The experience of grief is unique to each person, just as the nature of relationships between people are unique.
What is grief?
Grief is an emotional reaction to the loss of someone, or something, that you care about. The pain of losing a loved one can be overwhelming and you might experience a range of difficult and unexpected emotions.
You may also experience a period of grieving if you are significantly affected by a change in your life. For example, if you have become a carer for one of your parents, your new responsibilities may prevent you from doing things that you once enjoyed and you might grieve for the loss of your freedom to get out and about whenever you choose. Your relative might experience a period of grief following a decline in their health, their retirement from work or having to move out of the family home.
Loss is something that we all experience at some time. But grieving is a highly personal experience. How it affects you, how you deal with it, and how long it lasts will depend on many factors. Over time you will gradually learn how to cope with the loss and make the necessary adjustments to your life.
Grief can cross generations. While you are grieving the loss of a parent, you may also have to care for your remaining parent, who is experiencing their own grief and may also be struggling with declining health.
It is common for grief to strike in advance of an impending loss. For example, if someone close to you is diagnosed with a terminal illness, you may begin to mourn in expectation of what lies ahead. Anticipatory grief can be difficult to deal with, as you may want to stay strong or appear positive so that you can support the person who is ill. Even though it is very difficult, this extended grieving process gives you time to say goodbye to your loved one and prepare for the future.
The person who is terminally ill will also be grieving, and going through a range of difficult emotions, as they face the end of their life and having to say goodbye to loved ones and life itself.
Grieving over the loss of the home
If your relative or friend has been living in their home for a long time, they may experience grief when they have to move out. The home may hold precious memories of family life, which are woven into the fabric of the home and its contents. Moving might be necessary if their health or finances change, and they need to downsize or move into sheltered accommodation or a care home.
If they are forced to move following the death of a partner or carer, they will have to cope with two different sources of grief at the same time. The situation might be made worse if they can only take a small fraction of belongings with them to their new accommodation.
If possible, defer any major decisions about moving home for several months after the bereavement. In the early days, it can be a natural reaction to want to leave the home they shared with a partner, as memories might still be very painful. But, in time, they may find it comforting to be surrounded by those memories. Moving to a new house, or a new area, is something that needs careful consideration. It could exacerbate feelings of loneliness, especially if the bereaved person is cut off from their local support networks. These can be especially important if close family live some distance away.
What is the grieving process when someone dies?
Grief is a unique process, which everyone will experience differently. It was once thought that grief followed a number of sequential stages. But, in reality, grief is far more complex and variable. Many people experience a to-ing and fro-ing between different emotions, sometimes within the space of a few hours. The emotions you experience, the intensity of those emotions and how you cope with them will depend on a variety of factors such as your life experience, the circumstances of the death and your own personality.
Having some understanding of grief won't prevent those emotions, but it can help to prepare you for them.
Remember that there is no right or wrong way to grieve and everyone will experience it differently. But, when grieving for a loved one, you may experience some or all of the following:
- Feeling numb: in the early days following the death of a loved one it might seem as if someone is not reacting at all. This is quite normal and often described as part of shock, especially if the death was unexpected or in traumatic circumstances.
- Denial: those left behind can find it difficult to believe that the person they love has gone. Denial and disbelief are common reactions to death, and this manifests itself subconsciously, such as continuing to set a place at the table for someone who has died.
- Acceptance and relief: when someone eventually dies after a long degenerative illness it is natural to feel a sense of relief that their suffering has ended. If there was an illness involving dementia, the person you knew may have ‘disappeared’ some time ago. You may have experienced a prolonged period of grieving during your loved one’s illness, which makes it easier to come to terms with their loss now.
- Yearning and searching: the sense of longing for the person who has died is so intense it feels physical. You might think you catch a glimpse of the person who has died in the street, only to realise that it’s a stranger with a superficial resemblance. You might think you hear their key turn in the front door at the time they normally came in from work. These are normal ways in which the body and mind express how much the person is missed.
- Repeating the event: repeatedly going over what has happened in your mind, and speaking it aloud to other people, can help to accept the death, and understand that it cannot be reversed.
- Restlessness and disturbed sleep: your thoughts and emotions might lead to restlessness and difficulties concentrating during the day. At night, you may find it difficult to fall asleep or keep waking up.
- Loss of confidence: this can arise in different ways. Someone may have to work out their new role in life, especially if their life partner has died and they have derived much of their identity from being one of a couple. It is hard to know how to be a single person, emotionally as well as practically, if one has been married for many years.
- Guilt: this may be expressed in phrases such as, ‘If only I had made him go to the doctor sooner,’ or, ‘It should have been me first, I’m the one who is ill.’ You might also regret things that were said, or left unsaid, during your relationship. Everything seems clearer with the benefit of hindsight, but no one can know what is going to happen in the future. It is normal to have feelings of regret and guilt, but these rarely have a real foundation.
- Anger: other people, such as relatives or doctors, can often become a target of angry feelings. This is easier than being angry with the person who died, although you might feel aggrieved that you have been abandoned by them. Some anger may also be justified if, for example, you thought there was enough money in the estate to pay for the funeral but discover that the person who died was in debt.
- Profound sadness and depression: in the weeks immediately after the death you will probably get a lot of support and sympathy, but this might wane as life goes ‘back to normal’ for people who have been less affected. For those closest to the person who has died, life can never be the same again and the immensity of the loss takes time to sink in. Your feelings of sadness might continue for a long time, leading to prolonged bouts of crying and lethargy. There may seem no point in getting out of bed in the morning. You might start to neglect household tasks such as cooking proper meals and cleaning the house. It is normal to feel this way after a loss. Speak to close friends and family and ask for help if you need it – they might not know what to do to help unless you tell them. However, if you feel depressed, or need additional support, contact your GP or a specialist person or organisation.
How long does grief last?
There is no simple answer to this. Time alone does not heal and the person who has died will always be missed. However, eventually most people do find that good days outnumber the bad days and it is possible to look forwards rather than back. Grieving can be particularly difficult for older people, if they feel that there are few days ahead.
Grieving the death of a loved one is very painful and may take far longer than you expect. But the intense period of grief does not last forever, even though it may seem that way at times. You will have good days and bad days and many in-between.
- Coping with grief: explore ways to help yourself and others that you know who are grieving.
- Getting bereavement support: there are many organisations, and sources of information, which can help you through the grieving process.
Page last reviewed: May 2017
Next review due: November 2019