As well as joys, life is also full of losses. We learn to adjust as we go along. The death of someone you are close to can be one of the most difficult things you will ever deal with. If it is someone who is central to your life, you may even feel that it is going to be impossible.
Experience tells us that people do survive this most fundamental of changes. We may visit hopelessness and confusion; we may feel unable to do anything at all. Yet there is a way through the experience of a terrible loss. There is even the possibility of learning from it.
In the early stages, of course, that possibility is meaningless. Usually there is only an overwhelming sense of strangeness and bewilderment, and of being alone in grief. In this section there are some thoughts and suggestions that offer guidance through this unfamiliar territory. Everyone’s way through will be different.
Grief is a short word that covers a multitude of feelings, thoughts, sensations and physical symptoms. Beyond those, you may have a range of experiences for which there seem to be no words at all. ‘Shock’ and ‘numbness’ are ways that people often describe their initial reactions, even when someone’s death has come as no surprise at all.
Whether child or adult, whether the death is expected or not, your experience of loss will be affected by your relationship with that person. There are as many different griefs as there are relationships.
Much in the grieving process is shared. Many people – often when looking back – are able to name responses to loss that come up again and again. They talk about shock and numbness, being ‘stunned’ and unable to respond. Others describe an immense sense of regret, which can sometimes turn into guilt. ‘Did I do enough? Did I say what I needed to say?’
Some people respond to loss by becoming very active. It can be helpful to get absorbed in projects and activity. But there will come a time when your own feelings and the personal meaning of the loss will need to be acknowledged. That won’t happen without some pain. No amount of just being active will do it.
The shock and trauma of loss often express themselves in physical ways. Grief can bring a whole range of bodily symptoms with it. In some ways, these symptoms can be thought of as grief expressing itself when we have run out of things to say or do.
It’s very common for people’s sleep patterns to be badly disrupted. You may find yourself hardly sleeping at all, or perhaps suddenly needing to sleep and sleep. The ability to concentrate may seem to have disappeared. Some people experience inexplicable pains and aches.
Anxiety and restlessness – a feeling of just not being able to settle to anything – is reported by many grieving people. For some, the understandable sadness – sometimes very intense sadness – seems to be turning into a fixed melancholy or depression.
Many have described an overwhelming sense of isolation as their main experience of loss and grieving. No one can do your grieving for you. But equally, we can grieve with each other, or simply give people permission to grieve and try not to be afraid of each other’s grief.
Many people have reported a sense of guilt that they continue to feel distress and to show it. They describe how many times people, not always explicitly, seem to be asking the question, ‘Isn’t he over that yet?’ Or, ‘Isn’t she dragging it out a bit?’
Being compassionate to ourselves and to others means being prepared to let grief run its course. We can’t know how long this will take. There are no rules, no ‘shoulds’ or ‘oughts’.
Many health professionals see a succession of stages in grieving:
These stages of grief won’t simply follow on from each other in a predictable and orderly way. You might find the kind of experiences described overlapping as you move through the days and weeks, months and years. Or you may experience all of them in the course of a single day.
Some people believe it’s not helpful to think of grief as happening in ‘stages’. They point out that nearly everyone who experiences a loss will feel it acutely for a number of days or weeks. A small proportion will feel ‘prolonged grief’, continuing for years. Another small group will recover from their grief slowly, maybe over a number of months.
The great majority of bereaved people, though, find a natural resilience. This doesn’t mean that they don’t care or are unfeeling. Quite the reverse: the pain of loss is fully experienced, acknowledged and shared. Then it’s possible to set the pain aside (which is different from denial) and continue to meet the demands of life.
You may not be behaving in the way that others expect, or that you expected to. This apparent ‘absence’ of grief is not something to feel guilty or worried about. How you respond depends on many factors: the amount of natural resilience you have, the resources available to you, the kind of relationship you had with the dead person, and the kind of person you are.
Losing someone through suicide almost always carries an intense sense of pain for those left behind. Guilt and blame are often present, particularly in the early days after the death. The question “Why?” keeps being asked and can probably never be fully answered. Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide is a national organisation that offers support to people bereaved in this way.
The loss of a young child brings a particular pain and distress to parents, siblings, family and friends. This can feel impossible to make any sense of, or to accept. The Compassionate Friends is another national organisation that offers understanding and support. All of the people involved have personal experience of grieving for a child.
