Grief and Sadness. What’s the difference?

Recently I discovered through personal experience that grief and sadness are not the same. Not at all. I”ve been sad before. I’m sure you have been sad at some point in your life too.  The feeling of sadness is as normal as the feeling of happiness. We experience sadness when have been disappointed, or when we go through a break-up, and sometimes when we finish a really good book and there is no sequel. Sadness is the feeling that something isn’t quite right. We feel like we are missing something and have no way to obtain whatever that “something” is. Maybe we have lost something like a job or a marriage and we feel sad it is gone.  The ability to feel our own sadness is what lets us recognize it in others and then empathize or offer sympathy.

Sadness is the feeling that something isn’t quite right. We feel like we are missing something and have no way to obtain whatever that “something” is. Maybe we have lost something like a job or a marriage and we feel sad it is gone.  The ability to feel our own sadness is what lets us recognize it in others and then empathize or offer sympathy

Grief, however, is very different. It is a normal reaction to a profound loss or life changing event. Comparing grief and sadness is like comparing an ocean to a swimming pool. You can jump into the pool, touch the bottom, and rise to the surface. If you jump into the middle of the ocean, there is no bottom. You splash around aimlessly looking for a lifeline. That is grief. You are lost in the middle of a darkness that seems to have no end. It’s devastating and terrifying. It is what you feel when you reach out for someone who is no longer there.

I know the difference. I have felt the twinge of sadness and the pain of grief. I clearly remember receiving the news my best friend was in an accident and had been killed. I do not remember much about the next few days. I was completely lost. I cried until I had no tears left and every so often some kind of desolate sound escaped from my throat.

I thought that profound grief would stay with me forever. But time does what it does best, it heals. It was a slow process and sometimes I would have terrible days following the good ones. I remember the moment I knew I was going to be alright. It was a late Tuesday afternoon in the fall, my favorite season. 7 months had passed and I sat on a faded green wicker chair on my porch watching as the neighbors packed up to move to Idaho. I thought about the new life that had just blessed their home, the new life they were going to make in Idaho and the new life that would move into their home when they were gone. I had reached the 4th stage of grief. Acceptance.

Everything has an end and when it ends something new begins.

Stages of grief

We go through these stages as we are learning to live with the emptiness we feel in our lives and in our heart. Sometimes we visit them in order, other times we skip a stage, and almost always we go back and forth between them during our mourning period. How long we stay at each stage varies from person to person.

The 5 stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

  • Denial – This is usually the first stage, however, some people skip it or come back to it later. In this stage, you can’t comprehend the reality of the situation. You are still waiting for the car to pull into the driveway or the phone to ring. You think, “this isn’t happening.” Denial is a defense mechanism that helps buffer that first wave of pain. It can keep us from going into shock until we can begin to process the reality of the situation.
  • Anger – The second stage of grief is in response to reality and the pain it is causing. The loss has become real and nothing will ever be as it once was. Anger at your deceased loved one is a normal reaction as is anger at the doctor, at life, at death, at the cat, the mailman and even the goldfish he won at the state fair.
  • Bargaining – When we feel out of control, vulnerable, and helpless we search for a way to regain that control. We think, “if only I had worked less he wouldn’t have left me.” We make deals with God, “if you will bring him back I promise I will….” We scrutinize every action we took and second guess every decision we made thinking if we had done something differently, the loss wouldn’t have happened.
  • Depression – Depression during grief is different than being depressed at other times. During the grieving period, depression is the feeling that sinks into your bones as you gradually come to see how many things in your life must change. It’s during this time you begin to prepare to say your final goodbye and begin to move on.
  • Acceptance – This is the final stage of grief and some people may never get here. This is the time to make peace with your loss and to accept that it has changed you in some way. Accepting that you have lost something meaningful to you allows you the opportunity to find peace. Those who do continue to resist accepting the loss tend to remain an
  • gry and deny themselves the fulfillment they could still find in their life.

I knew I had to say a final farewell to my friend. I had to accept that she will no longer be there to talk to, to share with, or to offer comfort.  For that, I will always feel a sadness. I will always miss her.

Moving through these stages is not negotiable, we all must do it to heal.

What about those who resist the process or ignore their emotions and do not allow themselves to grieve?

Learn to grieve, learn to live again

Grieving does not come naturally to everyone. Some people think they must remain strong and do not allow themselves to go through the process. Sometimes timing doesn’t allow us to grieve due to responsibilities so we cope with the loss however we have to. People who refuse to go through the grief stages tend to be more isolated and suffer long term depression.

So how do you grieve? There isn’t a right or wrong way to mourn. Coping with the loss of something or someone significant is a personal and sometimes private matter. You may cry, get angry, want to be left alone or need the comfort of a friend. No one can make it easier for you or help you through it. It is something you must work through on your own.

Learning to grieve is as simple as allowing yourself to feel the emotions as they happen, which doesn’t feel simple at all. It hurts. Human reaction to pain is to shield against it for protection. With grief, you must open yourself to it and allow it in. Learn to identify your emotions and come to understand why you are feeling them. They are normal and necessary.

When you are ready, in your own time, you will learn to rebuild yourself and live your life in a new way. That does not mean you have forgotten what came before but rather that you have built upon that foundation to find a new purpose.

I still struggle a bit and find myself unwilling to accept my friend’s death at times. In the early days, I had no desire to find a new purpose or move on. I found that I was questioning not only my place in the world but my purpose for living as well. The grief still sits heavy in my heart at times, but as I think of her I can almost hear her say, “Now you know, that I know, that you know better than that. Go give it all you got.”

She was many things to me and I will miss her forever. Memories are bittersweet as I learn to move on without her.