About this leaflet
This leaflet is for anyone who has been bereaved, their family
and friends, and anyone else who wants to learn more.
In this leaflet you will find information about:
- how people normally grieve after a loss
- unresolved grief
- places to get help
- other sources of information
- how friends and relatives can help.
Bereavement is a distressing but common experience. Sooner or
later most of us will suffer the death of someone we love. Yet in
our everyday life we think and talk about death very little,
perhaps because we encounter it less often than our grandparents
did. For them, the death of a brother or sister, friend or
relative, was a common experience in their childhood or teenage
years. For us, these losses usually happen later in life. So we do
not have much of a chance either to learn about grieving - how it
feels, what are the right things to do, what is 'normal' - or to
come to terms with it. In spite of this, we have to cope when we
are finally faced with the death of someone we love.
We grieve after any sort of loss, but most powerfully after the
death of someone we love. It is not just one feeling, but a whole
succession of feelings, which take a while to get through and which
cannot be hurried.
We most often grieve for someone that we have known for some
time. However, it is clear that people who have had stillbirths or
miscarriages, or who have lost very young babies, grieve in the
same way and need the same sort of care and consideration.
In the few hours or days following the death of a close relative
or friend, most people feel simply
stunned, as though they cannot believe it
has actually happened. They may feel like this even if the death
has been expected.
This sense of emotional numbness can
be a help in getting through all the important practical
arrangements that have to be made, such as getting in touch with
relatives and organising the funeral. However, this feeling of
unreality may become a problem if it goes on too long. Seeing the
body of the dead person may, for some, be an important way of
beginning to overcome this.
Similarly, for many people, the funeral or memorial service is
an occasion when the reality of what has happened really starts to
sink in. It may be distressing to see the body or attend the
funeral, but these are ways of saying goodbye to those we love. At
the time, these things may seem too painful to go through and so
are not done. However, this can lead to a sense of deep regret in
Soon though, this numbness disappears and may be replaced by a
dreadful sense of agitation, of pining or
yearning for the dead person. There is a
feeling of wanting somehow to find them, even though this is
clearly impossible. This makes it difficult to relax or concentrate
and it may be difficult to sleep properly. Dreams can be very
Some people feel that they 'see' their loved one everywhere they
go - in the street, the park, around the house, anywhere they had
spent time together. People often feel very
angry at this time - towards doctors and
nurses who did not prevent the death, towards friends and relatives
who did not do enough, or even towards the person who has, by
dying, left them.
Another common feeling is
guilt. People find themselves
going over in their minds all the things they would have liked to
have said or done. They may even consider what they could have done
differently that might have prevented the death. Of course, death
is usually beyond anyone's control and a bereaved person may need
to be reminded of this. Some people may feel guilty if they feel
relieved that their loved one has died after a painful or
distressing illness. This feeling of relief is natural,
understandable and very common.
This state of agitation is usually
strongest about two weeks after the death, but is soon followed by
times of quiet sadness or depression, withdrawal and silence. These
sudden changes of emotion can be confusing to friends or relatives,
but are part of the normal process of grief.
Although the agitation lessens, the periods of depression become
more frequent and reach their peak between four and six weeks
later. Spasms of grief can occur at any time, sparked off by
people, places or things that bring back memories of the dead
Other people may find it difficult to understand or be
embarrassed when the bereaved person suddenly bursts into tears for
no obvious reason. At this stage it may be tempting to keep away
from other people who do not fully understand or share the grief.
However, avoiding others can store up trouble for the future, and
it is usually best to start to return to one's normal activities
after a couple of weeks or so.
During this time, it may appear to others as though the bereaved
person is spending a lot of time just sitting, doing nothing. In
fact, they are usually thinking about the
person they have lost, going over again and again both the good
times and the bad times they had together. This is a quiet, but
essential part of coming to terms with the death.
As time passes, the fierce pain of early bereavement begins to
fade. The depression lessens and it is possible to think about
other things and even to look again to the future. However, the
sense of having lost a part of oneself never goes away entirely.
For bereaved partners there are constant
reminders of their new singleness, in
seeing other couples together and from the deluge of media images
of happy families. After some time it is possible to feel whole
again, even though a part is missing. Even so, years later you may
sometimes find yourself talking as though he or she were still here
These various stages of mourning often overlap and show
themselves in different ways in different people. Most recover from
a major bereavement within one or two years. The final phase of
grieving is a letting-go of the person
who has died and the start of a new sort of life. The depression
clears completely, sleep improves and energy returns to normal.
