Coping if you have been recently or suddenly bereaved

Bereavement happens to us all at some point in our lives. Mostly we expect it to be later on in life, perhaps through an elderly relative, preceded by failing health, and where we have an idea that we are going to be faced by loss. Yet many peoples’ experience of loss is not like this. For some it is sudden and unexpected, and for others, even though they know their loved one is dying, when it happens it comes as a great shock, and they are overwhelmed by unexpected feelings.

There has been a wealth of literature written on grief by grief therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, people in public life who have personal experience and by everyday folk whose lives have been turned upside down by their loss. These accounts are a rich source of help to many.  We will attempt to highlight some of the feelings, thoughts and behaviours that many people experience in their grief.

C.S. Lewis in his book A Grief Observed, writing about the death of his wife, says:

"No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.  I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.  The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning, I keep on swallowing.  At other times it feels like being mildly drunk or concussed.  There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me.  I find it hard to take in what anyone says... Yet I want the others to be about me."

Grief can be a cacophony of feelings and sensations, a bit like being tossed inside a washing machine. Hearing the news of a sudden bereavement can be a traumatic and devastating event in itself and can affect people in different ways. There can be a sense that time is standing still, or that your world is spiralling out of control. People have described feeling as if they are in a dream, where nothing feels real but yet they are still able to function normally. Often people find that their thoughts are fragmented as they grapple with the devastation.

These are some of the examples of the ways that grief can affect us all.


There may be numbness, anger, despair, shock, disbelief, guilt, anxiety, sometimes even relief.  One of the most powerful grief feelings can be a sense of yearning or missing, almost feeling guilty for carrying on living. All these feelings are normal in grief but can be overwhelming and often difficult to put into words.

Thoughts ”It’s all my fault, I can’t live without them, I’m going mad, I keep thinking I’ve seen them, what’s the point?  It’s not fair!” There is often a sense of disbelief which can carry on for many months and coupled with confusion and preoccupation it can feel a bit like you’re going mad. Many people describe having a sense of the presence of their loved one which is usually a great comfort, but can for some, on occasions, be unsettling.


Typical grief related behaviours can include pacing around the house, restlessness and searching behaviours, forgetfulness, loss of concentration, loss of confidence, loss of interest in the things you normally enjoy, not looking after yourself, avoiding seeing people, avoiding places you went together, feeling unable to stop going to places where you feel close to them.  Many people struggle to sleep, have difficulty going to sleep or find themselves waking early. Some avoid company; others don’t want to be alone.

Physical manifestations

In the case of a sudden death physical affects can be related to trauma and stress reactions such as being jumpy or on high alert, waiting for something to happen, having intrusive images or even flashbacks. Also frequent are typical anxiety symptoms, such as stomach churning, heart racing, shaking and being hypersensitive to noise. Nightmares or disturbed dreams can also be common, as can weight changes and tiredness, often associated with not looking after ourselves so well. Sometimes people worry about developing similar symptoms to the person who has died. Often physical ill health can be a symptom of grief.

All of these feelings, thoughts, sensations and behaviours are normal.  It’s important to recognise that you need to take care and look after yourself  more than you would normally.

Grief process

Much work has been done looking at the process of grief. There is a consensus of opinion that we may move through different stages as we experience our grief. Some people talk about the stages of grief as; shock or denial, the overwhelming chaos of emotion including anger, guilt, despair; the flatness and feeling of depression that comes with the realisation that this is the reality of what has happened. Finally there is a move towards finding a way to continue with living whilst retaining the bond with the person you have lost.

The psychologist J. William Worden talks in terms of the the 'tasks' that need to be performed:

  • To accept the reality of the loss, where feelings of shock and numbness are present
  • To work through to the pain of grief, involving feelings of guilt, anger, high distress, regrets
  • To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing, where the reality of what has happened may sink in and a feeling of flatness may often pervade
  • To emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life, where a re-engagement with life is activated whilst at the same time finding a way to keep the memories close.

More recently research has recognised that in order to grieve in a healthy way we need to both spend time in grieving for the person and somehow continue to live and to function. This work by Stroebe suggests that it’s as if we oscillate between the two. Stroebe suggests that if a person spends all of their time grieving and not engaging with life, or all their time pushing the grief away, neither position enables them to move forward and recover.

Work with grieving mothers in New Zealand has acknowledged that some deaths, particularly that of a child, do not abate with time. What happens over time is that the bereaved person finds a way to grow or expand their life around their grief in order to continue living.

It is helpful to find a way of keeping your bond with the person who has died. This is talked about in the literature as 'continuing bonds'. The ‘continuing bond’ is all about finding what comforts the bereaved person and connects them in a deep meaningful way to the person who has died.

Most often these are in the form or treasured objects. Sometimes this connection can be maintained through taking on some of their habits or hobbies, sometimes through adopting some of their role within the family or circle of friends. Sometimes it’s about retaining or developing friendships that they had with others or maintaining grief rituals that honour the memory of the person who died.

What can you do to help yourself

Talk to your close family and friends, especially those that you feel understand.

Don’t listen to those who say you 'should be doing better than you are’.

Tell yourself that you are normal for feeling the way that you do.

Find ways to continue your bond with the person, it may be engaging in things that they used to do - for example cooking, DIY, becoming the one within the family who organises get togethers - or carrying out an activity the deceased would have appreciated your taking part in - for example a charity walk. Be kind to yourself.

If you feel that you are not coping

Visit your GP.

Don’t go back to work too soon.

Talk to someone close to you.

You could be referred for grief counselling.  Sometimes it is helpful to talk to someone outside of your family and friends and it can be helpful to retell your story over and over again. This can help you to make sense of how you are feeling and it can help to normalise your feelings.

Not everyone finds it helpful to talk. Sometimes it can be more useful to keep busy.  This is fine,  providing that you are not pushing things away so that they build up to a point where you feel you are going to explode. It can be helpful to have an outlet when you feel like this, maybe a good friend to talk to or possibly some professional help.

Where to go for help

CRUSE Bereavement Care
The national telephone helpline 0844 477 9400 is open for calls from 9.30am to 5pm working days, and until 7pm on Mondays and Wednesdays, answered mainly by a team of trained volunteers.  They have a lot of information available to them and will give information about benefits, listen to your story and give you information about Cruse locally where you live.

The Compassionate Friends UK
National Helpline 0845 123 2304 is available for support and information daily from 10.00am to 4.00pm and 7.00pm to 10.00pm.  The line is always answered by a bereaved parent. TCF is a charitable organisation of bereaved parents, siblings and grandparents dedicated to the support of and care of other bereaved parents, siblings and grandparents who have suffered the death of a child / children.

Winston’s Wish
Winston's Wish national helpline 08452 030405 offers support, information and guidance to all those caring for a child or young person who has been bereaved.

The WAY Foundation
WAY aims to support young widowed men and women as they adjust to life after the death of their partner – whether that was a month, a year, or ten years ago.
Tel: 0300 012 4929, email: [email protected]

Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS)
Exists to meet the needs and break the isolation of those bereaved by the suicide of a close relative or friend.  SOBS is a self-help organisation.  Many of our volunteers have themselves been bereaved by suicide.
National Helpline - 0844 561 6855 9am to 9pm every day.

Find out more about the contributors to this article and the Division of Counselling Psychology.

Some useful books

The 8 Keys to Trauma Recovery by Babette Rothschild
Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss by Hope Edelman
Courage to Grieve: Creative Living, Recovery and Growth Through Grief by Judy Tatelbaum
Overcoming Grief by Sue Morris
Living on the Seabed: A Memoir of Love, Life and Survival by Lindsay Nicholson
A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis