Survivor's Guide
Loss and Grief

How do People Experience Change, Loss & Grief?

Although grief is unpredictable and individual, grieving people do tend to feel similar emotions and reactions, although there's no set order or timeframe.

There's not necessarily a conclusion to grief. The reality is that most people who suffer a major loss in their life will continue to grieve in subtle ways for the rest of their life.

Your grief is yours: you will react in your own way. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.

You may relate to some or all of the following reactions or you may experience others we don't mention. Your feelings may even be contradictory at times, making things feel very confusing.
Most people go into some kind of shock when they hear bad news (such as ‘You have cancer', ‘Your mother has died' or ‘I am leaving you'). Whatever the news, it's very normal to go into shock and deny it's true. You don't want to believe it, so the best way to cope is to shut down and pretend it isn't happening. Some people describe this stage as ‘numbness', ‘denial' or ‘disbelief'. It usually passes quickly and is helped by talking about what's happening.
It's very common to ask, ‘Why is this happening to me? Who is to blame for this?'
You may feel what's happening is unfair and you want to lash out at everyone and anyone. You may feel anger towards doctors because it seemed to take so long to diagnose your cancer. You may feel anger towards family because you feel they've not done enough to help.

The reasons for anger can differ depending on a person's age. A 17-year-old diagnosed with cancer may be angry about not being able to learn to drive, go out with their friends or finish their final year of school with their peers. A 40-year-old may feel angry about not being well enough to take their children to school or spend time helping them with homework or playing with them. An older person may feel angry about not being able to feel certain about fulfilling their dreams in their retirement years.

Anger is a natural reaction to loss. For most people the feelings lessen or pass in time. Sometimes, people's anger makes them feel violent. It's very important to be aware if this is happening to you. If your anger turns into violent thoughts or aggressive behaviour, it's important that you speak to your doctor about this or call NCSM’s Cancer Helpline at 1800-08-1000 for information about who to contact for help.
During your cancer journey you may feel very frightened and alone. It may feel like no-one else understands what you're going through. You may miss what you have lost: your body may have changed, your energy levels may have reduced, or you may have to deal with something unfamiliar, like a urine bag. Such changes can make you feel different and alone. It can be hard to let people know how you're feeling, but try to share your feelings; it can help lessen the pain.
After a serious loss it's common for people to think or say things like, ‘If you give me back my health I will live a healthier life' or ‘If my cancer doesn't spread I will never complain about my family again'. You may ‘bargain' with God or another unseen force. It's natural for people to do this.
Some people feel they've caused their cancer and feel guilty about this. Some cancers are caused by lifestyle factors, such as smoking and sun exposure, but many cancers happen by chance. And for many types of cancers we still don't know the exact cause or causes.
Other people may feel guilty about something they said or did to someone close to them who has been diagnosed with cancer. Try not to feel bad about these things. Everyone makes mistakes, or says or does the wrong thing at times. If you can, talk to the person about what you're feeling and thinking. Letting go of guilt can be a great release.
If you've been diagnosed with cancer it's only natural to feel sad and upset. Sadness may be with you all the time. Or it can come and go, depending on other things in your life. You may feel sad because you can no longer do some things you enjoy. You may feel upset because your future is uncertain. Talking about your sadness can help many people feel better. However, if your sadness does not go away, you may be suffering from depression.
Depression is a much more intense feeling than sadness. It can be debilitating. You may have changes in your eating and sleeping habits, feel life is not worth living or lose interest in seeing your family and friends.

Many people suffer depression after a serious loss. People with cancer and their carers may have depression at any stage of the illness. If you think you have depression and your intense feelings or sense of loss continues for several weeks, you may need to get some help. Talk to your GP or another health care professional. 

The Beyond Blue has a ‘depression checklist' and a range of other resources you may find helpful. The checklist is not meant to replace seeing your GP but it may help you become more aware of your feelings. (
Understandably, many people find it hard to believe they'll ever accept a difficult loss. For most people, acceptance means finding a way to cope with their loss. You may never feel ‘over' your grief but you may find a way to move forward. You may begin to feel life is worth living and feel hopeful about your future. You may finally believe you can enjoy life again.

For some people hope may not be about the future but about more immediate things such as hoping for:
  • a good night's sleep
  • pain relief
  • being able to attend an important event like a wedding or birthday party.
This stage of the grief process is sometimes described as ‘reorganisation'. You begin to make changes to your life after a period of feeling strong emotions and feeling out of control, which brought a lot of ‘disorganisation' into your life. It can be a great relief to feel you can make a change or regain control.
Written by Annie Angle, cancer nurse (Dip. Oncology Nursing, Royal Marsden, London). Reviewed by Voula Kallianis, Social Worker, St Vincent's Palliative Care Unit; Eugenia Georopoulos, Project Officer, Centre for Culture Ethnicity and Health; Wendy Thurling, Senior Bereavement Counsellor, Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement; Jane Fletcher, Deputy Head, Cabrini Monash Psycho-oncology Research Unit and Director Melbourne Psycho-oncology Service; Associate Professor Michael Jefford, Medical Oncologist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre; Marie Craw; Nadia Montibellar; Neil O'Loghlen; Lesley Bawden; Meg Rynderman, Cancer Connect and Australian Cancer Survivorship Centre Volunteer; Majella Franklin.