Bereavement – Experiencing the Grief

Bereavement is the experience of losing someone important to us. It is characterized by grief, which is the process and the range of emotions we go through as we gradually adjust to the loss.

Losing someone important to us can be emotionally devastating – whether that be a partner, family member, friend, or pet. It is natural to go through a range of physical and emotional processes as we gradually come to terms with the loss.

Bereavement affects everyone in different ways, and it’s possible to experience any range of emotions. There is no right or wrong way to feel. Feelings of grief can also happen because of other types of loss or changes in circumstances, for example:

  • the end of a relationship;
  • the loss of a job;
  • moving away to a new location;
  • a decline in the physical or mental health of someone we care about.

Are there different types of grief?

In addition to the feelings of grief that you will experience following a loss, there are also other types of grief that you may experience at different times during bereavement.

Anticipatory grief

Anticipatory grief is a sense of loss that we feel when we are expecting death. It features many of the same symptoms as those experienced after a death has occurred, including depression, extreme sadness, or concern for the dying person.

It does not necessarily replace, reduce or make grief after the loss any easier or shorter, but for some people, it can provide the opportunity to prepare for the loss and for what the future might look like.

Secondary loss

After any loss, you may also feel what is known as ‘secondary loss’.

After the initial shock of losing a loved one, you may struggle when thinking of future experiences that those people will not be there to share or see, such as watching your children grow up, meeting partners, or attending key life events like weddings.

How long does grief tend to last?

There is no time limit on grief and this varies hugely from person to person.

The time spent in a period of bereavement will be different for everybody and depends on factors such as the type of relationship, the strength of attachment or intimacy to the person who died, the situation surrounding their death, and the amount of time spent anticipating the death.

What does grief feel like?

Grief can be difficult and stressful and nearly everybody goes through it at some point in their lives. Despite this, it can be very difficult to predict how we might react to a loss, as it is a very individual process. After a loss you may experience any of the following:

Sadness or depression. This can be brought on at the realization of the loss and may cause you to isolate yourself whilst reflecting on things you did with your loved one or focusing on memories from the past.

Shock, denial, or disbelief. It is natural for our minds to try to protect us from pain, so following a loss, some people may find that they feel quite numb about what has happened.

The shock provides emotional protection from becoming overwhelmed, especially during the early stages of grief, and it can last a long time.

Numbness and denial. You may find that you feel numb after a loss. This is natural and helps us to process what has happened at a pace that we can manage, and not before we are ready.

It is natural and can be a helpful stage – the only problem being if numbness is the only thing we feel, and none of the other feelings associated with grief, as this can cause us to feel ‘stuck’ or ‘frozen’.

Panic and confusion. Following the loss of someone close to us, we can be left wondering how we will fill the gap left in our lives and can experience a sense of changed identity.

Anger or hostility. Losing somebody is painful and can seem an unfair thing to happen. You may find that you feel angry or frustrated and want to find something or someone to blame for the loss so that you can try to make sense of it.

Feeling overwhelmed. Grief can hit people immediately and with full force, potentially causing them to cry a lot or feel like they are not coping.

People can worry that their feelings are so overwhelming that they don’t know how they can live with them. But over time feelings of grief tend to become less intense and people find a way to live with them.

Relief. You may feel relieved when somebody dies, especially if there had been a long illness if the person who died had been suffering, if you were acting as the main carer for the person, or if your relationship with the person was difficult.

Relief is a normal response and does not mean you did not love or care for the person.

Mixed feelings. All relationships have their difficulties and you may think that, because you had a difficult relationship with the person, that you will grieve less or cope better.

Instead, you may find that you feel a mix of emotions like sadness, anger, guilt, and anything in between.

We can feel all, none, or some of these things. There is no right or wrong way to feel following a loss. Some people seek help immediately by showing their emotions and talking to people, others prefer to deal with things slowly, quietly, or by themselves.

