After a death you may initially feel shocked, numb, guilty, angry, afraid and full of pain. These feelings may change to feelings of longing, sadness, loneliness − even hopelessness and fear about the future. These feelings are not unnatural, or wrong. They are all ‘normal’ reactions to what may be the most difficult experience of your life. Over time these feelings should lessen. Every person’s experience of grief is unique, but these are some of the things people often say following a bereavement.
‘I don’t feel anything. I feel numb.’
The shock can make you feel numb. You may feel confused and lost. This should pass with time. You may find initially you can carry on as if nothing has happened. This is a way of managing the pain and loss and can help you get through the early days when there is so much to do.
‘I feel out of control. My emotions are all over the place − one minute I’m OK, the next minute I’m in tears.’
Mood swings can be very frightening but they are normal. You may feel as if you are on an emotional roller coaster. You may feel overwhelmed and find it difficult to do even everyday tasks. It can be hard to concentrate. Some people find it helpful to throw themselves into work; others find they need to take some time out of day-to-day life and activities. Everyone needs to find their own way of coping.
‘I can’t eat or sleep.’
Physical reactions to a death are very common. You may lose your appetite, have difficulty sleeping, or feel exhausted all the time. People are also often very vulnerable to physical illnesses after a bereavement. If you are not sleeping well, you may feel mentally drained and unable to think straight. These are normal reactions to distress and loss, and should pass in time. But you may want to consult your GP if the problems persist.
‘I keep hearing his voice. I’m worried that I’m going mad.’
It may take you some time to grasp what has happened. Don’t worry. It is quite normal to see the person, to hear their voice, or find yourself talking to them, especially if they were an important presence in your life. It can often happen when you least expect it, as if your mind has temporarily ‘forgotten’ that they have died.
‘I feel such pain. I keep on thinking again and again about what happened. I keep going over every detail of her last few days.’
This again is a common reaction, particularly where the death was sudden and unexpected, or occurred in traumatic circumstances. It is the mind’s way of dealing with what has happened. You may feel immense emotional pain − some people can find this overwhelming and frightening.
‘I feel so guilty.’
A lot of people talk to us about feelings of guilt − for being alive, when the person is dead; for not having somehow prevented their death; for having let them down in some way. You may find yourself constantly thinking: ‘If only…’ If only I had contacted the doctor sooner, if only I had showed them how much I cared when they were alive. You may be constantly asking yourself ‘why?’ Why them? Why did this happen to us? Why didn’t I do more? Death can seem cruel and unfair. It can make people feel powerless and helpless. These emotions can be very painful to live with, but feeling guilty will not help. It is important to try to focus on the good times, and not to dwell on things in the past that you cannot change.
‘I feel so depressed. Life has no meaning without her. I can’t see the point of going on.’
Hopelessness and despair are understandable reactions when someone who has been a central part of your life dies. It is not unusual for people facing bereavement to think about their own death, and even think about taking their own life as a way of escaping the pain. It is important to talk to people you trust about these thoughts, and to remember that life does go on, and while there will always be someone missing in your life, there are many things that are worth living for. It may be helpful to talk through these feelings of hopelessness and despair with someone experienced in bereavement support or bereavement counselling.
‘I feel so angry with him. How could he leave me like this?’
You may find yourself facing family, financial and domestic responsibilities with which you don’t feel able to cope. You may feel very angry that suddenly you have to deal with all these things. You may feel angry with someone you feel is responsible in some way for the death. Anger is a completely normal part of grief. It is a perfectly healthy and understandable response to feeling out of control, powerless and abandoned.
‘Everyone just vanished after the funeral. Now friends won’t look me in the eye when I see them in the street, and no one calls round any more.’
Friends and acquaintances may seem to be avoiding you, particularly once the funeral is over. This is often because they don’t know how to behave or what to say. You may want to talk about the person who has died, and find that people keep trying to change the subject, or suggest that it is ‘bad for you’ to talk about them so much. Talking about the person who has died is an important part of the grieving process, and hopefully there are people in your life who will listen and understand, and be able to share your memories.
‘I can’t concentrate at work.’
People can find it hard to concentrate following a death, which may create difficulties at work. Explain this to your manager. You may be able to come to some temporary arrangement about shorter working hours, or other ways of helping you through this difficult time.
‘I thought I’d be over this by now. It’s been months and I still find myself bursting into tears.’
Sometimes it is just when you think you should be feeling better that you feel as if you are falling apart. In the early days following a bereavement, family and friends often rally around and it is only later, when everyone has gone home and you are left with your grief, that the reality of the death hits you. The physical and emotional loneliness can be very hard to bear. There is no time limit on grief. If you feel that you are struggling with your emotions or that you are not coping with life, then it may be time to seek help and support.
‘Since our mum died my sister and I row all the time.’
Even close family members who are sharing the same loss will respond differently to a bereavement. Everyone has their own way of grieving, and their own ways of showing and coping with their feelings, but sometimes this can be hard for others to understand. A death can bring people together, but it can also create huge tensions and strains within families. Conflicts can emerge − for example, about funeral arrangements, legacies and responsibilities for dealing with the dead person’s possessions and property.
‘I don’t know how I’ll cope with the anniversary of her death.’
You may be particularly affected on and near significant anniversaries for many years after a death. Some people find it helpful to plan in advance what they are going to do on those days, to avoid feeling left alone with their emotions. Some people create a tradition of visiting special places that remind them of the person who has died. Others find this too painful. There is no right and wrong way to mark these anniversaries. You need to find the way that is right for you.
If you need reassurance, or information, or simply to talk to someone, ring the Cruse national helpline on 0844 477 9400.
(With acknowledgements to Cruse)
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