Even very young children can be profoundly affected by the death of someone in the family or a close friend. They may respond in unexpected ways. They may seem strangely changeable, one moment overwhelmed with grief and sadness and the next happily absorbed in play. This is how children deal with life and develop. They don’t stop being children when someone dies.
It’s vital to accept the child’s response to loss. It’s important too that we give the child opportunities to revisit this puzzling change as often as necessary, and speak with them as honestly and simply as we can about what has happened. Winston’s Wish is a national organisation that provides a range of services and resources to support bereaved children.
The most frequent complaint of people who have emerged from a period of painful grief is that they didn’t have enough opportunities to talk. Of course, those around them are often being sensitive, rather than hard-hearted; they just don’t want to ‘bring up painful memories’. Most bereaved people want to be given the chance to talk; they want to be listened to. It’s supportive if we acknowledge the death, their loss, and allow them to take the lead. Grief doesn’t need to be as private as we sometimes want to make it.
Remembering is part of the grieving process. You may feel overwhelmed by constant memories. You can’t stop remembering, and that’s why your life is so painful. One helpful approach may be to decide to do something with these memories. This can take a variety of forms. You could choose simply to write everything you want to say about – or to – the dead person. This could be a life story, memories, poems, putting together a photograph album, or compiling a video sequence.
Funerals and celebrations of the dead person’s life are a vital way of saying goodbye, bringing together some of their life story and network of relationships. It can sometimes be helpful to decide on a celebration, maybe some weeks or months after the funeral.
When someone dies, your whole life can be thrown out of joint at the simplest level. Who’s going to take the children to school? Who’s going to walk the dog? Many people have reported just how helpful it was to have friends come in and offer to take charge of the cooking and other daily chores.
For a significant number of people, it’s helpful to access a service where the talking and listening takes place outside the circle of family and friends. Seeking counselling doesn’t mean that you are grieving ‘badly’ or grieving ‘well’. It’s simply a recognition that you feel the need for some extra support and resources as you work through the biggest life-change that any of us will ever experience.
Counselling is widely available. You can ask your GP to refer you, and specific bereavement counselling is also available from local branches of Cruse Bereavement Care , the leading voluntary organisation in this field. You can also find nearby counsellors and psychotherapists through the websites of the two main professional organisations: the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy and the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy.
For some people, the loss of someone close to them can threaten their faith. For others, it can be a way to discover or reconnect with the spiritual dimension of their life. When loneliness and isolation are the biggest threat, it can clearly be healing for many to connect through prayer or with members of their local faith community.
Not all spiritual practice requires the acceptance of a recognised belief system or faith tradition. Mindfulness is a form of meditation that offers a way of sitting in silent and calm awareness of how things are. Practised alone, or with others, this can be an important step on the journey to acceptance. Click here for more information and free resources on mindfulness.
Going for walks, running, yoga, taking up a new sport – any of these activities, at the right time, can be a way of reconnecting with yourself and others. For many, these activities help because they don’t involve any more thinking and talking. At times of energetic physical concentration, you may catch yourself having ‘forgotten’ for a moment the person you are grieving. Or you may catch yourself enjoying what you’re doing. Or laughing and smiling. For some, this is a difficult moment. There’s a temptation to feel guilty: ‘I mustn’t forget. I don’t want to forget!’
Recovering and continuing to accept the gift of your own life is not the same as forgetting. It may be more accurate to describe it as the best way to honour the dead person. For many people, the treatment for grief is life.
The simple answer to this question is other people. When you need support from people outside your immediate circle of friends and family, you can turn to professionals and organisations.
Your GP and other health professionals are trained to support people who have experienced bereavement. They can access information and resources, and refer you to local agencies offering bereavement services, or to mental health services if necessary. Counsellors and psychotherapists may be helpful for some people at particular stages of their grieving process. You can access these either via your GP or directly from local providers.
As well as drawing on the support of their faith communities and religious observances, many people go to faith leaders at a time of painful loss. Ministers and priests of all religions can be helpful companions when grief is immediately and personally experienced.
Of course, much depends on the relationship that you already have with your local minister, priest, rabbi or imam. Asking for personal support during this time may well start or deepen this relationship. Even if you are unclear about your own relationship to ‘faith’, it may be worth considering these communities as potential sources of support.
A number of the organisations listed here are national voluntary organisations specialising in bereavement or particular aspects of bereavement. They will be able to offer some or all services such as counselling, information, support groups, helpline and befriending. They are also listed on the contacts and resources page.