When someone important to us dies we have to learn to live without his or her continuing presence in our lives. This takes time. Whether the death was anticipated or a relief, our feelings and responses to bereavement can be bewildering and difficult to understand.
This booklet attempts in straightforward language to address questions that are often asked by bereaved people. No two people grieve in the same way and not all of what we write here will apply to you.
If you would like to talk to someone about your grief, please do not hesitate to contact the Sobell House Bereavement Service. The service offers confidential one-to-one support, group support and counselling.
I don’t believe he’s gone...
I can still hear and see her...
Even when you have known for some time that someone is going to die, there is still a sense of shock when the death occurs. You may feel cold, numb, empty and unreal for a time, and have trouble in believing that he or she is really dead and is not coming back. This sense will start to fade in a few days or weeks, although it may return from time to time. When it does, you may feel that you can hear or see him or her again, and each time there will be fresh shock and disbelief when you realise the truth of the loss. One extension of this belief is that you may dream of the person who has died; if you have lost your partner, some of these dreams may be sexual. All these feelings, while not felt by everyone, are natural and do not mean that you are going crazy.
I don’t seem to be able to settle down to anything, yet there’s so much that needs doing...
You may have difficulties concentrating and find that your thoughts are confused and that everything is an effort. It can be hard to motivate yourself, you may feel distracted or become forgetful and feel tired and yet have difficulty in sleeping. You may feel restless and not ‘in the right place’ whether at home or out of the house. This is because so much of your inner attention is taken up with making sense of your loss and managing your emotional reactions and often people find their sense of inner security is rocked for a short time. Most people cry many times when they remember the person who has died, or some part of the funeral; while this can leave you exhausted, it is a natural way of letting your feelings out. Holding them in can be just as exhausting.
I don’t feel so good...
You may feel tired or low and yet have difficulty sleeping, waking early or finding it difficult to get off to sleep. Some people find that their appetite and enjoyment of food may temporarily disappear or they may have more infections than usual. Try to eat well, re-establish some routine and look after yourself. It helps to fit some exercise into the day if you can. Walking for half an hour, swimming or yoga are just as helpful as more strenuous forms of exercise. Milky drinks, a warm bath and settling down to rest with your favourite music may help re-establish your pattern of sleep. People often feel depressed for a time after bereavement. If your feelings are too much to bear or seem to be lasting too long, do seek advice from your GP. Do remind your GP that you are bereaved as it will help him or her to give you the best treatment or advice.
I think I’m going mad...
Grief is associated with stronger emotions than many people have experienced before, and you may feel that these emotions are taking over. In fact, people do not go mad with grief, but while you are grieving, you may think and act differently. It may be tempting to think that things would be easier if you moved house or disposed of possessions but in fact this is not a good time to make major changes in your life. What seems right now may not seem right in several months’ time and you may wish that you had kept treasured possessions – what may be painful reminders now in future may bring comfort and a sense of continuing connection with the person who has died. If you cannot avoid having to take important decisions, try to talk them over with a person whom you can trust and who can help you consider the various options such as a family member, close friend, spiritual advisor, solicitor or someone from a bereavement support service.
Many people have strong feelings of anger which may be difficult to express or understand. You may feel anger at the fact of the death itself, at being abandoned by the person who has died, or at God for allowing such a painful and seemingly pointless loss. You may also feel angry with people close to you who may not seem as upset as you are, or with those who were involved during the illness or at the time of death. Sometimes there is reasonable cause for this anger, but even if there is not, the feeling may still be there. Anger is natural following bereavement and usually gets less over time. If you have questions about the medical or nursing care given do ask to talk them over with the staff concerned or with your GP.
It is natural to feel at times that things would have been different if you had acted differently. There may be regrets for things said, done or not done. We are all human, and some misunderstandings and disagreements are inevitable in our relationships. When someone dies we lose the opportunity to change things with them. Guilty feelings are frequently experienced but do pass in time. If they persist it may help to talk to someone from a bereavement service, a spiritual advisor or your doctor to try to understand better why you continue to feel as you do.
I always seem to want to talk about it...
There is often a recurring need to talk about the dead person, their illness and death - the good times and the bad times. One way in which family and friends can help is to listen and to share this remembering, although they may find this listening difficult because they may not know what to say or how to be helpful. Friends and family are often available early in bereavement and less so later on. It is important to reach out to them when you need them. Don’t wait for them to guess how you feel.
Sometimes it can be hard to get the help you need from those closest to you as people do show their grief in different ways even when mourning the ‘same’ death. You may find that some members of your family want to cry and to talk about the person who has died while others may want to keep their feelings to themselves and to mourn privately. This can be hard to understand but there is no right or wrong way to grieve. If other people are not around for you or can’t understand your reactions you may find it helpful to talk to someone from a bereavement service who will have time to listen.
Sometimes I can’t remember...
Life may seem flat and aimless, but you should allow your memories to come and go - whether they are good memories or bad. Just as our own faults can lead to regrets and feelings of guilt, we must remember that other people have faults too. We preserve their memory more fully if we remember the whole person, faults as well as virtues. If you find your memories have gaps, try talking with someone who will help you to explore these spaces and fill them. It is often difficult to remember the person you love as he or she was before their illness. This will gradually pass as the memory of that time fits into the other memories of your life together. Grieving is not about ‘forgetting’ – those that are important to us, and have helped to make us who we are, will continue to be part of our lives whether physically present or not.
