Bereavement means, literally, to be deprived by death. After someone close to you dies, you go through a process of mourning. Numbness, anger and sadness can all be part of that process. Bereavement can also cause physical reactions including sleeplessness, loss of energy and loss of appetite.
Grief is Normal
When someone is bereaved, they usually experience an intense feeling of sorrow - grief. People grieve in order to accept a deep loss and carry on with their life. Experts believe that if you do not grieve at the time of death, or shortly after, the grief may stay bottled up inside you. This can cause emotional problems or physical illness later on. Working through your grief can be a painful process, but it is often necessary to ensure your future emotional and physical well-being.
The Stages of Grief
There is no single way to grieve. Everyone is different and each person grieves in his or her own way. However, some stages of grief are commonly experienced by people when they are bereaved. There is no set timescale for these stages to be reached, but it can be helpful to be aware of the stages and to consider that intense emotions and swift changes in mood are normal.
Feeling emotionally numb is often the first reaction to a loss, and may last for a few hours, days or longer. In some ways, this numbness can help you get through the practical arrangements and family pressures that surround the funeral, but if this phase goes on for too long, it could be a problem.
The numbness may be replaced by a deep yearning for the person who has died. You may feel agitated or angry, and find it difficult to concentrate, relax or sleep. You may also feel guilty, dwelling on arguments you had with that person or on emotions and words you wished you had expressed.
This period of strong emotion usually gives way to bouts of intense sadness, silence and withdrawal from family and friends. During this time, you may be prone to sudden outbursts of tears, set off by reminders and memories of the dead person.
Over time, the pain, sadness and depression starts to lessen. You begin to see your life in a more positive light again, although it is important to acknowledge that you may not completely overcome the feeling of loss.
The final phase of grieving is to let go of the person who has died and move on with your life. This helps sadness to clear, and your sleeping patterns and energy levels to return to normal.
Children and Bereavement
Children are aware when a loved one dies and they feel that loss in much the same way as adults do. Children go through similar stages of grief, although they may progress through them more quickly. Understandably, some people try to protect children from the death and grieving process. But in fact, it is better to be honest with children about your own grief, and encourage them to talk about feelings of pain and distress in their turn.
How Long Does Grieving Take?
The grieving process can take time and should not be hurried. How long it takes depends on you and your situation. In general, though, it takes most people one to two years to recover from a major bereavement.
Coping with the Grief Process
There are many things you can do to help yourself cope during this time. Ask for help and support from family, friends or a support group. Try to express whatever you are feeling, be it anger, guilt or sadness. Accept that some things, like death, are beyond your control. Avoid making major decisions - your judgment may be off kilter and changes could increase your stress levels. Give yourself the time and space to grieve. By doing so, you are able to mourn properly and avoid problems in the future.
What if You Aren't Coping?
Sometimes, the grieving process is especially difficult. Some people may find it impossible to acknowledge the bereavement at all, which can mean that their feelings are not worked through properly. Others may be unable to move on from their grief, making it impossible to rebuild their lives. Certain factors can make a difficult bereavement more likely:
- being male
- several previous bereavements
- a history of mental illness, such as depression, anxiety or previous suicide attempts
- a dependent relationship with the person who has died, or a relationship where you had troubled or negative feelings about the deceased
- low self-esteem
- a lack of support from family and friends
Bereavement can also cause particular problems for the bereaved in certain circumstances around the death. These can include:
- a sudden or unexpected death
- the death of a parent when you are a child or adolescent
- miscarriage or the death of a baby
- death due to AIDS or suicide
- the death of a co-habitating partner, same sex partner or partner from an extra-marital relationship, where the relationship may not be legally recognized or accepted by family and friends
- a death involving murder, legal proceedings or media coverage
- deaths where the bereaved may be responsible
- situations where a post mortem or an inquest is required
- more than one death at once (for example, in an accident)
Helping Family or Friends
If somebody in your family or a friend has been bereaved, the best thing you can do is spend time with them, and listen to them work through their grief. Offer practical help, such as cooking dinner or shopping for food - when a person is grieving, it is usually hard to focus on everyday tasks. Finally, if the person is reacting in extreme ways for a prolonged period, encourage him or her to seek professional help.