Support for Bereavement
Updated: May 12, 2021
Immediately after a bereavement it is common to feel a range of fluctuating emotions. Many people experience a shock like state, such as feeling numb. Other emotions may be present such as anger or guilt. It is common to go into a depressed like state and switch off to everyone and everything else around us. Other responses may include, for example, a loss of appetite or drinking more alcohol. Accepting the fact that the loved one has died may feel impossible, and there may be a strong yearning to have them back. Such reactions are quite normal, and is our body's way of helping us to manage the pain, which is too difficult to process at this point in time.
During the height of the COVID pandemic, many people were either prevented or seriously restricted from being with their loved one at the end of their life. Basic human rights were constrained, and this will have been a painful and traumatic experience for many.
There is no set time frame and no linear process to grief. It is often a really confusing time. The depth of feelings will vary, depending on how close you were to the person who died, the circumstances in which they died, or the nature of the relationship itself.
My own experience
After the death of my dad in 2011, I experienced everything around me to be surreal and hazy. I have heard this described as like living in black and white or 'tunnel vision'. The world I was able to function in felt small, and the thought of being able to navigate in life again seemed impossible in the immediate weeks afterwards. After several weeks life gradually appeared less hazy, less undefined, and slowly the ‘colours’ started to appear again. I never ever felt like I was ‘moving on’ - but the world I was living in started to expand, and I was able to find space to function and enjoy life again.
My father was 83 when he died, and he died peacefully in his sleep. We lived some distance away from each other, so my experience would likely be very different to somebody who enjoyed a close and loving relationship with the person who died; or whose circumstances were completely different.
Seeking a way forward with your bereavement
In my work as a bereavement therapist, thoughts and feelings similar to those below are commonly expressed:
How can I possibly move on with my life and be happy when she had to die... it would mean that her life meant nothing.
I am afraid that I will forget about him if I start getting on with my life.
I absolutely should have / could have done more before he died. Maybe I could have saved him.
I feel so guilty; I don't deserve anything good for myself.
If I start crying, I might never be able to stop.
It is often helpful to have an outlet for such beliefs. However, sometimes it feels too painful to talk about how we feel straight away, and asking for, or accepting support may take a bit of time.
Some people prefer to stay busy, or find an outlet in nature. After time, some may benefit from 'thinking time'; or looking through photos of times spent together. Others may find specific pieces of music comforting; even talking to or writing a letter to the person who passed away. My father always grew and tended to his roses, and I found it helpful to plant rose bushes in my garden in his memory. In a sense, this meant he was always part of my life.
After a significant period of time, emotions often start to feel less raw. So you might start to think about how you can allow your life to start to expand again - whilst not reducing the meaning of your loss.
For some people, these raw emotions may continue for much longer. Perhaps it has been over a year since the death of your loved one, and you feel the same pain as when he or she died. Perhaps there is a feeling that life is hopeless and will never ever get better. Your relationship with the person who died may have been complex, and as mentioned earlier, perhaps the death was traumatic itself. Strong emotions, such as anger or guilt, may be in the forefront.
Whatever you are experiencing is normal and understandable.
If you continue to struggle with painful emotions, or navigating forward in life feels too hard, you may consider seeking professional help or therapy. There are some really supportive organisations out there who totally understand what you are going through, and I have included a few links below.
Your GP may also be able to help, and there may be independent or voluntary organisations in your area who provide bereavement support.
How you can help somebody who is bereaved
Many people feel afraid to check out how their bereaved friend is coping - perhaps worried they may unleash strong or overwhelming emotions - incorrectly believing they will be doing harm if they go there.
However, bereaved clients often tell me that they would appreciate the opportunity to be able to talk about the person who died. The person who experienced the loss may also be reluctant to call friends or family to talk because of a fear that they will 'impose' themselves; or 'be a burden'; or because they don't want to make them feel uncomfortable.
If you feel okay about it, do check in and offer an ear if needed. Bear in mind that your friend may not want to talk, since it may be too hard at that point in time. It is highly unlikely that you will be doing harm, and it can often be a welcome relief to have space to to talk if needed. It is not usually necessary to offer solutions or make suggestions about what you think he or she should do or feel. Just be there. By listening and understanding, you offer a huge service.
Sometimes a person will benefit most from practical help. For example, shopping, or cooking a simple meal or cleaning up can feel like too much for a bereaved individual. Please do not feel offended if your friend is not able to accept such support - their feelings may be too overwhelming at that point in time.