Serious loss is something which we will all face at some time in our lives. This may be because of the death of someone close to us or it may be because of other circumstances such as the loss of our health or our home. Many of us will not experience bereavement or loss until later in life and may have little opportunity to learn about death and about how people are affected by grief. It can be difficult to know what is “normal” and to understand how we or our families respond when we face a loss. You may think you are the only person who has felt the way you do. Whilst everyone’s response to a loss is a very individual experience, there are some common experiences that many people will share.
What sorts of feelings do people have weeks and months after a bereavement?
Some people feel a sense of agitation for quite a long time after the death. People may become very active at this time, doing things like cleaning out the whole house. This agitation can sometimes amount to panic, and symptoms of anxiety, such as breathlessness, palpitations, dry mouth, tingling and dizziness, can be present. People may feel they are “going mad” because they have such odd experiences. People often report seeing, hearing or feeling the dead person near them or in the distance. These experiences are not unusual following a death. These feelings may alternate with depression, weepiness, tiredness and low mood. People may think or wonder “what’s the point in going on?” They may feel guilt, and review the circumstances of the death, and their relationship with the person who died. They may wonder what they could have done differently which might have helped the situation.
Guilt is also common when there has been relief at someone’s death following a painful and prolonged illness. It is worth remembering that many people feel relief when suffering ends.
People also often feel angry after a death. This can be directed at the dead person; “why has he left me?”, or at those around. Family members or people involved in caring for the dying person may be the target for the bereaved person’s anger. They might think or ask, “Why didn’t you do more?” Other people’s reactions may be difficult for the bereaved person. Sometimes people will be clumsy in what they say or do.
Occasionally people will avoid contact with the bereaved person. These reactions are usually because people do not know what to do or say in the face of someone’s grief. Sometimes other people do not realise that it can take a long time to begin to recover from a death.
Family and friends can help at this difficult time.
- Spend time with the bereaved person if that is what they want.
- Talk and listen to the bereaved person. Don’t be afraid of saying the wrong thing - this is a situation many of us feel awkward about. It may help to admit that you don’t know what to say if that is how you feel.
- Don’t be surprised if the bereaved person wants to talk and go over the same ground again and again, this is quite usual.
- Don’t take anger or irritability personally, it’s part of the bereavement reaction.
- Talking about the dead person can be helpful for the grieving person. Don’t try and avoid mentioning them in everyday conversation.
- Offer practical help if the bereaved person wants this. Caring for children, help with shopping etc. may be useful, especially in the early days following a death.
- Don’t expect too much of the bereaved person initially even if they look as if they are coping.
- Include your relative/friend in social events.
- Support your relative/friend in building new links, social contacts and interests.
- Try to discourage the bereaved person from making any major decisions, such as moving home soon after the death. Support them in thinking through the options and implications of this.
- If your friend or relative seems ‘stuck’ and not coping at all well, encourage them to seek help. The family doctor is a good place to start.
What can help?
Bereavement is always a difficult time, but there are things you can do to help yourself through it.
Before someone dies
If you have the opportunity, prepare for the death of someone you are close to. It is important emotionally and practically to talk things over. If you are preparing for the death of your partner and it is ok with them, discuss such things as the jobs they do that you will need to take over, and sort out finances etc. Say all the things you would want to say.
Directly after a bereavement
- Carefully consider whether you want to see the body of the dead person. Some people may feel this is too distressing but can regret it later on if they have not done this. Follow your own feelings. There is no right or wrong thing to do, but do think it through.
- Funeral arrangements should be considered carefully. Try to have someone with you. Don’t feel pressured into a funeral that is too expensive for your budget. Try and think about what you really want. In the days, weeks and months following a bereavement
- Don’t make major changes in your life, such as selling your house, moving areas, jobs, etc. until you have had time to adjust to the death. This is a time when people may make changes they can regret.
- Do make sure you look after your own health. This is a time when you may become prone to illness. Eat well, rest properly, take extra care. You may want to take vitamin supplements if your appetite is very poor.
- Talk to people about how you feel. Don’t bottle things up. Go to your doctor if you feel you have no one you can talk to. He or she may suggest speaking to a counsellor. Ask for help if you feel you are not coping.
- If your health is not good, consult your doctor.
- Keep up contacts and relationships. Accept invitations, invite people to visit, keep in touch with family and friends. Find out about local events, clubs and classes.
- Do not enter into new financial arrangements without proper advice. Talk to a friend, family member or an advice organisation such as Citizens
- Do not turn to drinking alcohol to get you over this difficult time.
- Plan what you will do on anniversaries such as birthdays, Christmas, anniversary of death. It will help if you decide in advance how you want to spend these occasions, which are likely to be emotional times.
- If you feel you are stuck or not coping at all well with your grief then contact your doctor to discuss this.
When do people begin to recover?
Coming to terms with a death is a very gradual process which can take a considerable time. People usually find that gradually they are able to get on with their lives and think a little less about the person they have lost. Most people begin to feel like this within one or two years of the death of someone close to them. It may be difficult to accept the death of a loved one but still be possible to move on with life in spite of this. It is important not to feel guilty if you are beginning to build a life for yourself following a death. It is quite normal to begin to recover and start to rebuild your life, and is not in any way disloyal to the memory of the person who has died.