Bereavement: key facts
Bereavement is our experience of grief when someone we care
about has died.
It isn't just one feeling but a range of
different emotions. We feel them most in the months – often up
to 2 years, sometimes longer – after the death.
After this, although life is very different,
most people manage to come to terms with their loss.
We most often grieve for someone that we have
known for some time. But if you have had a stillbirth, or
miscarriage, or have lost a very young baby, you will go through
many of the same emotions.
What feelings am I likely to have?
There is no ‘standard’ way of
grieving. Cultures and individuals have their own beliefs and
ceremonies. However, they all share many experiences.
You might feel:
Numb: Particularly in the few
hours or days following the death. You feel simply stunned, as
though you can't believe it has actually happened.
Agitated: After a few days
the numbness usually wears off. You feel a sense of agitation, of
pining or yearning for the dead person. You want somehow to find
them, even though you know you can't. You find it difficult to
relax, concentrate or sleep properly. You may dream, see fleeting
visions or hear the voice of your loved one.
Angry: You can feel
very angry - towards doctors and nurses who did not prevent the
death, towards friends and relatives who did not do enough, or even
towards the person who has died because they have gone.
Guilty: You may find yourself
going over all the things you would have liked to have said or
done. You may wonder if you could have prevented the death, even
though death is usually beyond anyone’s control.
Relieved: You may feel
relieved if your loved one has died after a painful or distressing
illness. This is not callous – it is common and understandable.
Sad: After the weeks of
strong feelings, you may gradually become quietly sad and
withdrawn. You feel less agitated but may have more
periods of depression. These peak between four and six weeks
Reflective: For several
months, other people may see you as spending a lot of time just
sitting, doing nothing. In fact, you are thinking about the person
you have lost, going over in your mind your memories of the times
you had together. This is a quiet, but essential part of coming to
terms with the death.
You are becoming whole again:
As time passes, the fierce pain of early bereavement fades, the
sadness lifts and you start to think about other things and look to
the future. Although the sense of having lost a part of yourself
never goes away entirely, after some time you can feel whole
Like letting go: You finally
“let go” of the person who has died and start a new sort of life.
The sadness lifts; you sleep better, start to feel more energetic
and may find that your sexual feelings now return.
What if I can't come to terms with it?
- You may have problems if you can't grieve properly at the time
of your loss because of family or business commitments. Some people
don’t appear to grieve at all and return quickly to their normal
life, but then, years later, have odd physical symptoms or
spells of depression.
- If you have had a stillbirth, miscarriage or abortion, other
people may not understand why you feel so deeply about it. This can
make you feel very alone and low.
- You may start to grieve, but get stuck. The early sense of
shock and disbelief goes on. Years may pass and still you find it
hard to believe that the person you loved is dead.
- You may find that you can’t think of anything else, perhaps
making the room of the dead person into a shrine.
- Occasionally, you may feel so low that you have thoughts of
killing yourself and may even stop eating and drinking.
- Bereavement can affect your physical health, with an increased
risk of cancer and heart disease. Some older people may die very
soon after their partner or spouse has died.
If you have been bereaved by suicide, see our main Bereavement leaflet for extra help.
What help can I get?
If you find it hard to come to terms with the
loss of a loved one, voluntary or religious organisations may be
able to help. Meeting and talking to people who have been through
the same experience might be enough. If not, you might want to see
a bereavement counsellor or psychotherapist, in a group or on your
own. Your GP can help you to find one.
If you can't sleep for a while, sleeping
tablets from your doctor may help – but only for a few days. If the
depression gets worse, affecting your appetite, energy and sleep,
your GP should be able to arrange counselling or antidepressants. If the depression gets
worse, despite treatment, you may need to see a
How can I help someone who has been
- Spend time with the bereaved person so they feel less alone
with their grief.
- Let them, if they want to, cry with you and talk about their
- Don't tell them to pull themselves together.
- Help out with practical things.
- Try to be around at particularly painful times, such as
- Give them time to grieve.
For more in-depth information see our main
This leaflet reflects the most up-to-date evidence at the time
Produced by the RCPsych Public Education Editorial Board.
Series Editor: Dr Philip Timms
Reviewed by Sally Dean
© February 2014. Due for review: February 2016. Royal
College of Psychiatrists. You can link to, download, print,
photocopy and distribute this leaflet free of charge. But you must
not change it or repost it on a website.
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