Understanding Grief in Adults

Everyone experiences bereavement at some point in their life – whether it’s the death of a parent, family member, friend or a child. Grief describes the feelings that we may have when someone close to us dies.  The death of someone close can be a shattering experience and whether the death has been sudden or expected, we can find ourselves confused by the mix of, and strength of, emotions. The early days following death can be a chaotic time as we try to come to terms with the death, cope with the grief of other family members or friends, and perhaps deal with all the practical issues as well. 

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There is no right way to grieve. Grief is very personal and even within a family, group of friends or amongst colleagues, people can experience very different feelings and reactions to the same death. However, there are some experiences that are not uncommon and it can be helpful to know that others have shared these.

This section explains how you may feel when someone dies.

It is important to give yourself time to grieve. People sometimes describe the early days of grieving as being like a nightmare – we think we will wake up and find it has been a bad dream. It takes time to accept the reality of what has happened, and it is important to allow yourself that time. Talking about the person who has died, looking at photographs and sharing stories will often help.

Among all the feelings of sadness and loss, there can often be a feeling of panic about the things that need to be done. People may want to help but there may be things which need your attention and which you wish to take control of yourself - try not to let others rush you into making decisions.  It might help to make a list of the various tasks then decide what you want to do yourself and what others could do for you.

You may have family and friends visiting, and while it is helpful to talk with them, there may be times when you just want peace. Those who care about you will offer advice - sometimes conflicting advice.  In the midst of all that, it can be quite hard to find time to be quiet and alone!

You need to do things your way. There is no easy way to get through these early days of grieving. Faced with the loss of someone close to us, we find that all the markers of what was normal seem to have changed. Some people feel as though they are on a rollercoaster and find it hard to make sense of it all.

People often report a range of feelings, including:

  • shock
  • numbness
  • disbelief
  • helplessness
  • being overwhelmed

As we swing between the sadness of our grief and remembering the good times, we can feel that our emotions are in turmoil and wonder if they will ever settle again. 

While some people may busy themselves in different aspects of their life, others may find it difficult to maintain any kind of routine. Both are normal.

Even when we are able to respond to the demands of our everyday life, there will be times when we are overtaken by strong emotions such as longing, helplessness, sadness, anger and guilt.

People may also begin to think about their own death; they may have thoughts of suicide as a way of escaping the pain or to be with the one who has died. We need to know that it is ok to experience and to talk about these thoughts, whatever other people may say.

After the death of someone close, it is not unusual to experience illness and physical symptoms. Often people find difficulty sleeping or their appetite may change. They may not have much energy or struggle to concentrate.

While all these feelings are normal, if you are concerned about any continuing illness, physical pain or change in your behaviour, it is best to check this with your doctor.

Following the funeral, as other people return to their own lives, the feeling of emptiness can become all too real. This is the time when the reality that death robs us of someone who was important to us strikes home. Physical loneliness is hard. The empty chair that faces us across a room can be a constant reminder of our loss; but the emotional loneliness is very much harder - the fact that when we are with a group of other people, even with our own family, we can feel totally and utterly alone.

It is normal to feel this very deep and painful emotion, which it often seems nobody else can understand. People have described this as like a weight dragging them down, like a knot in the pit of their stomach, or like being in a very dark hole.

Often, we long for the person who has died and it is not uncommon to be reminded of them, or feel their presence, when we hear a particular piece of music, see certain things or smell certain smells. We may feel surprise that these things can awaken such emotions in us, even after several weeks or even months. Sometimes the initial emotional responses, perhaps feeling angry or crying, come back just at the point when we thought we were beginning to move on. It can be quite unnerving to feel that we are not coping as well as we thought we were, but this is part of our own safety system. We can only deal with so much grief at a time.

There will be times when we feel we are making progress, and others when we find ourselves right back in the depth of our grief. Occasions such as anniversaries, birthdays and festivals may make the pain feel as sharp as ever. It will help to plan for such events and be ready for the feelings of sadness which can swamp us once more.

One of the best ways we can help ourselves on the journey of grief is to talk - to share with others the story of the person who has died and to speak about our relationship with them. We may do this with friends or family, with a doctor or someone from a faith group, or any trusted person in whom we can confide.

We may feel guilty when we stop grieving, but we need to live as well as to grieve. It is an important part of the journey of recovery from grief to start to reconnect with other people and with our life before the death. Initially, other people may try to involve us before we are ready, and it is easy to get into a habit of saying “no” to invitations. If you do not want to go somewhere, or do something, explain that the time is not right, but ask people to invite you again. When you are ready, take people up on their offers and accept the help they can give.

If you are involved in supporting other members of your family, friends or colleagues in their grief, then it is important to remember that you also need to look after yourself. Try to protect some time for you - time when you can be in touch with your own emotions and visit your own memories.

It can be difficult returning to work after a bereavement and it may be helpful to discuss with your employer what you would like people to know and what would help you to make the return easier for you.  There is information for workplaces on the website which may be of help to them in supporting you. 

Remember that grief takes time. Other people may suggest you should be “getting over it” but only you know what pace is right for you. If you feel you would like to talk to someone about your grief - we are here to help. Our trained, compassionate and experienced volunteers are available to offer this kind of support.

If you would like to know more, please visit our self-care leaflets