Grief is a universal experience, but one that affects every individual differently.
A grieving person might feel guilty, listless, frightened or angry. And at a time when they most need support, the bereaved person may find that other people turn away from them, not really knowing how to talk to them about their feelings and the person they’ve lost.
What does grief feel like?
In losing someone, you’re likely to experience a host of emotions. Feelings you may encounter during the bereavement process include:
- Shock and numbness: at first you might feel like you’re in shock. You might feel numb or carry on as if nothing has changed. This is because it can take a long time to process what has happened. You may also feel disorientated, as if you have lost your place in the world. It’s important to know that all of these feelings are normal.
- Pain: the death of someone close can be the most devastating experience that will ever happen to us. It can be very painful. People describe it as being cut in two or losing a part of themselves. These feelings can be very frightening and upsetting.
- Anger: it’s normal to feel angry when someone dies. Death can seem cruel and unfair, especially when you feel someone has died too young or if you had plans for the future together. You might feel angry at the person who died, angry at others or even angry at yourself, for things you did or didn’t do while they were alive.
- Guilt: guilt is another common reaction to grief. You might feel directly or indirectly to blame for the person’s death. Alternatively, you might feel guilty if you had a difficult relationship with the person who has died. Try not to be hard on yourself; these feelings are completely normal.
- Depression: you may feel depressed after the death of someone close. It can feel like nothing matters. You might even feel like you don’t want to go on living. If you start to feel you might act on suicidal feelings, please talk to someone. Your GP can also let you know about mental health support in your local area.
- Seeing and hearing the person: people sometimes think they can hear or see the person who has died. You may also find that you can’t stop thinking about the events leading up to the death. “Seeing” the person who has died and hearing their voice can happen because our brain is trying to process the death and accept that it’s final. It’s important to know this is normal.
- Physical feelings: it’s common to feel physically ill after someone dies – the pain of grief can be felt as a real pain. Every part of your health can be affected.
- Loneliness: particularly if the person was very close to you, you may feel lonely. Don’t keep these feelings to yourself. Chat to someone you trust, your GP or the Samaritans.
- Peace: that the person is at rest. This feeling may come and go.
When will I feel better?
You may never really "get over" the passing of a loved one as love is such a powerful emotion. However, with time, you should learn to come to terms with the loss.
Nothing can replace the person who has died. However, gradually, most people find they are able to continue with life and start to even feel happy at times, while remembering those who have died and being grateful that the loved one was in their lives.
For some, it is as if there is a large hole inside them. Over time (and a lot of time in some cases), this hole becomes filled with other parts of life, events and memories.
There is no need to rush to fill that hole; the body and mind need time to digest what has happened. The hole is never completely filled, because it is a specific person-shaped hole, but you can find a balance to keep going.
What to avoid
Rushing back into everyday life too quickly: for some, this may seem like a good idea, but the body needs to get over the shock and find some equilibrium, and you are also likely to struggle to manage your emotions at first.
Drinking too much/taking drugs/gambling, etc: while these activities may seem a great way to block out your feelings, the feelings are still there. They may, in fact, be worsened by the effects of what you are doing. Any guilt you may feel may put you in potentially dangerous situations – and the feelings will still be there when you stop.
- Not taking care of yourself: the person who has passed is likely to have wanted you to be happy and healthy. Keep active and eat a balanced diet, especially as your body and mind are struggling. Visit the NHS for more advice.
- Hiding unresolved feelings or any feelings: shock can make us flat. However, these feelings are real, and pushing them away will not get rid of them. Take your time but share them with someone you trust if you can.
How do I cope?
Don’t do it alone. Whilst your situation and feelings are unique to you, there are support groups out there to help you find your way or simply to provide a listening ear. These include:
- Samaritans: 116 123 (or 111/999 if it is an emergency);
- Your GP, Practice Nurse, EAP or Occupational Health provider – they can provide support, guidance and signpost/refer you to sources of support;
- Cruse Bereavement Support, including one-to-one support: www.cruse.org.uk/get-support.
- WAY: a charity for those under 51 years of age who have lost a partner: www.widowedandyoung.org.uk.
- Way Up: for those over 50 who have lost a partner: www.way-up.co.uk.
Managing the practicalities
Managing a loved one’s affairs when they die shouldn’t be a bureaucratic and traumatic nightmare. There is a great guide at GOV.UK that takes you through what to do for:
- registering a death;
- arranging a funeral;
- telling the government about a death – Tell Us Once is a service, which lets you report a death to most government organisations in one go: https://www.gov.uk/after-a-death/organisations-you-need-to-contact-and-…;
- dealing with your own benefits, taxes and pension(s);
- checking on probate, and/or residency as appropriate;
- sorting banks/finances – the Death Notification Service is a free service, which allows you to notify a number of member organisations of a person's death, at the same time: https://www.deathnotificationservice.co.uk/;
- Checking if you can get bereavement benefits;
- Dealing with the estate – the person may or may not have had a will and guidance is essential to help deal with this sometimes problematic area: www.gov.uk/probate-estate?step-by-step-nav=4f1fe77d-f43b-4581-baf9-e2600e2a2b7a.
How to support someone who is grieving
Don’t let fears about saying or doing the wrong thing stop you from reaching out; often just being there is enough.
Let the person know that you’re there to listen – you don’t have to tell them your experience, just be a listening ear for whatever they want to talk about.
- Understand that everyone grieves differently and for different lengths of time – there is no specific length of time a person should grieve. Avoid judgement. If you are concerned for their immediate safety, call 999.
- Offer to help in practical ways –simple things like offering to do their shopping or bringing them pre-cooked meals for the freezer, etc.
- Maintain your support after the funeral – this is key. The person needs ongoing support, even if it is a quick phone call, an outing or a regular email/text to say hello.
- At work, as a manager, read the organisation’s bereavement policy and speak with HR to understand what you need to do. You should, of course, offer support, and it may be that the employee takes bereavement leave if it is a close relative, as defined by the policy. You may also be able to provide simple adjustments that help where appropriate, e.g. phased return to work, adjusted duties, etc. Your occupational health provider can supply advice if things are complicated.
- Age UK: www.ageuk.org.uk/information-advice/money-legal/legal-issues/what-to-do…
- Citizen’s Advice: www.citizensadvice.org.uk/family/death-and-wills/what-to-do-after-a-dea…
- How to support in the workplace/generally:
- Losing a partner or child in pregnancy: www.nhs.uk/conditions/baby/support-and-services/losing-your-partner-or-…
- Losing someone to suicide: www.mind.org.uk/information-support/guides-to-support-and-services/bere…