Medicine Specialist and Deputy Director, Palliative Care, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Royal Melbourne Hospital, VIC; Christopher Hall, Chief Executive Officer, Grief Australia; Nathan MacArthur, Specialist Grief Counsellor and Accredited Mental Health Social Worker, Sydney Grief Counselling Services, NSW; Linda Magann, Clinical Nurse Consultant – Palliative Care, St George Hospital, NSW; Palliative Care Australia; Richard Upton, Consumer; Lesley Woods, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA.

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