Bereavement happens to us all at some point in our lives. Mostly we expect it to be later on in life, where we have an idea that we are going to be faced by loss, yet for many people the experience of loss is not like this. For some it is sudden and unexpected, and for others, even though they know their loved one is dying, when it happens it comes as a great shock.
There has been a wealth of literature written on grief by grief therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and all sorts of people in public life who have personal experience of loss. These accounts are a rich source of help to many. We will attempt to highlight some of the feelings, thoughts and behaviours that many people experience in their grief.
C.S. Lewis in his book A Grief Observed, writing about the death of his wife, says:
"No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning, I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says... Yet I want the others to be about me."
Hearing the news of a sudden bereavement can be a traumatic and devastating event in itself and can affect people in different ways. There can be a sense that time is standing still, or that your world is spiralling out of control. People have described feeling as if they are in a dream, where their thoughts are fragmented and where nothing feels real, but yet they are still able to function normally.
These are some of the examples of the ways that grief can affect us all.
There may be numbness, anger, despair, shock, disbelief, guilt, anxiety, sometimes even relief. One of the most powerful grief feelings can be a sense of yearning or missing, even feeling guilty for carrying on living. All these feelings are normal in grief but can be overwhelming and often difficult to put into words.
There is often a sense of disbelief which can carry on for many months and many people describe having a sense of the presence of their loved one, which is usually a great comfort but which can, for some, be unsettling.
Typical grief related behaviours can include restless pacing and searching behaviours, forgetfulness, loss of concentration, and loss of confidence. People in the throes of grief may lose interest entirrely in the things they normally enjoy, and may begin to neglect their own health their relationships with those around them. Many people struggle with sleep, often finding it difficulty to settle or finding themselves waking early. Some people may want to avoid all company, while others don’t want to be alone.
In the case of a sudden death the physical affects of stress and anxiety-related symptoms can be profound. Nightmares or disturbed dreams can be common, as can intrusive images or flashbacks, often leading to weight changes and tiredness which interfere with our ability to care for ourselves.
Also frequent are typical anxiety symptoms, such as stomach churning, heart racing, shaking and being hypersensitive to noise. Sometimes people worry about developing similar symptoms to the person who has died. Often physical ill health can be a symptom of grief.
All of these feelings, thoughts, sensations and behaviours are normal. It’s important to recognise that you need to take care and look after yourself more than you would normally.
The Grief process
Much work has been done looking at the process of grief. There is a consensus of opinion that we may move through different stages as we experience our grief. Some people talk about the stages of grief as; shock or denial, the overwhelming chaos of emotion including anger, guilt, despair; the flatness and feeling of depression that comes with the realisation that this is the reality of what has happened. Finally there is a move towards finding a way to continue with living whilst retaining the bond with the person you have lost.
The psychologist J. William Worden talks in terms of the the 'tasks' that need to be performed:
- To accept the reality of the loss, where feelings of shock and numbness are present
- To work through to the pain of grief, involving feelings of guilt, anger, high distress, regrets
- To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing, where the reality of what has happened may sink in and a feeling of flatness may often pervade
- To emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life, where a re-engagement with life is activated whilst at the same time finding a way to keep the memories close.
More recently research has recognised that in order to grieve in a healthy way we need to both spend time in grieving for the person and somehow continue to live and to function. If a person spends all of their time grieving and not engaging with life, or all their time pushing the grief away, neither position enables them to move forward and recover.
Work with grieving mothers in New Zealand has acknowledged that some deaths, particularly that of a child, do not abate with time. What happens over time is that the bereaved person finds a way to grow or expand their life around their grief in order to continue living.
It can be helpful to find a way of keeping your bond with the person who has died. This is talked about in the literature as 'continuing bonds', which is all about finding what comforts the bereaved and helps to connect them in a meaningful way to the person who has died.
Often this can be in the form of holding on to treasured objects or by taking on some of the habits, hobbies, or interest of the deceased, sometimes through adopting some of their role within the family or circle of friends. It can also involve retaining or developing friendships that they had with others, or maintaining grief rituals that honour the memory of the person who died.
What can you do to help yourself
- Talk to your close family and friends, especially those that you feel understand.
- Don’t listen to those who say you 'should be doing better than you are’.
- Tell yourself that you are normal for feeling the way that you do.
Find ways to continue your bond with the person, it may be engaging in things that they used to do - for example cooking, DIY, becoming the one within the family who organises get togethers - or carrying out an activity the deceased would have appreciated your taking part in - for example a charity walk.
If you feel that you are not coping
- Visit your GP.
- Don’t go back to work too soon.
- Talk to someone close to you.
You could be referred for grief counselling. Sometimes it is helpful to talk to someone outside of your family and friends and it can be helpful to retell your story over and over again. This can help you to make sense of how you are feeling and it can help to normalise your feelings.
Not everyone finds it helpful to talk. Sometimes it can be more useful to keep busy. This is fine, providing that you are not pushing things away so that they build up to a point where you feel you are going to explode. It can be helpful to have an outlet when you feel like this, maybe a good friend to talk to or possibly some professional help.
Where to go for help
CRUSE Bereavement Care operates a national telephone helpline at 0844 477 9400 is open for calls from 9.30am to 5:00pm working days, and until 7:00pm on Mondays and Wednesdays, answered mainly by a team of trained volunteers. They have a lot of information available to them and will give information about benefits, listen to your story and give you information about Cruse locally where you live.
The Compassionate Friends UK is available for support and information daily from 10.00am to 4.00pm and 7.00pm to 10.00pm. TCF is a charitable organisation of bereaved parents, siblings and grandparents dedicated to the support of and care of other bereaved parents, siblings and grandparents who have suffered the death of a child. For more information please contact 0845 123 2304.
Winston’s Wish is a national helpline which offers support, information and guidance to all those caring for a child or young person who has been bereaved. For more information please contact 08452 030405.
The WAY Foundation aims to support young widowed men and women as they adjust to life after the death of their partner – whether that was a month, a year, or ten years ago. To contact The WAY Foundation please call 0300 012 4929 or email [email protected]
Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS) exists to meet the needs and break the isolation of those bereaved by the suicide of a close relative or friend. SOBS is a self-help organisation and many of their volunteers have themselves been bereaved by suicide. Their helpline can be reached at 0844 561 6855 between 9am and 9pm every day.
Find out more about the contributors to this article and the Division of Counselling Psychology.
Some useful books
- The 8 Keys to Trauma Recovery by Babette Rothschild
- Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss by Hope Edelman
- Courage to Grieve: Creative Living, Recovery and Growth Through Grief by Judy Tatelbaum
- Overcoming Grief by Sue Morris
- Living on the Seabed: A Memoir of Love, Life and Survival by Lindsay Nicholson
- A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis