Bereavement is the period of mourning that we go through after a loss. Significant loss is something that we all face at some time in our lives, and for many of us it may be the most distressing experience we have to face. This may be a result of the death of someone close to us, or it may be caused by other circumstances such as loss of health.
Grief is what we feel when we experience that loss. Everyone experiences grief differently and there is no ‘normal’ or ‘right’ way to grieve. Many of us do not experience bereavement or loss until we are older, and there is often little opportunity to learn about death and how it affects us before we have to experience it ourselves.
Whilst our response to loss is a very individual experience, there are common features that many people share.
Grief is a natural process, and most people will cope with help and support from family and friends. However some people need additional help to understand their feelings and to help them come to terms with the loss and find a way to live again afterwards.
Common reactions to loss
You may feel a number of things immediately, in the hours and days after the death of someone close to you. The main reaction at this time is one of shock, and this can be demonstrated in different ways by different people.
You may feel any of the following things, one of them, or some of them, sometimes depending on the situation that you are in:
In the weeks and months after a bereavement you may notice that you are beginning to feel other things:
Other people’s reactions
One of the hardest things to face when we are bereaved is the way other people react to us. They often do not know what to say or how to respond to our loss. They can be clumsy in what they say or do. Because they don’t know what to say or are worried about saying the wrong thing, people can avoid those who have lost someone. This is hard for us because we may well want to talk about the person who has died. Sometimes other people do not realise how long it takes to begin to recover from a death.
How long does it take to recover?
When someone close to us dies we have to cope and adjust to living in a world which is irreversibly changed. We may have to let go of some dreams built up and shared with the person who has died. This is a gradual process which can take a long time.
The length of time it will take a person to accept the death of someone close and move forward is varied and will be unique to the individual. How we react will be influenced by many different things, including:
No one can tell you how or when the intensity of your grief will reduce; only you will know when this happens. It is not unusual for bereaved people to think they are finally moving towards acceptance only to experience strong emotions again, similar to those they experienced shortly after the death.
Life will never be the same again after a bereavement, but the grief and pain should lessen. There should come a time when you are able to adapt and adjust and cope with life without the person who has died. The pain of bereavement has been compared to that of losing a limb. We may adapt to life without the limb but we continue to feel its absence. When a person we are close to dies we can find meaning in life again, but without forgetting their meaning for us.
Most people begin to feel like this within one or two year of the death of someone close to them.
What can I do to help?
Bereavement is always a difficult time, but there are things that you can do to help yourself, or others, to get through it.
There are many different resources available to help you, including:
Self-help booklet produced by Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Trust: Bereavement
Cruse offer bereavement care after the death of someone close to you.
If you feel that you are stuck in the grief process, or that you are simply unable to cope with your feelings then talking to a professional for counselling or therapy can be beneficial.
Immediately, or soon after a bereavement, the following advice may help you:
What friends and family can do to help:
A traumatic loss is one that is sudden, unexpected, and often results from horrific or frightening circumstances.
Detailed information about these different types of loss are provided by Cruse:
When someone we care about dies from a traumatic situation there may be additional features of grief and bereavement. The most significantly different of these are problems associated with trauma:
‘I can’t believe it’s true’
Losses for which we are unprepared, particularly if we can’t be with the person when they die, are difficult to make real.
It takes a long time to take in what has happened. Spend time talking it through with others; if you worry that you are being a burden to friends or family, ask them or talk to a professional. There may be some things about the death that will never be explained. It is difficult, but you may have to learn to live with the uncertainty of not knowing; we cannot explain or control everything.
Some people find it helpful to:
‘I can’t get it out of my head’
Many people are haunted by pictures in their minds of the traumatic event. While this is most likely to become a problem for eye-witnesses, television or other pictures of actual or similar events, can also ‘bring home’ the awfulness of the way a person might have died. Such images may occur spontaneously or, in a distorted form, as recurrent nightmares. They may be triggered by any reminder of the loss, e.g. loud noises, cries or shouts.
Some people go to great lengths to avoid any such reminders because the images are so painful. They may isolate themselves, avoid talking about the loss, or distract themselves by being extremely busy. This kind of reaction is not uncommon and will usually improve with time.
If severe, this kind of reaction may be a form of ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’ (PTSD).
Haunting images can sometimes be eased by talking to others, going over the events again and again until you get used to them. The images will not disappear but they will become less painful and easier to live with.
If the images are stopping you from grieving or getting on with your life, then you should talk to your GP and consider getting professional help. PTSD can be treated with some medications, but the most effective treatments include talking therapies.
It can be hard to distinguish between grief and depression. They share many of the same characteristics, but there are important differences between them.
Grief is an entirely natural response to a loss, while depression is an illness.
People who are grieving find their feelings of loss and sadness come and go, but they’re still able to enjoy things and look forward to the future.
In contrast, people who are depressed have a constant feeling of sadness. They don’t enjoy anything and find it hard to be positive about the future.
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