The experience of grief.
Grief is the normal human response to the loss of someone, or even something, important to us. The death of a relative, friend or colleague can result in emotions which may feel overwhelming or even frightening at times. Most people cope with grief with the support of family and friends, but it can be helpful to speak with someone neutral, who is knowledgeable about bereavement, regarding your situation.
For additional support, download our Coping with Grief: Seeking Support When Someone Dies leaflet.
How can I cope with my grief?
Each experience of bereavement is unique – just like the relationship between the person who has died and the person who is missing them. In the early days after the death, you may experience grief as feeling shocked and numb, deeply sad and tearful. However, it’s also normal and common to feel quite angry about the death, even with the person who has died for leaving you. Your rational mind might tell you that this is not justified but your feelings seem to be following a different path. Regret and guilt are also common, for things said or unsaid and much else. An outsider might tell you that you have no reason to feel guilty but the feelings are real. Often these feelings of anger and guilt fade over the following weeks and months but if you feel stuck with them it is a good idea to contact us or one of the other organisations we list below to talk about what you’re experiencing. For some people, when the death has come after a long illness, or following years of difficulties in the relationship, bereavement can also bring a sense of relief. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.
You may have read or been told that grief has various stages such as shock, pain, anger, guilt, depression and longing – almost like a checklist that you must work through. However, research has shown that this is too simplistic an explanation. A rollercoaster of emotions might be a better description. At times, you might show a ‘brave face’ to people but feel completely different on the inside. At other times your emotions may overwhelm you, and demand your time and all your energy, and be impossible to hide away.
Grief is often exhausting. You might feel very tired and possibly apathetic about ordinary everyday tasks. If you have been the carer for the person who has died, you may wonder how you are going to fill long, empty hours of your time. During this phase, you can even feel a real sense of achievement in accomplishing ordinary everyday tasks, like making a simple meal, because it took all your energy to do so.
Try not to place high demands on yourself in addition to all the things that you may have to do already, such as going to work or caring for children or other family members. Provided you can afford it, it’s fine to have a week of take-away meals rather than cooking. It’s okay to cancel plans if you need to catch up on some rest. People will understand if you need some time alone. But do try not to cut yourself off from other people entirely. Use an answer-machine or caller display to screen your phone calls on bad days but make calls yourself on the days you are feeling stronger.
Making lists of things that must be done is often a helpful way of keeping track of the unfamiliar tasks that bereavement requires. Remember, though, that very few of these will be urgent once you have notified everyone that needs to know about the death. The priority is informing family, friends, banks and the DWP.
If you are fortunate enough to have offers of help from family and friends to do your cleaning, shopping, gardening or other tasks, then accept them. Additionally, if you feel you need to talk about your experience in order to better manage your feelings, do so freely. Don’t worry that you’re repeating yourself to family and friends that you trust; they are there for you.
One of the hardest things to cope with when we are bereaved is the way some other people may react. Some people may not know what to say or how to respond and be worried about saying the wrong thing. They might even avoid you rather than approach you about your bereavement. If you have the courage to introduce the person who has died into the conversation they will be able to talk more comfortably and learn how to support bereaved people. Meanwhile treasure the family and friends who are willing to share their time with you and with whom you can talk about anything and everything.
There are lots of organisations that provide emotional support, offering phone calls or online chats to enable you to share your feelings. They will usually be able to reassure you that what you are experiencing is normal, and often, that will be enough to enable you to carry on. You may also value contact with people who have experienced the death of someone close in similar circumstances. If that’s the case, we can signpost you to a peer-type support which best matches your situation.
If you’re looking for advice on how to support someone else, or someone with very specific circumstances – such as a parent who has lost a child, or a child affected by the loss of a parent – there is also help available.
If you’re concerned about your physical or mental health during a bereavement, contact your GP do let your GP know – sometimes physical illnesses can cause emotional disturbance. It is also quite common to experience physical symptoms similar to those of someone who has died of an illness. Please don’t ignore these, your doctor will be able to work out what is going on.
There is no time limit to grief and at times it can seem interminable. Anniversaries and other special dates may always be harder. Grief is not an illness we recover from, but an inevitable life experience that results in us changing and learning how to live with the person who has died in our memories rather than physically present. As the weeks, months and years pass most people find they can look back and understand the route of the journey they have travelled. It will be possible to smile, laugh and enjoy life again however unlikely that may seem.
We recognise that there are some bereavements that cannot be publicly acknowledged. If your relationship with the person who died was not publicly known, your grief can be a very lonely experience. People on our helpline and the others we have listed are hear to listen and support you without any prejudice or judgement.
Please be aware that many bereavement helplines are provided by charities and phones may be staffed by trained volunteers. Be prepared to leave a message on an answer-machine and be patient waiting for them to call you back. Most hospices also offer bereavement support but, in some cases, this will be restricted to families of someone who has died while in the care of the hospice.