Sexual feelings may have vanished for some time, but now return -
this is quite normal and nothing to be ashamed of.
Having said all this, there is no 'standard' way of grieving. We
are all individuals and have our own particular ways of
In addition, people from different cultures deal with death in
their own distinctive ways. Over the centuries, people in different
parts of the world have worked out their own ceremonies for coping
In some communities death is seen as just one step in the
continuous cycle of life and death rather than as a 'full stop'.
The rituals and ceremonies of mourning may be very public and
demonstrative, or private and quiet. In some cultures the period of
mourning is fixed, in others not. The feelings experienced by
bereaved people in different cultures may be similar,
but their ways of expressing them are very different.
Children and adolescents
Even though children may not understand the meaning of death
until they are three or four years old, they feel the loss of close
relatives in much the same way as adults. It is clear that, even
from infancy, children grieve and feel great distress.
However, they have a different experience of time from that of
adults, and may go through the stages of mourning quite rapidly. In
their early school years, children may feel responsible for the
death of a close relative and so may need to be reassured. Young
people may not speak of their grief for fear of adding extra
burdens to the grown-ups around them. The grief of children and
adolescents, and their need for mourning, should not be overlooked
when a member of the family has died. They should usually, for
instance, be included in the funeral arrangements.
Bereavement following a suicide
It can be particularly hard to deal with the death by suicide of
someone you know. As well as the usual feelings of bereavement, you
may have a number of conflicting emotions.
You may feel:
- Angry with the person for taking their own life.
- Rejected by what they have done.
- Confused as to why they did it.
- Guilty - most people take their own life as an act of
desperation. How could you not have noticed how they were
- Guilty for not having been able to stop their death. You may go
over in your mind the times you spent with them and ask yourself if
you could have prevented it. Of course, even had you managed to
prevent it, there could well have been further attempts which you
could not have stopped.
- Worried about whether they suffered.
- Glad that they no longer have to endure their distress.
- Relieved that you no longer have to be there to support them or
deal with their suicidal thoughts and urges.
- Ashamed by what they did - particularly if your culture or
religion sees suicide as sinful or disgraceful.
- Reluctant to talk to other people about it because:
- the stigma of suicide in your culture;
- you feel that other people are more interested in the drama of
the situation rather than your feelings or the person who has
- Worried about thoughts of suicide that you may have had
- Isolated - it can help to talk to other people who have lost a
loved one through suicide.
An autopsy is usually done after any unexpected death. If
this goes against your religious or cultural beliefs, you need to
make the Coroner and any professionals involved, aware of this as
soon as possible.
An inquest will usually follow. Evidence is presented to the
Coroner at a court hearing to try to find out what exactly
happened. You may find it helpful to come to the inquest - but if
you decide not to, you can still get a full report of the inquest
from the Coroner's Office (there is no fee for this).
How can friends and relatives help
- You can help by spending time with the person who has been
bereaved. More than words, they need comfort and to know that
you will be with them during this time of pain and distress. A
sympathetic arm around the shoulders will express care and support
when words are not enough.
- It is important that, if they want to, bereaved people can cry
with somebody and talk about their feelings of pain and distress
without being told to pull themselves together. In time,
they will come to terms with it, but first they need to
talk and to cry.
- Others may find it hard to understand why the bereaved person
has to keep talking about the same things again and again, but this
is part of the process of resolving grief and should be encouraged.
If you don't know what to say, or don't even know whether to talk
about it or not, be honest and say so. This gives the bereaved
person a chance to tell you what he or she wants. People often
avoid mentioning the name of the person who has died for fear that
it will be upsetting. However, to the bereaved person it may seem
as though others have forgotten their loss, adding a sense of
isolation to their painful feelings of grief.
- Remember that festive occasions and anniversaries (not only of
the death, but also birthdays and weddings) are particularly
painful times. Friends and relatives can make a special effort to
- Practical help with cleaning, shopping or looking after
children can ease the burden of being alone. Elderly bereaved
partners may need help with the chores that the deceased partner
used to handle - coping with bills, cooking, housework, getting the
car serviced and so on.
