Coping with bereavement

A bereavement counsellor explains what bereavement is, how to cope, and where to go for help and support.

The death of a loved one can be devastating. Bereavement counsellor Sarah Smith describes some of the feelings that can arise from losing someone, and where you can go for help and support.

Bereavement affects people in different ways. There's no right or wrong way to feel.

"You might feel a lot of emotions at once, or feel you're having a good day, then you wake up and feel worse again," says Sarah, who works at Trinity Hospice in London.

She says powerful feelings can come unexpectedly. "It's like waves on a beach. You can be standing in water up to your knees and feel you can cope, then suddenly a big wave comes and knocks you off your feet."

Stages of bereavement or grief

Experts generally accept there are four stages of bereavement: 

  • accepting that your loss is real
  • experiencing the pain of grief
  • adjusting to life without the person who has died 
  • putting less emotional energy into grieving and putting it into something new – in other words, moving on

You'll probably go through all these stages, but you won't necessarily move smoothly from one to the next. Your grief might feel chaotic and out of control, but these feelings will eventually become less intense.

Feelings of grief

Give yourself time – these feelings will pass. You might feel:

  • 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
  • tiredness or exhaustion
  • anger – for example, towards the person who died, their illness, or God
  • guilt – for example, guilt about feeling angry, about something you said or didn't say, or about not being able to stop your loved one dying

"These feelings are all perfectly normal," says Sarah. "The negative feelings don't make you a bad person. Lots of people feel guilty about their anger, but it's OK to be angry and to question why."

She adds some people become forgetful and less able to concentrate. You might lose things, such as your keys. This is because your mind is distracted by bereavement and grief, says Sarah. You're not losing your sanity.

The GOV.UK website has information on what to do after someone dies, such as registering the death and planning a funeral.

Coping with grief

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. 

If you don't feel you can talk to them much – perhaps you aren't close, or they're grieving, too – you can contact local bereavement services through:

  • your local hospice
  • the national Cruse helpline on 0808 808 1677
  • your GP 

Find local bereavement support services listed on the Cruse website.

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.

Talking about the person who has died

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 you feel isolated.

Anniversaries and special occasions can be hard. Sarah suggests doing whatever you need to do to get through the day. This might be taking a day off work or doing something that reminds you of that person, such as taking a favourite walk.

If you need help to move on

Each bereavement is unique, and you can't tell how long it will last. "In general, the death and the person might not constantly be at the forefront of your mind after around 18 months," says Sarah. This period may be shorter or longer for some people, which is normal.

Your GP or a bereavement counsellor can help if you feel you're not coping. Some people also get support from a religious minister.

You might need help if:

  • you can't get out of bed
  • you neglect yourself or your family – for example, you don't eat properly
  • you feel you can't go on without the person you've lost
  • the emotion is so intense it's affecting the rest of your life – for example, you can't face going to work or you're taking your anger out on someone else

These feelings are normal – as long as they don't last for a long time. "The time to get help depends on the person," says Sarah.

"If these things last for a period that you feel is too long or your family say they're worried, that's the time to seek help. Your GP can refer you, and they can monitor your general health."

Some people turn to alcohol or drugs during difficult times. Get help cutting down on alcohol, or see the Frank website for information on drugs.

Counselling if someone is dying

If someone has an incurable illness, they and their loved ones can prepare for bereavement.

"Practical things can help, such as discussing funeral arrangements together and making a will," says Sarah.

Bereavement counsellors also offer pre-bereavement care, helping patients and their family cope with their feelings.

This can be especially important for children, Sarah explains. "Children's stress levels are at their highest before their family member dies, so support during this time is important."

Find out more about children and bereavement from the Childhood Bereavement Network.

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