Bereavement is the experience of losing someone important to us. It is characterised 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.
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 realisation 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. 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.
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 types during bereavement.
Anticipatory grief - Anticipatory grief is a sense of loss that we feel when we are expecting a 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. Cruse Bereavement Care's website has information on coping with anniversaries and reminders of your loved one when you are bereaved.
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. "How could this happen?", "It can't be true".
Anger - blaming yourself, blaming others and hostility are all common feelings and behaviours - "Why me?", "This isn't fair", "I don't deserve this"
Depression - feeling tired, hopeless, helpless, like you have lost perspective, isolated or needing to be around others - "Everything is a struggle", "What's the point?".
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 backwards 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 organisations and people who can support you. See the list of resources at the top of this page, or if you want to speak to someone about how you are feeling you can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more info and advice.