There are many different factors that affect grief, including the relationship we had with the person who died, our previous experience of grief, and the support we have around us.

Some other experiences you may have while you are grieving include:

  • sleep problems;
  • changes in appetite;
  • physical health problems;
  • withdrawing from other people, or wanting to be with others all the time.

The ‘grief cycle’

Research has suggested that, in some people, grief comes in stages or as a cycle. The grief cycle as a whole is sometimes referred to as ‘mourning’ and describes how people adapt following a loss.

It is a completely individual process but can be influenced by things such as culture, customs, rituals, and social expectations.

Different studies describe the stages of the grief cycle in slightly different ways, but the most common stages are:

  • Denial – feelings of shock, disbelief, panic, or confusion are common here.
  • Anger – blaming yourself, blaming others and hostility are all common feelings and behaviors.
  • Depression – feeling tired, hopeless, helpless, like you have lost perspective, isolated, or needing to be around others.
  • Bargaining – feelings of guilt often accompany questions like “If only I had done more”, “If I had only been…”.
  • Acceptance – acceptance does not mean that somebody likes the situation or that it is right or fair, but rather it involves acknowledging the implications of the loss and the new circumstances and being prepared to move forward in a new direction.

These stages do not always appear in the same order for everybody, and some people experience some stages and not others. It is common to move forwards and backward through the stages in your own way and at your own pace. Some people may experience grief outside of the cycle altogether.

If you ever feel like you are not coping with bereavement there are organizations and people who can support you.

Is grief a mental health problem?

In most cases, grief is not a diagnosable mental health problem. It is absolutely normal that grief places strain on our everyday lives and it can take a long time to adapt to life after a loss.

Even after a long period, it is still normal to experience days like the difficult early days after a bereavement, but over a period of time, we gradually learn to manage these. This is sometimes called simple grief.

However, sometimes people experience such strong feelings of grief long after a bereavement happens that a diagnosis of complicated grief is made. These experiences of bereavement can be very similar to ‘simple grief’ except that, rather than becoming manageable in the long-term, they can worsen and affect your day-today-living for a long time.

How do I know if I’m experiencing complicated grief?

Symptoms of grief feel continuous for a long time, and they get harder to cope with over time, rather than gradually easier.

Intense and overwhelming feelings of grief are having an impact on your day-to-day living.

Losing someone to suicide

Every type of grief has the potential to cause intense and complex feelings, but research shows that people bereaved by suicide can have a particularly complex set of feelings and can experience additional struggles and dilemmas in trying to resolve their grief.

Feelings you might experience when you lose someone to suicide include intense sadness, shock, anger, frustration, confusion, and isolation.

Some people also talk about experiencing a sense of shame or guilt, and while this is a very common reaction it is important to remember that people who take their own lives are often trying to stop feelings of distress that can feel as intense and real as physical pain – the reasons for suicide are complex and you are not to blame.

Who is affected by suicide?

Suicide can have a ripple effect, extending well beyond the person’s immediate family and friends. How you are affected will depend on your relationship with the person who has died, the strength of the attachment, and the circumstances around the death.

While losing someone close to you to suicide can be an extremely painful and emotionally complex experience, you may find that you are also affected if someone you know less well has taken their life.

If you feel affected by suicide, there are organizations that can help. Talking through difficult emotions and talking about the person who died can be helpful in processing the loss.

Grief doesn’t necessarily stop, but it can change

Grief is completely individual and there is no time limit or tried and tested process for it. People who are bereaved can sometimes feel pressure from those around them to ‘move on’ but it is important to recognize that grieving takes time and is not a linear process.

Time doesn’t necessarily ‘take away’ the grief, but it can give us space to adapt around it, accept the loss and build new meaning.

How can I help myself?

Coping with the loss of a loved one is always difficult, especially when it is not expected. It can take time to understand your feelings and adjust after the loss has happened, but there are things you can do to help yourself cope.

You can get in touch with our experts and ask for free advice right now.