Coping with grief following a bereavement

Grief is a normal response to the death of someone close to you. It’s usually felt as a yearning for the other person. At times, the yearning can be so strong that it feels like very real physical pain. Everyone experiences grief in a different way, but most people move through some or all of the stages listed here. People often move backwards and forwards between these stages:

  • Shock and numbness (this is usually the first reaction to the death, and people often speak of being in a daze).
  • Overwhelming sadness, with lots of crying
  • Denial, anger and guilt
  • Tiredness, exhaustion and depression
  • Gradual recovery and acceptance. Moving on.

Emotional effects

Immediately after the death, and for some time afterwards, you may feel numb. You may find it hard to believe that the person is dead. It’s common to feel angry that the person has died. The anger may be directed at the person themselves for leaving you, or at other people, such as family members or health professionals, for not being able to stop them from dying

The feeling of missing the person can be overwhelming. Many people continue to ‘see’ or ‘hear’ the person who has died, and have a strong sense of their presence. For example, some people walk into a room and have an experience of ‘seeing’ the person sitting in their favourite armchair.Other people have vivid dreams where they see the dead person as fit and well. These are perfectly normal experiences, although they can be shocking and upsetting.

You may have times of severe anxiety and distress, where you strongly miss the dead person and sob or cry aloud for them. Although this tends to happen less often after the first couple of weeks, finding a photograph of them or visiting a place that holds strong memories can trigger the distress, even months or years afterwards.

Talking through your feelings at this time may be helpful

Talking and sharing your feelings with someone can help. Don’t go through this alone.  For some people, relying on family and friends is the best way to cope.  But if you don’t feel you can talk to them (perhaps you aren’t close, or they are also grieving too), you can contact local bereavement services through you GP, local hospice, or the national Cruse helpline on 0844 477 9400.

A bereavement counsellor can give you time and space to talk about your feelings, including the person who has died, your relationship, family, work, fears and the future. You can have access to a bereavement counsellor at any time, even if the person you lost died a long time ago.

Don’t be afraid to talk about the person who has died. People in your life might not mention their name because they don’t want to upset you. But if you feel you can’t talk to them, it can make them feel isolated.

Physical effects

When someone close to you has died, it’s also common to have physical symptoms for some time afterwards. These can be frightening and some people say the symptoms are so strong that they worry they are seriously ill themselves.

However, physical reactions are normal and can include headaches, dizziness, a dry mouth, feeling weak, tightness in the chest and throat, breathlessness and feeling sick.

Many people struggle to sleep, having difficulty going to sleep or find themselves waking early. Some avoid company; others don’t want to be alone.You may be aware that your symptoms are similar to those of your relative or friend who has just died. If any of these symptoms persist, you should let your GP know.

Practical help

On the first day or so after the death, while you’re probably feeling numb, you may need plenty of practical help to do important tasks such as registering the death, arranging the funeral and coping with visitors. You may also need to spend some time on your own, coming to terms with what has happened.

After the funeral

The period of time after the funeral, when everyone has gone home and you’re expected to get on with your own life, can be the hardest. It’s a good idea to try not to do too much too soon. You may need time to get used to your loss and the changes this has brought about. It’s important to take time to look after yourself.

Don’t be afraid to show your emotions during the grieving process. It’s perfectly natural to cry when you’re thinking and talking about your loved one, and this can help you feel better. Some cultures have specific practices to follow, which can help to mark each phase of the bereavement process after a person’s death.

Delayed grief

The grieving process is different for everyone and very personal. Sometimes, it can be hard to tell if your feelings and emotions are normal. You may find that you get stuck at one stage of the grieving process, for example feeling very angry. If this happens, you may want to talk to your GP who may recommend counselling. Soon after a person’s death you may feel that you’ll never be able to live your life normally again. These feelings usually reduce over time, although this can take a year or more.

You will never forget the person and will always have memories of them. But people are usually able to get on with life again after a while and are able to enjoy activities and make plans for the future.

A very small number of people develop suicidal thoughts as part of the grieving process, either because they feel unable to face life without the person, or because they feel that their own death might bring them closer again. If you have suicidal thoughts, don’t be afraid to discuss them with your GP or a trusted friend or relative. You may need expert counselling and possibly medicines to help you feel better.