Last Updated 18 September, 2015

Bereavement

What it is and how to cope with it

The loss of someone we love is likely to be one of the most painful experiences we will ever have to face. Yet in the natural course of our lives it is likely that we will experience it at least once, and may even do so several times. Culturally, we tend to talk very little about death and bereavement although it is such a natural and inevitable part of life.

When we lose someone important to us we can be overwhelmed by our pain and distress and worry that those feelings will never pass. Our reactions can be frightening both for us and for those around us since the pain and distress we experience can result in us thinking, feeling and behaving in unfamiliar ways.

There is no 'healthy' or 'unhealthy' way to grieve - individuals have a right to grieve in their own way. Those going through bereavement may experience some feelings of anxiety and depression. About 33% of bereaved people have symptoms of depression one month after the loss, and 15% are still depressed a year later. But with careful handling, personal insight and the understanding a support of others, even the most depressive of feelings will pass.

What is bereavement?

First Reactions

Whether death comes suddenly and unexpectedly, or after a long illness, it is likely to affect us in some or all of the following ways:

  • Leaving us in a state of shock
  • Experiencing disbelief and numbness
  • Some people experience painful searching for the lost loved one
  • Sometimes the shock itself can carry people through the first few days and enable them to make the practical arrangements about the funeral
  • Sometimes, they feel the full impact of the loss straightaway and may need help and support from others to deal with practical matters
  • Our grief can make us feel very detached from everything around us and we can have difficulty putting our feelings into words
  • It is common to experience sleeping problems, a loss of appetite or other physical symptoms
  • Sometimes it may feel as though it is impossible to concentrate on daily tasks at work or at home
  • sometimes the only way to cope is to carry on with familiar duties, to try to hold our world together
  • If the death is expected, perhaps as a result of a long illness, you may have had time to prepare for what is to happen and the shock may last for less time.
Remember there is no right or wrong reaction to your grief and you may notice feelings shifting and perhaps returning.

The funeral is an important part of the bereavement process for everyone, both adults and children alike. It offers a chance to say goodbye to the person who has died, in the company of others who knew them. It can also help in acknowledging our own loss and express our feelings. This is best not avoided for too long, as it is all part of healing and recovery.

Later Reactions

How we feel when we are bereaved will depend on the relationship we had with the person who has died, and how we felt about them:

  • The circumstances of how your loved one died may affect how you feel. If the death comes after a long period of illness you may feel relieved that their suffering has come to an end
  • Sometimes a death awakens feelings within us about other losses in our life
  • It is normal to feel angry with the person who has died for abandoning us, or angry with the doctors and nurses and other people we feel might have done more for them
  • It is not unusual to feel guilty about things we did or didn't do before the death. We may feel we could have visited more or sorted out some quarrel or misunderstanding
  • Bereavement may leave us feeling despondent and deeply distressed. We may find ourselves crying uncontrollably or experiencing sharp pangs of grief and yearning
  • Sometimes strong feelings will be stirred by thoughts or memories of our loved one. At other times, a trivial event, apparently unrelated to the loss, may provoke deep upset

Over the worst

Coming to terms with someone's death is bound to take time. For some people the first anniversary of the death marks a watershed, but other occasions such as birthdays or wedding anniversaries can also re-awaken our sadness.

People who have experienced their own grieving process have noticed that:

  • They do eventually begin to make plans for the future and to take a more active interest in things
  • When thinking about the person who has died, it may not always be with sadness.
  • It's important to remember not to feel guilty about looking ahead. You will not forget the person who died.

What you can do

While the natural process of grieving will take its time, it may help to know that strong feelings are normal and that it can help to cry, or talk to others about how you are feeling or experiencing the loss.

  • People who are bereaved need to look after themselves. That means eating healthily, being physically active and ensuring drinking is kept within moderation.
  • It may be difficult to socialise if you lose a partner. It is very important to stay in contact with people who can support you.
  • It is more helpful in the long run if you can find a way of expressing your worries and feelings with others. Keeping a diary, creative writing or poetry can help. Gardening can be therapeutic.
  • Counselling or psychotherapy gives people the chance to talk through their experiences.

Things to watch out for

Sometimes a grieving process may start many years after a loss and this can take people by surprise. At other times a person may feel they are stuck in their grief and still experiencing regular distressing symptoms. Signs that a bereaved person may need extra support can be:

  • Coping by avoidance - drinking too much, working longer hours and over-immersing themselves in activities. This may only be storing up problems for the future.
  • Sometimes people can find themselves still deeply grieving a long time after the death. Or they may be unable to express their feelings at all. They may then need to find some additional help and support, such as counselling.

The future

Grieving is about learning to live with loss. The time it takes to grieve is different for each person. Gradually as time passes the pain of loss normally lessens and it may be possible to think about other things and to consider the future. Because we are not thinking about the person all the time doesn't mean we have forgotten them - it is possible to be happy and still miss a person.

The important thing is to ask for help if you need it, be kind to yourself, and give yourself time to heal.

Rowan Consultancy

Personal and Organisational Growth and Development: in the HOME, in BUSINESS, in the COMMUNITY.

Rowan Consultancy, 4 Kinnoull Street, Perth, PH1 5EN. +44(0)1738 562005