Coping with Bereavement and Grief

What might bereavement feel like?

Grief can be an isolating and frightening experience. The griever may experience strong and varying emotions, some unlike anything they have felt before. Grief is an intensely personal process, but it can sometimes be comforting to know there are similarities in the ways people experience grief. Knowing other people have been there before and got through it, and you are not ‘going mad’, can be very helpful. Feeling these things, and indeed asking for help, are not a sign of being weak or not coping. Grief is unavoidable, but it can become manageable over time.

Grief reactions can range from strong emotions to physical reactions to behavioural actions. All are normal, even common, though it is important to get any physical aches and pains checked out with your GP.

Feelings

When you are bereaved you may feel deep sadness, intense loneliness, despair, numbness or disbelief that the person is gone. Life may feel like it has no purpose, and even the smallest of tasks may feel too much to tackle. Guilt is a common feeling, especially about what was or was not said and/or done before the death. Or you may find yourself feeling guilty because you laughed, or realised you went a few minutes without thinking of the deceased. You may feel angry, perhaps with yourself, those involved in the care of the deceased, or the deceased themselves for leaving you to cope alone. It is also common to feel resentful of others who still have the ‘lost’ person around them; husbands who have wives, families with a dad and so on. This does not mean you are a bad person; you are just feeling the enormity of your loss. Relief can be another common feeling, especially after a difficult or prolonged illness, though this too can be a very painful emotion to deal with. The early days, weeks and months can often pass with you feeling like you are in some kind of bubble, disconnected from the world and those around you.

Thoughts and cognitive reactions

People who are grieving can often find they have lost the ability to concentrate. This is sometimes made worse by the fact that disrupted sleep patterns are another common reaction. You may find you cannot stop thinking about the events leading up to the death, or of a particular memory of your loved one, often a distressing one. You may become preoccupied with questions around ‘why?’ and find it hard to accept there is no answer. You may become easily confused, anxious and generally feel less secure in the world. It can sometimes be the case that you believe you can feel, hear or even see the deceased person. This can lead people to feel there is something wrong with them; again, this is very usual, though it can be quite disconcerting if you are not expecting it. People with faith may find their beliefs a comfort during this time, while for others, the death may lead to a questioning of that faith, which can itself be painful.

Physical reactions

Exhaustion, insomnia, aches and pains, breathlessness, poor immunity, lethargy and sometimes even echoing the symptoms displayed by the deceased are all common physical reactions after a loss. While they do not always mean anything serious is wrong, do check any aches or pains out with your GP.

Actions

You may find you are crying all the time, or not at all. It may be hard to speak of your loved one without getting upset. Looking at photographs may be too painful, as may revisiting places you used to go together. Or, you may find yourself ‘searching’ for the deceased, drawn back to familiar places or that you want to visit the grave or crematorium regularly. Some people throw themselves into activities and jobs as a distraction, while for others, social activity is just too much and they feel they need to withdraw.

How long will it last?

There is no right or wrong length of time to grieve. Because the process is painful, grieving people often want to know what to ‘do’ to make it better. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix. Some people can feel they are adjusting after a few weeks. For others, it may be a few years before they feel they have a handle on life without the deceased. The important thing is to be kind to yourself, to be patient and gentle when you are having a ‘down’ day, and to enjoy it when you have a ‘good’ day. Because it is a very up-and-down process, having a day when you feel upset or anxious might feel like a step backwards in your journey through grief. Remember that it isn’t; it is simply adjusting and coming to terms with this new stage of life. We all respond differently to grief, and each person’s grief will follow its own path. It can be easy to compare yourself to other people who have been bereaved and feel they are coping better than you, but remember that we are all different and that they might be putting on a brave face for the outside world, just as you may feel you have to. Be gentle with yourself, and just try to take things one day at a time.

A child’s bereavement

Adults try to protect children, often afraid they will make the situation worse for the children, believing they are too young to understand. Adults also try to shield children, believing that not talking will protect them from feelings of sadness and pain. However, this can leave children feeling excluded, afraid and alone, unable to ask questions relating to illness and death.

Like adults, children will feel a range of emotions such as: sadness, anger, confusion, fear, loneliness, guilt and disbelief.

Behaviours you might see in a child who is bereaved:

    • Children may become clingy.
    • They may show distress at separation from family members.
    • Children may worry about their health and that of those around them.
    • Children may have difficulties concentrating and become distracted.
    • Children can become the compliant child or a naughty child.
    • They might have difficulties eating or sleeping.

Dealing with these behaviours can seem overwhelming and you may feel you need support.

What children need:

  • An opportunity to make sense of what has happened, and to tell their own story.
  • Clear, age-appropriate information about what has, and what is happening now and to be included.
  • Reassurance about their own health and that of those around them.
  • Reassurance that it is not their fault.
  • Adults who will answer questions and share their feelings.
  • An opportunity to remember the person who has died.
  • An opportunity to attend the funeral and contribute to the way the service is run.

Further information on children and funerals can be found at http://www.stchristophers.org.uk/candle

Talking reduces both isolation and anxiety. It enables children to understand their own experience of bereavement and that of others. It fosters an ability to cope, and empowers them with a more positive outlook.

Supporting someone who is bereaved

It can be a difficult and emotional time supporting someone who has been bereaved. Your instinct is to make things better and it can be frustrating when you can’t, or when your friend or family member is reacting in a way you don’t really understand. Read through the section on Coping with Bereavement and Grief to get an idea of how they might be feeling. Then take a look at the information below for some more tips on how you might be able to support someone dealing with the loss of a loved one.

The main way to support someone who has been bereaved is simply to be there for them and to let them know you are there. Bereaved people can often feel quite isolated, especially after the funeral and once a few weeks or months have passed, when support tends to drop off. At this time, it can seem to the bereaved person that everyone else has moved on from the loss and that they are left to cope with it on their own. Having someone to talk to and offer practical and emotional support can feel invaluable.

How much a bereaved person wants to talk about their loss or the person who has died will depend on them as an individual and where they are at in their grief. Some people may want to talk about how they are feeling, while others may wish to reminisce about the deceased or swap memories of them with you. Some people may prefer to talk about anything but their loss. It is not uncommon to want to talk one day then avoid the subject the next. Take your cue from the person you are supporting.

Be sensitive to your friend or relative, but don’t be overly afraid of upsetting them. The chances are they are already upset and relish the chance to talk. It can be very painful when an acquaintance avoids the subject, or even avoids the bereaved person altogether, so just knowing you are willing to listen may be enough to help them feel less alone.

For more ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ visit http://www.careforthefamily.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/bereavement-how-other-people-can-help.pdf