Sometimes I can’t forget...
It may be that you find yourself continually having distressing memories – replaying events that happened during the illness or during the last few days or hours leading up to the death. These images can be very disturbing and if you feel that cannot get beyond them to more comforting memories do seek help from your GP or from a bereavement service.
I don’t think I’ll ever be happy...
Things may feel so bad that you cannot see any prospect of them ending. In some ways they don’t end, because your memories remain, but much of the pain does become less acute. At some stage, you will find that your sadness begins to be interrupted by feelings of pleasure. This does not mean that you are no longer caring for the dead person. Special anniversaries, including birthdays and Christmas can be particularly difficult. You may need extra help at such times - do ask for it.
No-one seems to understand how I feel – they tell me I should have got over it by now...
People who tell us not to get upset mean well, but perhaps do not realise that distress is natural when someone close to us dies. You may want the privacy that comes from being alone, but at other times find loneliness a burden. If you feel alone try to tell someone, and ask for companionship. You may find yourself hurt and convinced that some of your friends are avoiding you. This does happen, often as a result of them “not knowing what to say”. It may be up to you to make the first step. If your family and friends do not understand your need to be upset and to grieve it may help you to seek support.
In the longer term, you may feel that your life has been changed by your experience of grieving. You might find yourself reassessing your priorities, beliefs, hopes and values. You may find that you are more aware and understanding of other peoples’ difficulties, that you are able to live with the often unanswerable question ‘why’ and that you feel ‘stronger’ and more able to cope with life because of your loss.
What about children?
Children, like adults, have feelings which they need to express. Many of these will be similar to those described in this leaflet, but there are some differences, depending on the age of the child. No child is too young to notice that an important person is no longer around, and it is important to tell all children, in simple language, that the person has died and is not coming back. In particular, young children find it difficult to grasp the concepts of past and future and only see the present as being real. They may upset you by seeming callous but this is as a result of their need to concentrate on what is happening now. They also continue to need to explore the world and to enjoy it. This does not mean that they do not feel sadness at times. As parents or grandparents we often want to protect children from the pain of grief.
If we leave children on their own to make sense of what is happening they may feel bewildered, abandoned and alone.
The way children learn to respond to death and loss early in life affects their reactions to future losses. If we, as adults, take the time to share with children their feelings when a pet dies, or to discuss the deaths they experience through books and television, we are helping to prepare them to handle the death of a significant person when it does occur.
How do children show grief?
Children may react to death in a variety of ways. Some will exhibit many of the following reactions, some only a few. Some will react immediately, some may have very delayed reactions.
“My Mummy didn’t really die”.
When a child resumes play immediately or laughs inappropriately it does not mean there is no feeling, but that the loss is simply too difficult to bear or understand at the moment.
“How could they die and leave me all alone like this?”
“Why didn’t Mummy and Daddy take better care of my baby brother?”
“Why did God let my friend die?”
“If I hadn’t been such a bad little girl my Mummy wouldn’t have died.”
“I was mad at my brother. That’s why he died!”
“Who will take care of me now?”
Clinging or replacement
“Don’t leave me, Mummy!”
“Uncle Dave, do you love me as much as Daddy did?”
Bodily distress and anxiety
“I can’t sleep.”
“I feel sick just like my sister did before she died.”
“Granddad was perfect.”
Assume mannerisms or behaviours
“Don’t I sound just like my Daddy?”
How can I help my children?...
Be direct, simple and honest. Explain truthfully what happened.
Encourage the child to express feelings openly. Crying is normal and helpful.
Accept the emotions and reactions the child expresses. Don’t tell the child how he should or should not feel.
Offer warmth and your physical presence and affection.
Share some of your feelings with your child. Allow your child to comfort you too.
Be patient. Know that children need to hear “the story” and to ask the same questions again and again.
Reassure the child that death is not contagious, that the death of one person does not mean that the child or other loved ones will soon die.
Maintain order, stability and security in the child’s life.
Listen to what the child is telling or asking you. Then respond according to the child’s needs.
Allow the child to make some decisions about participation in the family rituals - i.e. the funeral, visiting the grave. However, be sure to explain in advance what will happen.
With your loving and patient support your children will be able to cope with their loss.
Common explanations that may confuse children
Some of the explanations we give children can actually make their grief more difficult or cause problems later in life.
Your mother went on a long journey
“Then why is everyone crying?” “Why didn’t she say goodbye?” “Daddy, please don’t go away.”
Your aunt was sick and had to go to hospital
“If I get sick will I go to the hospital and die, too?”
“I don’t want my sister to go the hospital for an operation.” “The doctor is bad - he made Aunt Sue die.”
It was God’s will. God was lonely and wanted your brother. He was so good that God wants him in heaven
“I’m lonely without my brother. I need him more than God does. God is mean!”
“If God wants the good people, I’m going to be as bad as I can. I don’t want to die.”
Your grandfather went to sleep
“I don’t want to go to bed.” “I’ll make myself stay awake all night so I won’t die too.”
Children’s reactions to bereavement are more fully explained in ‘Grief and Bereavement understanding children’ available from Sobell House Bereavement Service’