Grief is very hard and cannot and should not be avoided, but as with other difficult experiences, many people feel stronger once they have learned how to go on living without the physical presence of the person who has died.
You may well be coping with your own grief and also that of a parent or other close relative or friend. Here we give advice for looking after both yourself and others.
How do I cope with bereavement?
- Try to look after yourself, even when you don’t feel like it. If you suffer from a loss of appetite, eating a bowl of cereal, a piece of toast or cheese and biscuits is better than nothing at all.
- Try to keep to some kind of routine, so you have a structure to your day, including some gentle exercise if possible - even if you don’t have to go out to work or have other responsibilities such as childcare. The chances are you will have disturbed sleep but keeping to a routine will help.
- Try not to be anxious about how you are feeling. Some of your emotions will feel very intense at times and at others you may feel lacking in energy and not interested in anything. Even if you have experienced a major bereavement before, this time may be different because you will have had a different relationship with the person who has died recently.
- Try not to be upset or offended if people who mean well, say or do the wrong thing. There are a lot of clichés that people use when someone has died, usually when they don’t know what to say, but feel they should say something. Try to appreciate that they have made an effort and not avoided you completely.
- Try not to feel rejected. You may hear your bereaved parent voicing thoughts such as, ‘I just want to be with him now, there’s nothing left for me.’ This may be hard to hear when you are dealing with your own grief and you may feel a strong sense of rejection. To help overcome this, focus on your relative’s needs, and reassure him or her that they are still important to others. Immediate family members may wish to be more specific: ‘We all really miss Dad and we know it’s hardest for you. But we really love you and need you.'
- Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help with anything you need – such as a lift to the registrar if you feel you might not be safe to drive, or help cleaning the house. Most people will want to support you and be relieved if you give them something specific they can do, especially if you are someone who often seems very composed and able to cope.
- Don’t feel bad if you find yourself laughing at something. Sharing happy and funny memories of the person who died is normal, even if you then cry as well. It’s okay to be amused at other things too – you are not betraying the memory of the person who has died.
- Remember that everyone grieves differently and at a different pace, so try not to be upset if another family member doesn’t seem to be as distressed at you. Or try not to feel irritated if you feel someone else is over-reacting to what has happened.
- Only do things when you feel ready. Some things have to be done within legal time frames – such as registering the death and obtaining probate (if required) – but other things, such as moving photos and other important memorabilia from where you or a loved one lived, can wait. You can put these things away in a box until you feel ready to go through everything and decide what you want to keep.
- Know that many people have conversations in their head with the person who has died. This can be a comfort when faced with making big decisions in the future. Some people silently tell the person who has died about their day – perhaps as they put the kettle on when they come home in the evening. Other people may do something similar if there is a grave that they visit regularly. Sometimes writing a letter to the deceased person can be helpful.
- Speak to your supervisor or line manager at work so they know what has happened. Let them know what you want your colleagues to be told about the death. Many people find going back to work helpful as it provides a distraction and a familiar environment. To find out more about your rights at work, see Taking a longer break from work.
How can I support someone who is grieving?
In the early days
- Be there for them. Rather than say, ‘Let me know if there is anything I can do,’ try to be proactive and offer to do specific tasks. If people are being invited back to the home after the funeral, help out with the cleaning or cook suitable-sized meals that can be frozen.
- Be prepared to sit in silence together. This can be a difficult thing to do, but it is also a very precious gift. If you visit and think you will struggle to sit quietly, then take a book or a craft activity with you.
- Be prepared to listen to the same things again and again. Don’t interrupt, but do show that you have listened to what you have been told. ‘Last time you told me that ……. What happened after that time?’
- Don’t feel you have to have the answers to all the bereaved person’s questions. It is okay to say, ‘I don’t know,’ or, ‘I’m not sure,’ if appropriate.
- Be sparing about sharing your own experiences of bereavement, unless you are specifically asked, ‘What did you feel when … died?’. The recently bereaved person is consumed by their own loss and doesn’t usually have the capacity to cope with other people’s stories.
- Avoid saying ‘I understand.’ We can never know exactly how someone feels, and unless we are very close to them we rarely know exactly how they felt about the person who has died.
- Share your own memories of the person who has died. For example, ‘Do you remember when we ...?’ or, ‘... may not have told you about this, but when we ...’
- Try to remain neutral. Do not ‘speak ill of the dead’ and try not to look shocked if the bereaved person makes negative comments about them. We are all a mixture of good and bad aspects and if you are trusted with difficult information it is important to respect that.
- Stay in touch through telephone and email communications. Short, frequent contact will be the most helpful, especially in the early days after the death when there is so much to do in practical terms.
Over the weeks and months ahead
- Keep inviting the bereaved person to your normal joint activities, whether they are an organised activity or just meeting up for a coffee or lunch. You may get several refusals but if you can avoid seeming to nag the bereaved person, they will often be grateful to do something normal and ordinary, especially if it is for a specific predictable period of time.
- Be mindful of special dates, such as Christmas, birthdays and anniversaries, including the anniversaries of the death and the funeral. Offer choices to the bereaved person, but be aware that some people may prefer to be alone with their memories on these dates.
- Offer your practical skills. If the person who died was the cook for the household, offer to teach your relative or friend how to cook simple meals. If the DIYer or gardener has died, you might offer to be available for urgent simple tasks like changing light bulbs or simple seasonal gardening chores.
What do I say to someone who is bereaved and has dementia?
There is no simple answer to this question as it will depend on the degree of cognitive impairment and the nature of the relationship the person with dementia had with the person who has died.
- Getting bereavement support: it's not a sign of weakness if you feel you need some additional support from outside your immediate circle of family and friends to get through this difficult time.
- What is grieving?: understand more about the symptoms of grieving.
- Dementia and other memory problems: our guide to the different types of dementia and how you can help yourself and a loved one.
Page first published: 31 December 2015
Next review due: 31 May 2017