Coping with bereavement: Your journey through grief

Bereavement: To take a loved one from a person, especially by death.

This dictionary definition of bereavement highlights the emotions suffered following death in a very raw sense. Of more relevance is perhaps the Old English description, which defined it as to “rob,” “deprive,” and “seize”.

If you’re suffering from bereavement – then each of these words will undoubtedly reflect how you feel, whether the loss has been recent or some years past. The feelings of injustice can be overwhelming, and whilst death is something we all know is inevitable, the death of a loved one can quite often seem insurmountable.

Bereavement: What to expect

The processes that we, as humans, experience following a death have been extensively studied, researched and documented; throughout these efforts have been a number of emotions that have been identified, including:

- Sadness - Confusion - Yearning
- Anger - Denial - Disbelief
- Humiliation - Shock - Despair
- Guilt

Yet despite all of the research in the world there is no accounting for how any particular person reacts, how long they may experience certain emotions for and which of these emotions may be experienced.

Because of the unpredictable and individual nature of bereavement for many this time can make even the most well connected person feel completely, utterly and hopelessly alone.

Remember: Everyone experiences bereavement in a unique way and it demands time to process and even begin to accept a loss. You’ll never stop missing those who have passed, it is only time that provides an opportunity for the sharpest of pain to ease.

Mourning: Emotionally processing a passing

Grief is how your emotions are shown and expressed – these may be experienced physically and psychologically. Crying can be considered as a physical expression, whilst the condition of depression is a psychological expression. The process of mourning commands that these emotions are expressed, however many, if not most, deny these feelings – at least initially. In doing so those who are mourning attempt to protect themselves from pain, however denial is impossible to hold onto forever. For those who enter extended periods of denial there are often physical or emotional illnesses that emerge as a result.

Physical effects of mourning include a loss in appetite, stomach cramps and discomfort, intestinal issues, disturbed sleep and lethargy. Often mourning can also have a knock on effect upon the immune system, whilst any existing or previous illnesses may return or be exacerbated.

Equally there may be serious emotional reactions, such as panic attacks, chronic fatigue and depression. Further and altogether more serious emotions may also be reflected in an obsession with the person who has passed and frequent thoughts of suicide.

The process of grief

1. Shock

Whether a death was entirely foreseen following a long illness, or had been completely unexpected, shock is an emotion that will be experienced almost universally by those who are grieving. During this stage it is useful to allow others to help out with any practicalities that you may struggle with – such as shopping, cleaning and preparing meals – for which you shouldn’t feel guilty. In all likelihood those around you will be glad that they can be of help.

During this time they’ll also be formalities to take care of, such as applying for the death certificate and making funeral arrangements. These tasks may well help to take your mind off of the overwhelming grief you’re otherwise experiencing – however if these appear too imposing then you should ask for assistance from those around you.

2. Acute grief

Acute grief is typically experienced following the funeral, and often comes about once the world that surrounds you continues as normal. Adjusting to life without a loved one can be tough – you may need to alter your routine, address financial circumstances and find professional services for the tasks that the deceased used to complete for you – such as DIY. It’s often the smallest of problems that crop up that can throw you off balance.

During this time memories can feel particularly painful – and visiting routine places can feel overwhelming as the previous visit may have been alongside the deceased.

3. Feelings of disorganisation

In the months that follow a funeral there can be an incredible number of practicalities to account for – such as changing the name of a joint bank account, sorting insurance claims and dealing with a whole load of legal documents. All of which can leave you feeling disorganised.

If you’re able to, you should seek help in wading through this painful list of to-dos, and tasks such as sorting through your loved one’s possessions can await a time that you feel ready.

4. A focus upon the reorganisation of life

Feeling ready to continue with life can take many months and is an incremental process. To help you may want to consider taking up new hobbies. Whilst grief will always be felt, it is in the small joys of life that remain that will help you to cope in the day-to-day.

Coping with loss

When a child dies there is an often unconquerable feeling of injustice – and it not only the child who is lost, but also the hopes and dreams for the future. Parents frequently feel that it is they who are responsible for the death – regardless of the circumstances and how logical this may be. Parents may also feel a profound sense of lost identity.

When a spouse dies the emotions and envisaged life ahead can be traumatic. Shock is commonplace and the practicalities that surround day to day living, such as the financial implications, can serve to deepen a crisis. Depending upon the circumstances such a loss may call for significant social changes – such as the surviving spouse returning to work, becoming a single parent and adjusting to life without a spouse.

When grief is suffered by an elderly person it can leave them feeling, and physically being, very vulnerable, particularly where they may have shared an entire lifetime with the deceased. During this period grief can also be made all the more severe by further losses of friends.

When a person takes their own life the loss that is felt can be amongst the most difficult, and complex, to experience. Common feelings include guilt, anger and shame. Often those left behind also feel somehow responsible for the death. Seeking professional help in the form of counselling is recommended in such instances.

