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What Is Grief: How TCM Can Help You Cope with the Emotions 

What is grief, and how do you get through it? These are the questions we ask ourselves in anticipation of a great loss. 

Woman in all black sobs while sitting on a bench with a rose stalk next to her.

What is grief? It’s made up of psychological and physiological changes and adaptations following a great loss, usually after the death of a loved one.

There are seven stages of grief, a framework that describes the grieving process. We also look at different approaches to help with this life transition, both in Western and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

What Is Grief?  

Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross first attempted to describe grief with her model, 5 Stages of Grief in 1969. It has since been adapted into the 7 Stages of Grief. 

1. Shock and disbelief 

At the first news of loss, there is an initial reaction of shock. This is a defensive and self-preserving mechanism that protects us from pain.

2. Denial 

Denial may follow shock, where you refuse to accept the reality of loss. While it is another defence mechanism, it is important to move on from this stage eventually.

3. Guilt 

Guilt arises once you start accepting the reality that you have just experienced the loss. The feeling of guilt stems from ruminating on whether you could have prevented the loss in the first place.

4. Anger and bargaining 

As you attempt to live with this new void, you feel angry. Some people who grieve even blame the deceased for “leaving”. You may “bargain” mentally (“I will do x if only this loss can be reversed”). 

5. Depression and loneliness 

In this stage, there is a deep sadness as you begin reflecting on how much the person meant to you. While difficult, this is also an aspect of grief that has the potential to open you up to progress. 

6. Reconstruction  

You are genuinely working through the grief and your new reality, even if your sadness has not lessened. You’re actively building new routines and making modifications that better suit your new normal. 

7. Acceptance 

You have fully accepted the loss. You may cry or smile when you think of your loved one, but it is no longer debilitating. You find life not just bearable but enjoyable. This stage is only reachable after having done the painful and challenging work of grieving. 

Types of Therapy to Help with Grief

Profile view of patient and therapist during a therapy session
The fields of psychology and psychiatry have developed different therapies to help patients work through their grief.

Years of research indicate that grief is associated with unfavourable health conditions. For example, the relative risk of death is 22% higher among widows and widowers compared to those whose partners are still alive.

Different types of therapies can help you work through your grief. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a proven method that helps you recognise negative patterns and learn to change them. Other types of therapy that may help include complicated grief therapy and traumatic grief therapy. There is also art and play therapy, as well as group therapy. 

The Concept and Treatment of Grief in TCM 

TCM has always combined mind, body, and spirituality. Each organ system is associated with a spirit type. “The disruption of the flow of the Heart and Kidneys’ qi (vital life force) upsets the shen (spirit, 神) and zhi (will, 志), which are the spiritual aspects of the Heart and Kidneys, respectively,” explains Real Medical Senior TCM physician Brandon Yew. He states that the Liver is associated with anger, the Lungs with sorrow, and the Spleen with contemplation.

Herbal medicine

Close-up of three small pieces of magnolia bark on a wooden spoon against the background of a wooden table.
Magnolia bark (hou po, 厚朴) is a key herb in TCM formulas that can modulate neurotransmitters to alleviate symptoms of depression.

A TCM practitioner can determine a combination of herbs to address symptoms in different stages of grief. “For example, for depression, loneliness, and reflection, the Ban Xia Hou Pu Tang (半夏厚朴汤) formula dispels Stagnated Qi, Dampness, and phlegm to ventilate the Spleen’s yi or intellect (意) and the Lungs’ po or vigour (魄),” says Physician Yew. Both human studies and animal models have shown that this formula can alleviate symptoms of depression. 


As with TCM herbs, most studies of acupuncture focus on depression rather than grief. Still, the fact that these modalities modulate important neurotransmitters involved in emotional regulation indicates their potential.

In a 2012 review of acupuncture for the treatment of depression, researchers were able to conclude that acupuncture is effective. They believe the mechanism lies in how acupuncture mediates neurotransmitter signals that bolster adaptability and balance.

This is echoed by Physician Yew when he gives examples of acupoints that he would use on a patient. “The shen men (HT7, 神门) acupoint regulates the Heart’s shen (神) or spirit, helping with shock when first experiencing a tragic loss,” he notes. 

Research and practice continue to hone our understanding of what grief is. Fields within Western medicine and TCM offer a host of frameworks and tools to help someone grieving through their journey of healing. As intensely and extremely difficult as it is to experience loss, know that you will eventually overcome this life transition with time. 

Share this article if it can help someone experiencing grief and loss.


  1. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2019. Grief: A Brief History of Research on How Body, Mind, and Brain Adapt. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6844541/> [Accessed 2 November 2022]
  2. Counselling Directory, United Kingdom. 2020. What are the 7 stages of grief? [online] Available at: <https://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/blog/2020/10/26/what-are-the-7-stages-of-grief – accept-cookies> [Accessed 2 November 2022]
  3. Talkspace.com. 7 Grief Therapy Techniques for Coping. [online] Available at: <https://www.talkspace.com/blog/grief-therapy-techniques/> [Accessed 2 November 2022]
  4. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment. 2016. Nine traditional Chinese herbal formulas for the treatment of depression: an ethnopharmacology, phytochemistry, and pharmacology review. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5036551/> [Accessed 2 November 2022]
  5. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. 2012. Acupuncture for Depression: A Review of Clinical Applications. [online] Available at: <https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/epdf/10.1177/070674371205700702> [Accessed 2 November 2022]
  6. Medical Acupuncture. 2013. Traditional Chinese Medicine as a Basis for Treating Psychiatric Disorders: A Review of Theory with Illustrative Cases. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3870484/> [Accessed 2 November 2022]

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Reviews (1)

NinaSep 28 2023

I just remember that I so often felt the need to let out deep sighs when my mother was sick with cancer and in palliative care.. I had no idea why, I thought sighing was only about weariness!..

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