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The experience of grief is unique to each person, just as the nature of relationships between people are unique. 

What is grief?

Any loss that significantly affects a person will result in a period of grieving; it is not just something that follows the death of someone close. If you have become a carer for one of your parents, for example, you will also experience losses alongside your new responsibilities, such as losing the freedom to get out and about whenever you choose.

Grief crosses generations, too; an elderly parent who is grieving and also struggling with declining health often has children mourning the loss of a strong parent figure as caring responsibilities transfer to them.

Anticipatory grief

The expectation of a loss, for example the death of a husband, wife or parent who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, can also give rise to grief, when we begin to mourn in expectation of what lies ahead.

The person who is sick will also be grieving as they are faced with saying goodbye to loved ones and life itself.

Grieving over the loss of the home

This can happen if your relative or friend has been living in their home for a long time and he or she is considering downsizing or moving into some form of care, such as sheltered accommodation or a care home. Both for the elderly person and the next generation, memories of family life will be woven into the fabric of the old home and its contents.

If the move has to occur as a result of the death of a partner or carer, there are two interlinked bereavements, especially if the move means that only a small fraction of belongings can be taken with the person moving.

If there is a choice, defer any major decisions about moving home, perhaps for several months. A change of surroundings can exacerbate any existing level of confusion and also cut off someone from their local support networks. This is especially important if close family live at some distance.

What is the grieving process when someone dies?

It was once thought that a grieving person would progress through a number of sequential stages. The truth is far more complex with many people experiencing a to-ing and fro-ing between different emotions, sometimes within the space of a few hours. Likewise, there will be varying degrees of intensity, depending on their life experience, the circumstances of the death and their own personality.  

Having some understanding of grief won't protect you from the experience, but it can reduce the fear of some quite unexpected and perhaps rather shocking feelings.

When grieving for a loved one, you may experience all or some of the following emotions, but this list doesn’t explain how you should grieve nor will you have failed to grieve properly if you can't place a tick against everything on it.

  • Feeling numb: usually in the early days after a death someone can seem non-reacting. This is also often described as part of shock, especially if the death was unexpected or in traumatic circumstances.
  • Denial: it is common for people to want to deny that something bad has happened. This often happens subconsciously, such as setting a place at the table for someone who has died.
  • Acceptance and relief: when someone eventually dies after a long degenerative illness it is common to feel a sense of relief that their suffering has ended. If there was an illness involving dementia, for example, the person who you knew may have ‘disappeared’ some time previously, you may already have experienced some of these emotions of grieving.
  • Yearning and searching: the sense of longing for the person who has died is so intense it feels physical. Catching a glimpse of the person who has died in the street only to then realise that the person seen only bore a superficial resemblance is common. Hearing a key turn in the front door at the time the person who has died normally came in after work or seeing them in their usual armchair are also often reported.  The person experiencing these things is not mentally unwell – these are normal ways in which the body and mind express just how much the person is missed.
  • Profound sadness with lethargy and prolonged bouts of crying: there may also be restlessness and loss of concentration. This may be experienced some weeks after the death when the support and sympathy often shown in the immediate aftermath has waned as life goes ‘back to normal’ for people who have been less affected. For the people closest to the person who has died, life can never be the same again and the immensity of their loss takes time to sink in. There may seem no point in getting out of bed in the morning or normal household tasks are neglected; ‘there’s no point cleaning/cooking now it’s just me.’
  • Disturbed sleep.
  • Repeated telling the story of what has happened: going over what has happened and speaking it aloud to other people is one of the ways we learn to accept that the death has happened and cannot be reversed.
  • 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.’ In most relationships things are said or left unsaid that are later regretted. This is normal and guilt rarely has a real foundation in fact, but is a very real and normal feeling.
  • Anger: often other people, such as relatives or doctors, become a target as this is easier than being angry with the person who died, although we are aggrieved that we have been abandoned by them. Anger may also be justified if, for example, it was thought there was enough money in the estate to pay for the funeral but discover that the person has died in debt.
  • Feeling depressed and thoughts of suicide: the extreme sadness and lethargy of grief can seem very similar to depression. Bereaved people commonly say that they don’t have the energy to get out of bed, cook for themselves or do simple household chores. This is quite normal and is not necessarily a sign of illness. However, if this period continues with no respite, it is worth seeking medical assistance.

How long does grief last?

There is no simple answer to this as it is not an illness from which one recovers in due course. Time alone does not heal and the person who has died will always be missed. However, most people do find that eventually good days outnumber the bad days and it is possible to look forwards rather than back. This is partly why grief in the elderly can seem so much more difficult when there are so few years ahead.

Grieving the death of someone you were very close to is very painful and takes considerable time, far longer than you may be expecting. It 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.  

More information

  • Coping with grief: explore ways to help yourself and others that you know who are grieving.

Page first published: 31 December 2015
Next review due: 31 May 2017