When a parent is lost it is not unusual for feelings of instability and a loss of identity to occur; even where children may be fully grown.

When someone is lost who was suffering from a terminal illness it is expected that at some point a feeling of relief may emerge, as well as guilt that follows subsequently. These may also be tinged with a sense of injustice. The journey of bereavement following terminal illness is an inherently complex one.

Day to day life with grief over your shoulder

Bereavement can bring about serious consequences for both your short term and long term mental health. It’s vital that, whilst allowing yourself to grieve, that you take care of your mental health in other ways, such as follows:

Know when to seek counselling

Above all else you need to know when grief is ‘normal’, and when you should seek counselling. Warning signs can include feeling consistently overwhelmed, experiencing thoughts of suicide and being unable to complete any day-to-day tasks, such as getting up, washing and dressing, over an extended period.

Understand that there is no correct way to grieve

There are few rules and expectations of grief – everyone is different and the circumstances that surround a death may equally have some bearing on the process of bereavement.

Appreciate that there is no time limit for grief to wane

There are no set times by which any of us can know that grief will lessen; however whilst you are grieving it may be wise to put a hold on any major life changes – including moving, remarrying and changing jobs.

Release feelings of guilt

Guilt is a common emotion that seems to be almost hand in hand with grief; mourners may feel as though it’s unfair that they are allowed to continue to living, with all the day-to-day tasks that it entails, whilst the deceased is no longer here.

It’s vital that any feelings of guilt are released and that an acceptance is actively worked towards in order to realise that life is for living.

Take care of your health

Throughout the grieving process you should make a concerted effort to take care of your health – eating correctly, staying in contact with others and attempting exercise can all be ways to starve off illness – both physical and mental. You should however do the things that provide you with comfort – such as hobbies, as well as visiting the places and doing the things that you enjoyed previously with the deceased.

Delay any major life changes

Whilst in the midst of grief you should propos tone any major life changes – which in themselves can be stressful enough alone. This includes: having a baby, starting a new job and moving.

Bereavement support groups

Bereavement support groups provide a safe and supportive environment in which people may share and work through their grief together. Alongside others attendees, people often find compassion from the fellow bereaved and can frequently recognise the thoughts, emotions and issues that others are suffering from.

These sessions are lead by professionals, who help people to learn about grief, mourning and healing, and they can also provide advice for communication skills and coping strategies.

Seeking immediate help

Should you feel the need for help on a one-to-one basis, and feel that you need to speak with someone immediately then you may wish to contact your GP in the first instance. As well as this you may want to seek out a bereavement service local to you; such services can provide bereavement counsellors who can offer invaluable time to talk – helping you to work through your emotions as they arrive and simply acting as a pillar of support.

If you’d like to speak purely via phone in the initial instance then you should contact Cruse Bereavement – a charity that offers support to those who are bereaved – whomever they may have lost. They also provide online help. You can call them on 0808 808 1677, or Visit the Cruse Bereavement Care Website.

Assisting those who are grieving

You can help those who may be grieving by:

Sharing in their pain. Simply sit and listen to them – encourage them to talk and help them in discussing their feelings of loss. Balance this with fond memories of the deceased.

Being patient. Grief takes time, and there may be no more invaluable a gift you can give to those dealing with loss than complete patience.

Providing practical assistance. Those who are in throws of grief may struggle to undertake the practical tasks they did previously. Offering them help with their childcare, shopping, cooking and home errands can often be of vital importance when a person is feeling overwhelmed and unable to do these things for themselves.

Avoiding offering false comfort. False comfort helps neither you, nor the person grieving, and what’s more it is obvious. Keep your expressions for their loss simple, and avoid saying things such as “it was the best for him/her” and “you’ll get it over it with enough time”.

The future

‘Moving on’ following a loss is not a matter of getting over a death –anyone who has lost someone knows that bereavement is about a different future, rather than one that is the same, simply without their family member or friend. Nevertheless there is a future, one that holds memories yet to be made, happiness from others and joy in activities – a focus upon this can help those who are struggling to see past the next day, week or month.

Helping children to grieve

When young people suffer a major loss the bereavement process, and the emotions that surround it, is often incredibly different as compared to an adult’s. Most typically a sense of security or survival may emerge. This may be accompanied with confusion and fear that others may also leave their life. It’s essential that the grieving child is given with patience, time to talk and unparalleled support; throughout which honesty is key.

If a parent has been lost and you’re able to offer assistance with elements such as childcare and other practicalities then this can be invaluable for the surviving spouse, who will likely be under an enormous amount of pressure – both emotionally and practically.

Pre-Bereavement Care

Pre-Bereavement Care describes the ways in which those closest to someone who is dying can be offered pre-emptive support before the person passes.

This may be as simple as a visit, and assisting those in connecting to the right supportive services – whether from a charity, social services or other NHS bodies; the latter of which actually offers bereavement counsellors who are specially trained in providing pre-bereavement care.

Further resources

Visit our dedicated page for bereavement and support resources.