Bereavement and Grief
Most people expect to be very upset or distressed when someone close to them has died. What takes many people by surprise is how strong the emotions can be, how they can change very quickly, and how long they last. People around you may seem to think you should be ‘back to normal by now’ after a few weeks or months. You might be back at work and appear to be your usual self to other people but you know that, on the inside, you’re not even sure what normal is anymore. You may even be wondering if you are ‘going mad’.
These next few paragraphs will give you some information that psychologists, counsellors and bereaved people have discovered about the experience of being bereaved. We hope you will feel reassured that it is very unlikely that you are abnormal or unwell. You have been through one of the most difficult experiences anyone can ever have. It is to be expected that it is taking you some time to adjust to life without the person you cared for so much and that you will miss them terribly and become upset at different times and in different ways by the fact they are no longer around.
Everyone is unique
Everyone grieves in a way that is unique to them and their relationship with the person who has died. Some people talk about stages in grief or a grief process. But bereavement isn’t something that people experience as a set of emotions that follow neatly one after another like a list of feelings that you can tick off as you go through them. Some of the things we describe here will be familiar to you; don’t worry about the others.
Very soon after the death
Even when you know that your loved one is going to die, it can feel like a real shock when it happens and difficult to believe. If the person has died completely unexpectedly, it can take some days or even longer before you are able to really believe that it is true. Seeing the body of the person who has died at the hospital or funeral director’s premises can be very helpful for many people.
For many weeks and months, you may find that sometimes you ‘forget’ that the person has died. You think you have seen them in the street, or hear their key in the door at the time they usually came home. You are not hallucinating – this is just an indication of how much you miss the person. It is also common to find yourself thinking ‘I must tell ….. about …..’ or find yourself setting a place for them at the table.
You may find that you can manage to do many of the practical tasks that are necessary after a death, even while you are struggling to believe that the person has died. Do not hesitate to ask for help from family and friends however if they are available. They will usually want to support you but may not know what it is that needs to be done. When what has happened starts to become more real, you may find yourself almost overwhelmed by sadness. You will need time, sometimes by yourself, sometimes with other people, when you feel able to cry without anyone trying to cheer you up.
Some people find they feel quite numb at the beginning. This may be the body’s way of protecting you from feeling too much sadness too quickly. You can see and hear what is going on around you, but it doesn’t seem very relevant to you. Most people find this passes within just a few days.
There are many other emotions you may experience in the first few days and weeks after the death. You may be quite anxious about how you will manage life without the person who has died, including being worried about having enough money or whether you will be able to stay in your home. Sometimes people feel physical symptoms similar to those created by the illness responsible for the death of their loved one. It is also quite normal to feel angry with the person who has died for leaving you on your own. Being angry may lead you to feeling guilty about being so cross. It is also very common to feel guilty about things that you would like to have said to the person but didn’t get the chance or perhaps you feel you should have made them see a doctor sooner.
Most people also have trouble sleeping normally when they are grieving. Try not to resort to medication or alcohol on a regular basis as both may result in physical and emotional addiction.
If the person who has died had been very unwell for a long time or had been suffering from dementia, it is very normal to feel a sense of relief after they have died. You have probably been grieving for a long time already as the person you knew has gradually been slipping away from you. If you have also been the person’s main carer it can be difficult to know what to do with yourself from one moment to the next because most or all your time was taken up with looking after them. You may start to do something but feel very restless and anxious because you are so accustomed to being focussed on the needs of someone else.
As time goes by
Well-intentioned people may say to you, ‘Time is a great healer.’ Sometimes, however, it can seem that you find life more difficult as the weeks and months go by. It may seem difficult to find a reason to get out of bed in the morning, take the trouble to eat properly or keep the house reasonably clean and tidy. You may feel completely exhausted most of the time. This is quite common.
Sometimes quite trivial things can cause you to become very upset. For example, if your husband has died and he always did any jobs needing the use of a stepladder, the first time a light bulb needs replacing you may burst into tears in a way that seems completely out of proportion.
What may help
Different people find their own ways of getting through their experience of grief but you may find some or all the following helpful:
- Talking with close family and friends. Sharing memories, of good times and bad, can help fix these precious memories in your mind and reassure you that you are not alone in grieving for the person who has gone. Sometimes people who visit may be uncertain whether to mention the name of the person who has died. They will not want to upset you unnecessarily. If you want to talk about the person who has died, you may have to introduce their name into the conversation yourself.
- Take time alone to remember
- Don’t be embarrassed to become emotional at times
- Don’t worry if you find yourself retelling the same memories over and over again – this is one of the ways we begin to accept what has happened and try to understand it
- Give yourself permission to laugh and enjoy life at times even when you are struggling
- Do ask family and friends (if possible) for help, especially with practical tasks
- Use photographs or special things to help you remember.
- Eat something even when you don’t feel like it and try to exercise if you possibly can.
- Learn a new skill or try a new hobby
- Plan for special dates such birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas
- Some churches have annual memorial services near the beginning of November. Some other faiths have specific prayers for anniversaries of the death.
- Some funeral homes arrange memorial services, sometimes linked with a carol service
- Some people find themselves talking with the person who has died as if they were present or using the phrase ‘..now what would …. have said about this situation?’
- Be patient with yourself. Life will never be the same again after someone important to you has died but you will eventually discover a new normal without them. However, this often takes very much longer than we expect and it can seem never-ending when we are grieving.
- Be patient with other people affected by the death of your loved one. Everyone grieves in their own way.
When should I get more help?
Until recently death has not been something that people talk about very much and even now many of us prefer to pretend it will never happen to us or those we love. There is not a good level of understanding in society in general about the experience of grief. Some family and friends may suggest you need counselling because they are unable to cope with the fact that you are bereaved and they find this very difficult or are just not sure how to support you.
Research suggests that most of us are better at coping in difficult circumstances than we expect, especially if we have supportive family and friends, or a good social circle or support network.
The death of someone close is always difficult, and some factors can make it more of a struggle. We may have had a difficult relationship with the person who has died which has left us with very mixed feelings or the death may have been the result of an accident caused by a drunk driver. The person may have taken their own life. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed because we have experienced the deaths of several people close to us in a short space of time.
The key thing to remember if you find that you are really struggling to come to terms with your loss or cope with your grief is that help is available and please do review our Specialist Bereavement Support Organisations section if you would like to be signposted to the most appropriate source of help.