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Published by Bupa's health information team, November 2009.
This factsheet is for people who have been bereaved, or who would like information about dealing with bereavement and grief.
It's normal to grieve after someone you have loved or felt very close to has died. The grieving process is hard, but it can help you to accept your loss and to carry on with your life. Failing to grieve or getting stuck at one of the stages of grief can lead to emotional problems, such as depression or even physical illness later on.
If someone close to you has died then there are also many practical issues to think about, especially if you are the person's next of kin. This includes obtaining the death certificate and arranging a funeral. Many of these practical issues will occupy you in the early stages after bereavement and may act as a distraction from the emotional processes.
The stages of grief
There is no single way to grieve. Every person grieves differently. However, many people go through certain stages of grief after someone they love dies. It may help you to know what the stages are, and to know that intense emotions and swift changes in mood are all normal.
There is no set timescale for reaching these stages and there is usually some overlap between them, but it's also quite normal to move from one stage to another and back again, or to feel worse some days more then others.
At first, you may be very shocked at the news of someone's death, even if you were expecting it. You may also feel angry, or you may feel emotionally numb, and not really believe that your loved one has died. This stage can last for a few hours, days or weeks. In some ways, this numbness can help you. For example, it might allow you to get through the practical arrangements and family pressures that surround the funeral.
The next stage relates to a period of feeling low as the reality of your loss sinks in. You may feel overcome with sadness and a deep longing for the person who has died. You may be preoccupied with nostalgic thoughts and unable to concentrate on everyday tasks.
During this stage, it's common to lose interest in other areas of your life and to feel aimless. You might also have dreams about the person - or even think you have seen or heard them - and to try to seek out things associated with him or her. You might find it difficult to motivate yourself to do things, or find it hard to relax or to sleep.
Some people feel very irritable or angry, particularly with medical staff or those involved in care. An individual who is bereaved may well withdraw from family and friends. You may also be prone to sudden outbursts of tears or emotions.
This phase of the grief process is often helped by a memorial service or funeral. It is important to encourage someone who has been bereaved to attend such an event.
Over time, the intense pain, sadness and depression start to lessen. You begin to see your life in a more positive light again. Although it's important to acknowledge there may always be a feeling of loss, you learn to live with it.
The final phase of grieving is to let go of the person who has died and carry on with your life, though it may not be exactly the same as it was before. Your sleeping patterns and energy levels usually return to normal.
Children and bereavement
Young children experience grief in much the same way that adults do, although they may express their feelings differently and may progress through the various stages of grief more quickly than adults.
As an adult it's important to acknowledge a child's grieving and encourage him or her to talk about it, while being honest about your own grief. If you are worried about changes in your child's behaviour after a bereavement, such as refusing to go to school, abnormal health concerns, anxiety or wetting the bed, you should seek professional help.
Loss of a child
The loss of any loved one is difficult but losing a child is particularly distressing as it seems out of the normal order of things. You may have stronger feelings of remorse or anger in these circumstances.
Because the relationship with your child can begin even before he or she is born, it's also quite normal to grieve if you or your partner has had a miscarriage, termination or stillbirth - although not all parents do. This type of grief may seem especially hard because you may feel that other people don't expect you to grieve.
When to get help
While bereavement is probably one of the toughest things you'll have to face in your life, grief is a part of normal human experience. Most people adjust through this and the experience itself is part of the emotional growth that occurs throughout life.
However, in some people, grief can carry on for longer than normal, or never become resolved (doctors call this unresolved grief). You may find it hard to acknowledge the bereavement at all or you may remain numb, or find it impossible to get past the mourning stage. Unresolved grief can happen if you don't have the opportunity to grieve properly, or if there were particularly difficult circumstances surrounding the death. For instance, sudden or unexpected death, suicide or the death of a parent when you're a child or adolescent can all be particularly difficult.
You should see your GP if you're having any of the following problems.
- You have trouble sleeping or regular nightmares.
- You feel that you cannot handle strong emotions, or feel overwhelmed by your feelings.
- You have continuing feelings of emptiness or numbness.
- You feel isolated and have no one to talk to about how you feel.
- You are dealing with the grief by drinking heavily or taking drugs.
- You are thinking about suicide or 'joining' the dead person.
Coping with grief
There are things you can do to help yourself. Try to express whatever you are feeling to a close friend. Accept some things like death are beyond your control. Give yourself time and space to grieve. Remember that feeling like this is normal and mourning is a process with an ending.
Make sure you look after your physical health by eating well, exercising and resting when you need to. It's probably best not to make any major decisions about your life, like changing jobs or moving house, because your judgement may be affected, and more changes in your life could increase your stress.
The best therapy for bereavement is talking. This can just mean talking with family and friends, or it can mean professional talking therapies. Bereavement counselling and support groups where you can talk to other people who have been bereaved are widely available and can be invaluable in helping you come to terms with your loss. If you need more specialist counselling, your GP can refer you to a counsellor.
Your GP may prescribe you with tranquillisers or sleeping tablets. These are for short-term use only (no more than two to four weeks) because they can be addictive. If your feelings of depression are worsening, and are seriously affecting your energy, appetite and sleep, your GP may prescribe antidepressants.
Helping family or friends who are grieving
You will need to use your judgement on how to help a friend or relative who is grieving. Many bereaved people may prefer to be left by themselves, and you will need to strike the right balance between not being intrusive if someone needs time alone, and letting them know that you are there if needed. Practical help such as cooking dinner or helping with everyday tasks is often appreciated. It can help just to spend time with the bereaved person listening to them as they work through their grief.
You might feel awkward because you don't know what to say to the bereaved, but just being there will be a great help and lets them know that you care and haven't forgotten.
If the person is reacting in extreme ways for a long time, encourage him or her to talk his or her GP.
See our answers to common questions about bereavement, including:
Cruse Bereavement Care
0844 477 9400
0845 766 0163
National Association of Bereavement Services
020 7709 9090
- Bereavement. Royal College of Psychiatrists. www.rcpsych.ac.uk, accessed 27 April 2009
- Warrell DA, Firth JD, Benz EJ. Oxford textbook of medicine. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004: 1287
- For bereaved families. Child Bereavement Charity. www.childbereavement.org.uk, accessed 13 September 2009
- Simon C, Everitt H, Kendrick T. Oxford handbook of general practice. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005: 214-215
- Sources of support during bereavement. Royal College of Psychiatrists. www.rcpsych.ac.uk, accessed 13 September 2009
- Understanding bereavement. Mind. www.mind.org.uk, accessed 13 September 2009
This information was published by Bupa's health information team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been peer reviewed by Bupa doctors. The content is intended for general information only and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional.
Publication date: November 2009