Coping with Bereavement

Bereavement is a distressing but common experience.

At some point, most of us will suffer the death of someone we love. Yet day-to-day, we do not think and talk about death, as we encounter it less often than our grandparents did. For them, the death of a brother or sister, friend or relative, was a common experience in their childhood or teenage years

For us, these losses usually happen later in life. So we do not have much of a chance either to learn about grieving – how it feels, the right things to do, what is ‘normal’ –nor do we know how to come to terms with it

In spite of this, we have to cope when we are finally faced with the death of someone we love

There are various stages of bereavement:

  1. Grief
  2. Guilt
  3. Depression
  4. Letting go

1. Grief is felt after any sort of loss, but most powerfully after the death of someone we love. It is not just one feeling, but a whole succession of feelings and it takes a while to work through it

Usually,we grieve the most for someone that we have known for some time. However, it is clear that people who have had stillbirths or miscarriages, or who have lost very young babies, grieve in the same way and need the same sort of care and consideration

In the few hours, or days following the death of a close relative or friend, most people feel shocked, as though they cannot believe it has actually happened. They may feel like this even if the death has been expected

This sense of emotional numbness can be a help in getting through all the important practical arrangements that have to be made, such as getting in touch with relatives and organising the funeral. However, this feeling of unreality may become a problem if it goes on too long

Seeing the body of the dead person may, for some, be an important way of beginning to overcome this

Similarly, for many people, the funeral or memorial service is an occasion when the reality of what has happened really starts to sink in.

It may be distressing to see the body, or attend the funeral, but these are ways of saying goodbye to those we love

At the time, these things may seem too painful to go through and so are not done. However, this can lead to a sense of deep regret in future years

When the numbness disappears, it can be replaced by a dreadful sense of agitation and yearning for the dead person

There is a feeling of wanting somehow to find them, even though this is clearly impossible. This makes it difficult to relax or concentrate and it may be difficult to sleep properly

Dreams can be very upsetting. Some people feel that they ‘see’ their loved one everywhere they go – in the street, the park, around the house, anywhere they had spent time together

People often feel very angry at this time; towards doctors and nurses who did not prevent the death, towards friends and relatives who did not do enough, or even towards the person who has, by dying, left them

2. Guilt is another common feeling.

People find themselves going over in their minds all the things they would have liked to have said or done

They may even consider what they could have done differently that might have prevented the death

Of course, death is usually beyond anyone’s control and a bereaved person may need to be reminded of this

Some people may feel guilty if they feel relieved that their loved one has died after a painful or distressing illness

This feeling of relief is natural, understandable and very common. They should not feel guilty about feeling this way

This state of agitation is usually strongest about two weeks after the death, but is soon followed by times of quiet sadness or depression, withdrawal and silence

These sudden changes of emotion can be confusing to friends or relatives, but are part of the normal process of grief

3. Depression can become more frequent as the agitation stage lessens, often four to six weeks later

Spasms of grief can occur at any time, sparked off by people, places or things that bring back memories of the dead person

During this time, it may appear to others as though the bereaved person is spending a lot of time just sitting, doing nothing

In fact, they are usually thinking about the person they have lost, going over again and again both the good times and the bad times they had together. This is a quiet, but essential part of coming to terms with the death

Eventually, the fierce pain of early bereavement begins to fade

The depression reduces and it is possible to think about other things and think about the future

However, the sense of having lost a part of oneself never goes away entirely. For bereaved partners, there are constant reminders of their new singleness, in seeing other couples together and from the deluge of media images of happy families

4. Letting go is the final phase of grieving.

The depression clears completely, sleep improves and energy returns to normal

Sexual feelings may have vanished for some time, but now return – this is quite normal

Remember, there is no ‘standard’ way of grieving. Everyone copes differently

Getting help for bereavement from the GP

Lack of sleep can become a serious problem. The doctor may then prescribe a supply of sleeping tablets

The  GP can arrange for counselling or advise on support groups for bereavement

The GP may prescribe anti-depressants or refer the patient for further help by a specialist


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