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What is bereavement?

Dealing with the loss of someone to whom you were very close – whether it’s your partner, a family member, or a friend – is bound to be difficult. You may find this loss impacts all aspects of your life. Bereavement is the term used to describe the time we spend adjusting to that loss.

There is no standard time limit and no right or wrong way to grieve. People respond in a variety of ways, often in ways unexpected to them. Common responses to grief are insomnia, anger, numbness, despair, sudden weight loss, but sometimes the grieving process – which can go on for a very long time – can turn into depression, where instead of waves of sadness, the feeling is endless, unrelenting and complicated, perhaps with additional strong feelings of guilt and worthlessness.

Bereavement should not necessarily be viewed as a time for recovery. Losing someone close to us might be the hardest thing any of us have to go through, and you may not recover in the sense of returning to who you were before the loss. Grief is a process which may leave lasting changes, so it is best to treat this time as one of acceptance, adjustment and remembrance.

What are the stages of bereavement?

As mentioned above, there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Most people will touch on the following stages, though not necessarily in the same intensity or order:

  • Experiencing emotions. Grief is not just one feeling, it is a whole succession of different and sometimes contradictory feelings. They may come in the form of sorrow, self-blame, anger, worthlessness, hopelessness, loneliness, numbness, despair, but grief is very unique to the individual. Whatever you are feeling, it is important to let yourself work through these emotions, without trying to suppress them, as painful as that may be.
  • Trying to adjust. This stage, like all others, will depend on the relationship you had with the person you lost. If they were part of your daily life, the changes will be numerous and so adjusting to life without them could take a long time and be very testing. Allow yourself the time and eventually you will feel more capable to carry on daily life without them.
  • Acceptance. It can be very difficult to understand that a person is no longer with you - this process can take time and acceptance can feel like it comes and goes before really sinking in.
  • Moving on. You may think about the person and grieve their loss forever, but you will, in time, begin to move on. When this happens, it is important not to let feelings of guilt build up. This is not a betrayal of your loved one’s memory, it is a natural progression; you have simply found a way to cope.

People may find themselves stuck on a particular stage, feeling unable to move on. If you or a loved one is in this situation it might be worth considering getting professional support. If you have started self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, have suicidal thoughts, have been acting recklessly or violently after a loss you should consider seeing a bereavement counsellor. You can learn more about bereavement counselling below. 

What can I do to support myself?

Though it may seem very difficult to take care of yourself following a bereavement, it is important that you do. One of the most helpful things you can do is to talk about the person you have lost, whether you talk to a GP, a friend, family member or counsellor. Talk about your memories and feelings, this will help you to process and cope. It is important not to isolate yourself or try to cope with the wealth of feelings you are going through alone. Be open to asking people for support and help when you need it, this is not a sign of weakness. Try to eat properly and get enough rest. Importantly, practice self-compassion and allow yourself the time and space to grieve in your own way. 

But don't feel guilty at moments of ‘forgetting’ or when you find yourself laughing or enjoying yourself. As one therapist put it: "Remembering is so painful that we try to forget; forgetting is so painful that we have to remember." This is the process of mourning and coping and not a reflection of our love.

What can I do to support a loved one who is bereaved?

You may feel helpless when a loved one is bereaved. It can be extremely difficult to know what to say and do and you might find yourself wanting to avoid the situation altogether, but it is important that you don't. Simply being there for the person who is grieving is the best thing you can do. Make yourself available, whether that's for a face-to-face meet up or just a letter or phone call. Be accepting and non-judgemental to the person's grieving process – try not to be alarmed if they display uncharacteristic emotions. Encourage them to talk and actively listen to them, they might want to talk about the person they lost or go over specific moments. Be considerate of painful anniversaries, such as birthdays and wedding anniversaries and make contact at these times to show your support. Be aware that the grieving process can take a long time, and your loved one will likely need your patience. It is important to not put pressure on them to move on. 

It can be very emotionally draining caring for someone who is grieving, so make sure you take care of yourself too.

What is bereavement counselling?

Like all forms of counselling and therapy, bereavement counselling offers a safe and non-judgemental space where you will find support and learn coping strategies. Bereavement counselling will help you understand your unique grieving process and help you overcome barriers which might be preventing you from moving on, such as feelings of guilt, responsibility or areas of conflict which you have not been able to resolve yourself. Bereavement counselling can be very useful in helping you to accept your new reality, helping you to come to terms with your new sense of self.

It is particularly important to seek support from a bereavement counsellor if your grief has turned into depression. Indicators that this might be the case include insomnia, sudden weight loss, suicidal thoughts, erratic and reckless behaviour. 

Bereavement counselling provides a space in which you can remember your loved one, talk about your feelings openly and eventually learn how to function normally once again. The right support and guidance from a trained professional can be an invaluable help following a bereavement. 

Find a bereavement counsellor

Further reading

Bereavement counselling helped my whole family

Why am I still crying? Understanding complicated grief

11 ways getting a dog helped with my bereavement

Cultural differences in death and grief

How Prince Harry was helped with bereavement counselling

This is why we need to talk more about grief

Last updated on 29 March 2022