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Coping with grief

You may be coping with your own grief as well as that of a parent or other close relative or friend. Here, we explain how to help yourself and others.
8 min read
In this article
How to cope with bereavement How can I support someone who is grieving?

How to cope with bereavement

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.

  • 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. This is 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’re dealing with your own grief and you may feel upset or rejected. To help overcome this, focus on your loved one’s needs, and reassure them 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 OK to smile at other things, too – you’re 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 as 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 timeframes, such as registering the death and obtaining probate. 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. The same applies to sorting through their clothing and other possessions.
  • 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. 
  • Practical steps: for advice on what to do when someone dies take a look at our guide covering the first practical steps.
  • Financial help: if you're eligible, the Bereavement Support Payment 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 – on Which? Money other bereavement payment and bereavement allowances are explained.

There’s no set way that you ‘should’ be feeling, so try to go with the flow and accept your emotional response.

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 saying ‘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’s also a very precious gift. If you visit and think you’ll struggle to sit quietly, then take a book or a quiet and unobtrusive 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’s OK 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’re 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’: you can never know exactly how someone feels, and even if you’re very close to them, you still may not 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...’ or similar.
  • 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’re trusted with difficult or very private information, it’s important to respect that. The person may just want to get it off their chest and then move on.
  • Stay in touch via telephone and email: 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. However, understand that on some days the person you’re supporting may not want to talk. If that is the case, contact them on another day.

Some people find it difficult to ask for help. Rather than saying ‘let me know if there is anything I can do’, try to be proactive and offer to do specific tasks.

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’s 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’re 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 loved one how to prepare simple meals. If the DIYer or gardener has died, you might offer to be available for urgent simple tasks, such as changing light bulbs or simple seasonal gardening chores.

What to 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.

 

If the person with dementia is cared for by professionals, seek their advice. See also caring for someone with dementia and the factsheet grief, loss and bereavement provided by the Alzheimer's Society.

Further reading

What is grieving?

The experience of grief is unique to each person, just as the nature of relationships is unique. We explain the range ...

Getting bereavement support

Charities, trained volunteers and professional counsellors can offer additional support during the grieving process.

Last updated: 14 Nov 2018