Please note that we are seeing high patient volumes in the emergency department. Learn more >>.

Know before you go to the ER
Select the search type
  • Site
  • Web

Grief and Cancer

What are the symptoms of grief?

It is natural to have many symptoms of grief. This is true for the person facing cancer and death. And it’s true for survivors after a loved one has died. The symptoms of grief can include:

Physical symptoms

Emotional symptoms

Spiritual symptoms

  • Lack of energy; fatigue

  • Headaches and upset stomach

  • Excessive sleeping or overworking and excessive activity

  • Memory lapses, distraction, and preoccupation

  • Irritability

  • Depression and feelings of euphoria

  • Extreme anger or feelings of being resigned to the situation

  • Feelings of being closer to God or feelings of anger and outrage at God

  • Strengthening of faith or questioning of faith

What are the different stages of grief?

Grieving is a normal response to a loss. The loss can include the loss of your normal daily routine due to your diagnosis, the impact of the diagnosis on other family members, or the financial impact of the diagnosis. The grieving process varies from person to person in terms of the order in which one deals with the stages of grief, as well as the time it takes to go through the stages of grief. Not everyone goes through all the stages. And the stages don’t always happen in a certain order. The person with cancer and their spouse, parents, siblings, and other family members and friends will all experience grief. Grief is usually divided into 5 stages:


At this stage, people try to believe that the cancer diagnosis is not happening to them or their family. You may feel numb, or in a state of shock. Denial is a protective emotion when a life event is too overwhelming to deal with all at once.


You understand the cancer diagnosis but are very upset and angry that it has happened to you, a friend, or family member. One of the best ways of dealing with bursts of anger is to exercise or do another type of physical activity. Talking with family and friends, other people who have cancer, and the hospital staff may also be helpful. The person also needs to be able to express their anger. They can do this by telling others how they feel or writing in a journal.


Asking questions like "Why me?" and "What did I do to deserve this?" is common in this stage. It is normal for the person to make bargains with themselves or, for some, to question their spirituality or faith. This is done in hopes that it will make the cancer diagnosis go away. Guilt is a main emotion during this stage. Searching for something that you personally did, which could have helped lead to the cancer, is all part of bargaining. People may promise not to do something they previously did (such as arguing with family members). Or they may promise to start doing something they have not done (such as going to church regularly) in exchange for recovery. 

Depression and sadness

The cancer diagnosis can no longer be denied. Those involved may feel a deep sadness. This is normal. Physical changes may occur at the same time. These include trouble sleeping or excessive sleeping, changes in appetite, trouble concentrating on simple daily activities, or feeling a constant fear that someone else in the family will be diagnosed with cancer. It is important to talk about depression with a healthcare professional, such as a social worker or counselor. Or meet with a support group to help you cope with your feelings.


You have accepted the cancer diagnosis. Cancer has been incorporated as part of your life. You have made an adjustment to the illness. This does not mean that you will never feel other emotions. Families often find that they are better able to manage their lives overall once they reach this stage. Going through the grieving process is the best way to cope with a cancer diagnosis. By giving yourself and your family permission to grieve, you will be able to cope.

Talking about death

Most people need honest and accurate information about their illness, treatment plan, treatment choices, and prognosis. People share their fears and concerns in many ways. They cry, yell, ignore others, seek information from others, and write letters. These feelings of sadness, confusion, anger, and fear are all acceptable.

It is important to understand that each person and family is different. Different cultures have varying beliefs about death, and there is no single right way to talk about death. In general, an open communication style allows the dying person to express their fears and desires. This openness does not happen overnight. The ultimate goal in discussing death with a dying person is to make them as comfortable as possible and lessen any fears.

The person may not be ready to discuss death, so the most helpful thing spouses, family, and caregivers can do is to wait until the person is ready. Let the person know you are willing to talk with them whenever they are ready to do so. Forcing information will usually result in anger, distrust, and emotional distance from others. Waiting until someone is ready to handle the situation will allow for better communication.

Complicated grief

Grief that lasts a long time and doesn't progress is called complicated grief or unresolved grief. If you or a loved one has symptoms of complicated grief, talk to a mental health professional or healthcare provider. There are treatments that can help. It is important to get assistance because people with complicated grief are at high risk for emotional illness that gets worse and suicide. Symptoms of complicated grief include:

  • Unable to accept the death

  • Intense emotional pain or anger

  • Blaming yourself for the death

  • Wishing you could die and be with your loved one

  • Feeling that life is meaningless without your loved one

  • Feeling alone and isolated from others

Call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 800-273-TALK (8255). You will be connected to trained mental health crisis services at the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. An online chat choice is also available. This service is free and available 24/7.

Find a doctor or make an appointment: 866.867.3627
General Information: 314.747.3000
One Barnes-Jewish Plaza
St. Louis, MO 63110
© Copyright 1997-2024, Barnes-Jewish Hospital. All Rights Reserved.