Coping with grief is one of life’s most difficult challenges. But it cannot and should not be avoided. Grieving is an essential journey that you must undertake to get to the other side. Over time you will get stronger, and learn to adjust to life without the person who has gone.
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: loss of appetite is normal but try to eat even if you don’t feel like it. Even a bowl of cereal, or a piece of toast is better than nothing at all.
- Try to keep to some kind of routine: it can help to have some structure to your day, even if you don’t have to go out to work or have other responsibilities such as childcare. Try to do a little gentle exercise each day, even if it’s just a short walk to get some fresh air. 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: there’s no set way that you ‘should’ be feeling, so try to go with the flow and accept your emotional response. At times, your emotions will feel very intense 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: sometimes people who mean well, might 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 the effort that they have made to show they care.
- 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 upset or rejected. 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: everyday tasks will be difficult at first. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, whether you need a lift to the registrar, help cleaning the house or for someone to pop to the shops. Close friends and family will want to support you but might not know how. They might be relieved if you give them something specific they can do.
- It’s ok to laugh: losing a loved one will generate a lot of mixed emotions and memories. Don’t feel that they all have to be sad. It can be really comforting to share happy and funny memories of the person who died, even if you then share some tears as well. It’s all right to smile 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: 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 must be done within legal time frames – such as registering the death and obtaining probate (see Practical steps below). But other things, such as moving photos and other important memorabilia from your loved one’s home, 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.
- Keep talking to your loved one: 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 help to make sense of your feelings.
- Speak to your boss: if you work, speak to your line manager or supervisor to let them know what has happened. Tell them your preferences for letting colleagues know. Many people find going back to work within a short time is helpful as it provides a distraction and a familiar environment. But if you need longer, talk to your boss about taking time off work or the possibility of flexible working for a while. To find out more about your rights at work, see Taking a longer break from work.
- Practical steps: for advice on what to do when someone dies take a look at our guide covering the first practical steps
- Financial help: Bereavement support is a benefit that can be paid to someone whose husband, wife or civil partner died after April 2017. There are other benefits available to those who have lost a partner before April 2017, including bereavement payment and bereavement allowance.
How can I support someone who is grieving?
In the early days
- Be there for them: some people find it difficult to ask for help. Rather than say, ‘Let me know if there is anything I can do,’ try to be proactive and offer to do specific tasks. At first, your friend or relative might need help organising the funeral, making calls and filling out paperwork. During the early weeks, they might find it difficult to get out or complete everyday tasks. You could offer to pop to the shops, or get their shopping when you do yours. You might offer to prepare them the odd meal or cook a bit extra at home, that can be packaged into ‘ready meals’ for their freezer.
- 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: it might help the bereaved person to talk about what’s happened. They might repeat the same things over again. Don’t interrupt, but do show that you have listened to what you have been told. For example, you could say ‘Last time you told me that ……. What happened after that?’
- Don’t feel you should have all the answers: a bereaved person might have a lot of questions, but don’t feel that you need to know all the answers. It is okay to say, ‘I don’t know,’ or, ‘I’m not sure,’ if appropriate. Perhaps you could help them to find out the answers they need?
- Be sparing with your own experiences: if you’ve suffered a bereavement, it might be tempting to share your own stories, to show that you understand. But try to resist this urge, unless you are specifically asked, ‘What did you feel when … died?’. The recently bereaved person will be consumed by their own loss and won’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 positive memories: it might help the bereaved person to remember happy times with the person who has died. For example, you might say, ‘Do you remember when we ...?’ or, ‘... may not have told you about this, but when we ...’
- Try to remain neutral: as the bereaved person works through their emotions they might make negative comments about the person who has passed away. Try to remain impartial and don’t say anything judgemental. If you are trusted with difficult information it is important to respect that. The person may just want to get it off their chest and then move on.
- 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 activities: keep the lines of communication open by continuing to invite the bereaved person to activities that you might normally do together. This might be an organised club or activity, or just meeting up for coffee or lunch. You may get several refusals but, if you can avoid seeming to nag the bereaved person, they might be grateful to see you or do something ordinary, especially if it is for a specific predictable period of time.
- Be mindful of special dates - Christmas, birthdays and anniversaries, including the anniversaries of the death and the funeral can be particularly difficult for the bereaved person. Show them that you are thinking about them at these times, but offer choices. 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 last reviewed: May 2017
Next review due: November 2019