Our experiences of, and reactions to, grief are very personal. This guide aims to help you to understand some of the emotions you may experience following bereavement or loss. There are some practical tips which may help you to get through this difficult time.
Common experiences following the sudden death of someone you know
For most of us, bereavement will be the most psychologically distressing experience we will ever face. Grief is what we feel when somebody we care about dies. The death of a significant person is a devastating loss. Everyone experiences grief differently and there is no ‘normal’ or ‘right’ way to grieve. How we react will be influenced by many different things, including our age and personality, or cultural background and religious beliefs, our previous experiences of bereavement, our circumstances and how we cope with loss. When you are bereaved by sudden death you may experience some, none or all of these feelings. These are normal reactions and although the feelings can be very strong, they will usually weaken over time and with reassurance.
You may be worried about your own health or safety or the health or safety of important people in your life. You may want to protect yourself from, or avoid, situations in which you feel unsafe or unsettled.
‘I can’t believe it’; ‘ I feel nothing.’ ‘Why did it have to happen?’ It may take you a long time to grasp what has happened. It is hard to believe that someone important is not coming back. The shock can make you numb; you may feel you’re in a different world. Some people carry on as if nothing has happened and worry that they may be seen as uncaring. Others may be very weepy and struggle to cope. Remember, people cope in their own unique ways, there is no set reaction.
Sometimes bereaved people can feel angry. This anger is a completely normal part of the grieving process. Death can seem cruel and unfair, especially when you feel someone has died before their time or when you had plans for the future together.
‘If only… ‘ You may feel guilty about things you said or did, or that you didn’t say or do. It is important to remember, at the time, that you did not have the power of hindsight you possess now.
You may have very vivid dreams or memories about the person who has died or the death itself. These dreams can seem very real at the time, causing strong feelings. You may notice, for example, that your heart beat or breathing speeds up when you think about what happened. You may be frightened or saddened, from time to time, by very vivid thoughts about the person who died. These can be so real you think you can see, hear, smell or even speak to them. Don’t worry – this is a normal reaction.
Guidelines for self-care
Every adult has their own needs – no two people will feel the same after a sudden death. Family and friends can help you meet practical and emotional needs. Information, meaning-making, and physical safety will also have a big part to play in how you cope.
You need to talk to other people – following a bereavement you may lose interest in other people and not want to talk to them about what happened. Talking honestly with friends and family about your feelings and confusion can help bring you back in touch with them and yourself. Talk to people or organisations who can answer your questions about what occurred as the truth can be less painful than what you imagine happened. Confidential counselling is available with Staffcare, contact the Careline on 0800 7313674 (UK) / 1800 409388 (Ireland)
Look after yourself – Eat properly and try to get enough rest (even if you can’t sleep). Avoid the use of drugs or alcohol – the relief will only be temporary.
You need to make the loss real – sometimes it is difficult to believe that the person who died is gone, or that they won’t just walk into the room like nothing happened. This is a normal reaction to sudden death. Find positive ways to remember or honour the person who died now and in the future. Take part in mourning ceremonies (e.g. attending the funeral, leaving a gift on the grave), share your feelings of sadness.
Time is a healer
Give yourself time and permission to grieve. Coming to terms with bereavement is a gradual process. Each person will cope in their own way and it is important to know that there is no ‘correct’ way to grieve: for example, members of the same family may respond to the same death in different ways. It is important not to feel guilty when you start to recover, it is not in any way disloyal to the memory of the person who has died. People often want to know for how long they should grieve. This will differ from person to person and adjusting to bereavement may take time. Your feelings may also ebb and flow.
Most important, give yourself a chance to remember the person you lost. Think of the positive contributions he or she made to your life and to the lives of others. Try to make similar contributions.
The grief and pain should lessen and there will come a time when you are able to get on with your own life and think a little less about the person you have lost.