Surviving Spouse Corner: Coping With the Loss of a Loved One

By Anne Hartline, Surviving Spouse Advisory Committee member


Grief is a highly complex, personal emotional process. Every person is unique, so there will be many individual differences in the grief process, including personal characteristics and circumstances of the death. The way in which an individual grieves also depends on the personality of the grieving person and his or her relationship with the person who died. In addition, evidence-based research suggests most people do not go through progressive stages. Other research indicates grief is a series of symptoms that come and go and possibly eventually diminish. Also, cultural and religious beliefs, coping skills, and socioeconomic status will affect how a person will cope with the death of a loved one. Proven clinical data documents grief following a sudden death differs from a death following a lengthy illness. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a pioneer in the field, developed a theory of the stages of grief that has received questionable support from research. A more recent model of grief names the psychological responses of numbness-disbelief, separation distress, depression-mourning, and recovery. This recent model emphasizes the theory that grief unfolds in stages is an oversimplification of a highly complex process. Researchers now have identified specific patterns to grief’s intensity and duration. They found the worst usually is over in about six months; however, there is no set timeline for the grief process. While loss is forever, acute grief is not. Some people who have developed a personal resiliency might be able to get through loss on their own. Others will have a much harder time and will need outside clinical intervention based on a recent evidence-based model.