- It is important to allow people enough time to grieve. Some can
seem to get over the loss quickly, but others take longer. So don't
expect too much too soon from a bereaved relative or friend - they
need the time to grieve properly, and this will help to avoid
problems in the future.
Grief that is unresolved
There are people who seem hardly to grieve at all. They do not
cry at the funeral, avoid any mention of their loss and return to
their normal life remarkably quickly. This is their normal way of
dealing with loss and no harm results, but others may suffer from
strange physical symptoms or repeated spells of depression over the
following years. Some may not have the opportunity to grieve
properly. The heavy demands of looking after a family or business
may mean that there just isn't the time.
Sometimes the problem is that the loss is not seen as a 'proper'
bereavement. This happens often, but by no means always, to those
who have had a miscarriage or stillbirth, or even an abortion.
Again, frequent periods of depression may follow.
Some may start to grieve, but get stuck. The early sense of
shock and disbelief just goes on and on. Years may pass and still
the sufferer finds it hard to believe that the person they loved is
dead. Others may carry on being unable to think of anything else,
often making the room of the dead person into a kind of shrine to
Occasionally, the depression that occurs with every bereavement
may deepen to the extent that food and drink are refused and
thoughts of suicide arise.
Help from your doctor
- Occasionally, sleepless nights may go on for so long as to
become a serious problem. The doctor may then prescribe a few days'
supply of sleeping tablets.
- If someone is unable to resolve their grief, help can be
arranged through their GP or one of the valuable voluntary or
religious organisations. For some, it will be enough to meet people
and talk with others who have been through the same experience.
Others may need to see a bereavement counsellor or psychotherapist,
either in a special group or on their own for a while.
- If the depression continues to deepen, affecting appetite,
energy and sleep, antidepressants may be helpful; see our leaflet
antidepressants for more information. If the depression still
does not improve, your GP may well arrange an appointment with a
- Bereavement turns our world upside-down and is one of the most
painful experiences we endure. It can be strange, terrible and
overwhelming. In spite of this, it is a part of life that we all go
through and usually does not require medical attention.
- For those people who lost someone through a terminal illness,
many hospices will offer you a free bereavement service and
- For those who do run into trouble, help is at hand, not only
from doctors, but from the organisations listed below.
Support and advice
Helpline: 0800 634 9494. Supports bereaved people on a range of
practical issues via a single freephone number. It offers advice on
all aspects of bereavement from registering the death and finding a
funeral director through to probate, tax and benefit queries.
Helpline: 0800 83 85 87. Experienced advisors available to
listen and give advice and information to those who are depressed
and need to talk.
Support and Information Line: 0800 02 888 40. A national
charity which helps grieving families and the professionals
who care for them.
Helpline: 0844 477 9400; email: email@example.com. Supports
people after the death of someone close. Face-to-face and group
support delivered by trained bereavement support volunteers across
Bereavement Care Scotland: Helpline: 0845 600
A coalition of 30,000 members across England & Wales which
aims to help people talk more openly about dying, death and
bereavement, and to make plans for the end of life.
Helpline: 01460 55120; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Trust supports bereaved parents through their grief after the
loss of a son or daughter of any age.
Helpline: 08457 90 90 90; (ROI): 116 123; e-mail: email@example.com.
National organisation offering support to those in distress
who feel suicidal or despairing and need someone to talk to.
Survivors of Bereavement by
Helpline: 0300 111 5065.
The Compassionate Friends: supporting
bereaved parents and their families
Helpline: 0345 123 2304. A charitable organisation of
bereaved parents, siblings and grandparents who have suffered the
death of a child/children.
Helpline: 0808 802 6868; email: firstname.lastname@example.org. A
charity that provides specialist support for bereaved families,
promotes expert advice on safer baby sleep and raises awareness of
sudden infant death.
A charity to support people who have lost
their loved ones to cancer. It operates support groups in London
and Oxford, and other supportive events.
WAY Widowed and
A charity for men and women aged 50 or under when their
A grief observed, by C.S. Lewis.
You'll get over it: the rage of bereavement by
Also see Cruse Bereavement Care for recommended materials.
Hawton K and Simkin S (2003) Helping people bereaved by
Produced by the RCPsych Public Engagement
Dr Phillip Timms
User and Carer
© May 2015. Due for review: May 2018. Royal College of
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