Coping with bereavement

The death of a loved one can be devastating. Bereavement counsellor Sarah Smith describes some of the feelings that can arise from losing someone, and where you can go for help and support.

Bereavement affects people in different ways. There's no right or wrong way to feel. “You might feel a lot of emotions at once, or feel you’re having a good day, then you wake up and feel worse again,” says Sarah, who works at Trinity Hospice in London. She says powerful feelings can come unexpectedly. “It’s like waves on a beach. You can be standing in water up to your knees and feel you can cope, then suddenly a big wave comes and knocks you off your feet.”

Experts generally accept that there are four stages of bereavement: 

  • accepting that your loss is real
  • experiencing the pain of grief
  • adjusting to life without the person who has died 
  • putting less emotional energy into grieving and putting it into something new (in other words, moving on)

You'll probably go through all these stages, but you won’t necessarily move smoothly from one to the next. Your grief might feel chaotic and out of control, but these feelings will eventually become less intense. Give yourself time, as they will pass. You might feel:

  • shock and numbness (this is usually the first reaction to the death, and people often speak of being in a daze)
  • overwhelming sadness, with lots of crying
  • tiredness or exhaustion
  • anger, for example towards the person who died, their illness or God
  • guilt, for example guilt about feeling angry, about something you said or didn’t say, or about not being able to stop your loved one dying

“These feelings are all perfectly normal,” says Sarah. “The negative feelings don’t make you a bad person. Lots of people feel guilty about their anger, but it’s OK to be angry and to question why.”

She adds that some people become forgetful and less able to concentrate. You might lose things, such as your keys. This is because your mind is distracted by bereavement and grief, says Sarah. You're not losing your sanity.

The GOV.UK website has information on what to do after someone dies, such as registering the death and planning a funeral.

Coping with grief

Talking and sharing your feelings with someone can help. Don’t go through this alone. For some people, relying on family and friends is the best way to cope. But if you don’t feel you can talk to them much (perhaps you aren't close, or they're grieving too), you can contact local bereavement services through your GP, local hospice, the national Cruse helpline on 0844 477 9400 or a local Cruse centre.

A bereavement counsellor can give you time and space to talk about your feelings, including the person who has died, your relationship, family, work, fears and the future. You can have access to a bereavement counsellor at any time, even if the person you lost died a long time ago.

Don't be afraid to talk about the person who has died. People in your life might not mention their name because they don't want to upset you. But if you feel you can't talk to them, it can make you feel isolated.

Anniversaries and special occasions can be hard. Sarah suggests doing whatever you need to do to get through the day. This might be taking a day off work or doing something that reminds you of that person, such as taking a favourite walk.

If you need help to move on

Each bereavement is unique, and you can’t tell how long it will last. “In general, the death and the person might not constantly be at the forefront of your mind after around 18 months,” says Sarah. This period may be shorter or longer for some people, which is normal.

Your GP or a bereavement counsellor can help if you feel that you're not coping. Some people also get support from a religious minister. You might need help if:

  • you can’t get out of bed
  • you neglect yourself or your family, for example you don't eat properly
  • you feel you can’t go on without the person you’ve lost
  • the emotion is so intense it’s affecting the rest of your life, for example you can’t face going to work or you’re taking your anger out on someone else

These feelings are normal as long as they don’t last for a long time. “The time to get help depends on the person,” says Sarah. “If these things last for a period that you feel is too long, or your family say they’re worried, that’s the time to seek help. Your GP can refer you, and they can monitor your general health.”

Some people turn to alcohol or drugs during difficult times. Get help cutting down on alcohol, or see the Frank website for information on drugs.

Pre-bereavement care

If someone has an incurable illness, they and their loved ones can prepare for bereavement. “Practical things can help, such as discussing funeral arrangements together and making a will,” says Sarah.

Bereavement counsellors also offer pre-bereavement care, helping patients and their family cope with their feelings. This can be especially important for children, Sarah explains. “Children’s stress levels are at their highest before their family member dies, so support during this time is important.”

Find out more about children and bereavement on the Childhood Bereavement Network website.


Adult bereavement

The death of a loved one can be devastating. Watch how Penny, who was widowed in 2005, coped with the sudden death of her husband. Also get advice from a bereavement counsellor about how to deal with your emotions and where to find support.

Media last reviewed: 21/09/2012

Next review due: 21/09/2014

Page last reviewed: 16/03/2012

Next review due: 26/03/2014


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The 8 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Cherrypd said on 21 April 2014

Hi, I think this is the first step to try to deal with my lovely mums sudden death. I moved to the mainland last year, however I've been back home a few times to see my mum. I flew back to surprise her a couple of days before her 79th birthday on the 5 April. But on the 6th she callasped and died. I just can't get the images of her being taken in the ambulance and the paramedics pounding on her chest out of my mind. I simply don't know what to do, I'm lost, numb and don't think I'm coping very well as I'm ok one minute then next minute I can become withdrawn and end up crying. I miss her so much, can someone help me please.

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dannii_ said on 02 April 2014

In reply to Saffron2412: I lost my mum 5 years ago when I was 15. It's been a struggle but I'm getting there. I was sitting my GCSE's at the time and didn't do very well. Then by some miracle, I've managed to go to college get 2 diploma's and now I'm in my 2nd year of university training to be a Nurse. Just take each day as it comes. Everyone is different and we all have different coping mechanisms. It just takes time. Take care.

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Lozstar said on 10 February 2014

My Mum died in December 2012. It was horrendous. She died from skin cancer at age 61. She didn’t tell anyone she was ill, had not had any treatment and went from a healthy, robust woman to dead in 5 weeks. She was in hospital for only 10 days. What made it even harder to deal with was that she really didn’t want my sisters, brother or me there. And, until the day before she died we didn’t know what was wrong with her as she wouldn’t let the doctors tell us! The last thing she said to us was that she wished she could just go to sleep and never wake up, and could we go now. It was literally the worst thing I have ever been through. I had (naive as this sounds) never even considered that my Mum could die. How silly of me. But she was so there, was never ever ill, and I was looking forward to her being a grumpy old lady, driving us all mad.
To those of you with more recent bereavements I can say that the death of a loved one does get easier to deal with, but, don’t put pressure on yourself to be ‘okay’. You will feel differently from day to day. The first year is very very hard, as anniversaries come and go, birthdays, Christmas, mother’s day (that was not fun), etc. I have been having bereavement counselling for a year and without this I would be a wreck! I can really strongly recommend it. It is space to talk about what you are feeling with someone who is kind, but doesn’t feel sorry for you, or sad too, like a family member or friend would. You can also say those awful things that you have to get out there but don’t want to say to anyone else....
My little girl has also helped. She was only 18 months when my Mum died, so can’t even remember her. But she’s a reason to get up in the mornings and helps me to be happy. She will miss out on the best Nana ever, so I have to show her pictures and tell her stories and this really helps.

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KarenL76 said on 04 February 2014

My Dad died in August 2013 after a very long illness. Infact he has been ill all my entire life. My Mum died in 2009 and I seem to deal with that ok. I have 3 children and they always kept me busy, but I think it helped me that my Dad was still around.

But this time i am not coping very well. He was really ill all of last year and with not living so close it took its toll, travelling and not being with my children was hard.

I was not with him when he died and that hurt so much, so maybe I am feeling guilt over that. Since he has died I got married which was one of the hardest days of my life, he was my rock. I always thought he would be there for me.

I have been poorly with one thing or another since getting married and I am now on the mend but I cant stop thinking about him now.

I am feeling so low, it is affecting my work, my family and my relationship with my husband. I am so angry all of the time and I dont know why or who at!

I have suffered from depression in the past and I have been so strong though all of this and I feel that if I go back to the Doctors that I will be giving up.

Its really hard to explain to people and my partner how i feel. He knows I am sad but I think he is surprised that I am still suffering. I just want to be able to think and talk about my Dad and smile not cry and break down.

I do think that I need to go and see the doctor, but I dont want any pills again. I feel so alone and I wish I could see positives at the moment but it is hard. Writing this has helped me realise I need help.

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Dannicov123 said on 03 February 2014

I lost my brother in a car accident 8 weeks ago, I thought I was doing well but Went away with friends at the weekend at had a rough time just kept crying and drank too much. I have good days and really bad days. I hardly know who I am, I'm so emotional sad then angry. Before my brother died we had lost my nan 3 weeks before who we were both extremely close too. I am now thinking of going to counselling as feel this may help. I am feeling a lot of guilt as well and I'm not sure why.

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Saffron2412 said on 17 November 2013

I have recently lost my Mum to cancer, she was 46. I am 17 years old and I am terrified to live without my Mum. It's very easy to say "talk to someone about it" but talking about it is the hardest, a "deep chat" with a friend doesn't even seem to scratch the surface of how you are feeling. Today it has been exactly a month since she passed away, I'm hoping it will get easier soon.

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dannyjk38 said on 23 October 2013

I lost my mum to heart and renal failure in september 2013 and I miss her so much. She was only 66 and it is starting to have a negative impact on my life.

I agree on the fact that you have good days and I feel like I can cope and then other days I'm a complete mess. I'm starting to snap at my fiance and daughter over the most silly of things, I loose concentration easy and work is suffering, I have no energy to do anything apart from to play computer games as it gives me a sense of escapism.

I am aware of how my mood swings are effecting love ones and work collegues and it is starting to have an impact on my life however just putting down in words helps because with me personally, talking to family members only makes the pain worse.

I guess it's time I need to see a councellor which I wouldn't have considered before visiting this website.

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nixyjm said on 05 September 2013

I lost my mum a year ago yesterday (04/09/12 ) and I am still heartbroken, she was young only 73 and had chronic heart failure and kidney failure, she had been so poorly for 2 years since a cabg went wrong and she never really recovered, though im happy her suffering is over my life is stuck in the past. I lost my dad 12 years ago to cancer and mum nursed him at home ... its so hard to live everyday without my parents I miss them so much

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