Understanding and coping with the loss of a loved one

Written with the support of Health Assured.
Clinically reviewed on 1/4/2022 by Bryony Lathbury

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Coping with everything that’s going on isn’t easy. We’ve all had to learn a whole new way of life over the past few years, and a lot of the forced changes aren’t comfortable. The worst part, though, is losing the people we love. It's hard. And nothing can really prepare you for it.

What we want to say to you is that help is available, and we'd like to share it. Our counselling and advice partner, Health Assured, has support channels for anyone facing loss and bereavement. And they’ve worked with us to provide the following guide. Hopefully, we answer the questions you have about what you may be going through.

In this article, you’ll find answers to the following questions:

  • What is bereavement?
  • What are the stages of grief?
  • What will I feel going through a bereavement?
  • What methods can help me deal with a death?

What is bereavement?

As Health Assured shares, a bereavement is when a loved one passes away. They also point out that each of us may feel grief at different times. For some, it'll hit us when we hear the news. For others, it may be days, weeks, or even years later. It's normal to feel pain when we lose someone. There's no "right time" to grieve. And there's no "right way" to grieve, either.

It's important to give yourself space to grieve in your own way.

What are the stages of grief?

Most experts agree that there are four stages of bereavement:

  • Acceptance: your loss is real
  • Experience: feeling the pain of grief
  • Adjustment: adapting to life without the person you've lost
  • Progress: this is where the grief and loss take up less of your emotional energy. (Some call it moving on)

When we lose someone, most of us go through the majority of these stages. But that doesn't mean you'll experience them in this order. And it's not always a smooth transition from one to the next, either. You may find you go back and forth between stages for a while, too.

Health Assured explains, "Your grief might feel chaotic and out of control, but these feelings will eventually become less intense. Give yourself time, as they will pass."

Part of processing grief is working through the emotions that arise. It's so important to do so. Bottling things up can lead to unexpected issues later on. 

What will I feel going through a bereavement?

  • Shock and numbness. Many people describe their first reaction in the moments after hearing the news of a death as "being in a daze". We probably expect to be shocked if a death was unexpected. But even when someone has been ill for some time and their death is expected, it can be a shock when they pass. Shock affects each of us differently. Some people find they can't concentrate on even basic tasks. Other people find it helps to focus on the practical side of things, like planning the funeral.
  • Disbelief. It's completely normal to feel a sense of disbelief when we lose someone. Even more so if we didn't have a chance to say goodbye. Many people report that it takes longer to accept the news if it was sudden.
  • Overwhelming sadness. Most of us probably expect to feel sad when we lose someone. In fact, Health Assured says that this is the healthy response to bereavement. "In times of difficulty, it is actually more healthy to allow yourself to feel sad than to pretend nothing has happened." Don't be hard on yourself and try to "pull yourself together". Emotions cause a chemical reaction in our bodies, and some experts believe that emotional crying is the body’s way of processing and getting rid of these chemicals. It's a good idea to ask for help. Speaking to someone you trust can help you work through what you're feeling. You may even find your mental health improves if you do.
  • Exhaustion or fatigue. When we lose someone we love, we experience emotional trauma. It can be physically draining. Many people also struggle to sleep after losing someone, which can compound the fatigue.
  • Anger. Losing someone can make us angry. You may feel angry with the person who's died for leaving. You may feel blame for someone else (or even yourself). You may feel a sense of loss of control. Or it may feel astoundingly unfair. Health Assured assures us that these feelings are normal. "It’s important not to bottle up your anger," they advise. They also recommend talking to someone who isn't emotionally involved in your loss. It can help.
  • Guilt. It’s normal to feel guilty when you lose someone. We accuse ourselves of all sorts of things. Don't be too hard on yourself if you're angry and then feel guilty about being angry. It's normal to have regrets about things you did or didn't say. And many people feel guilty about not being able to save the person they loved from dying.
  • Anxiety or fear. Another normal emotion after loss is fear or anxiety. Losing a loved one can impact our lives in many ways. You may have new financial concerns. Or perhaps you may struggle to cope with the tasks they used to do.
  • Loneliness. Health Assured explains that "one of the most painful aspects of the grieving process can be loneliness. We expect to be sad, but the feeling of loneliness has its own and subtly different kind of pain." Even when you feel alone, it's important to remember that you're not alone. There are people in your life who love and support you. And counselling is available. Speaking to someone can make an enormous difference and help you get through the hardest times.
  • Longing. You'll miss the person you lost. Sometimes, you'll think you hear them, or imagine you see them walking past. It can happen when you don't expect it - sometimes years after their death. These experiences can trigger all the emotions we've shared here and more. Make sure you're looking after yourself so that your body is prepared to support you while your mind tries to cope. 

How do I cope with loss?

You can't predict how you’ll react. Health Assured explains, "It’s impossible to know how bereavement will affect you until it happens. People react in different ways – it’s important to know that this is normal."

Be compassionate with yourself. Allow yourself the freedom to experience and process your loss in a way that makes sense for you.

Here are some ways people find useful for coping with grief:

  • Crying
  • Being alone
  • Being with people who love you
  • Finding outlets for creative expression
  • Going for long walks
  • Getting exercise
  • Talking to someone

Remember, everyone has their own way of coping. Some might find that crying helps. Others might want to be alone. It’s important to allow ourselves to express grief in whatever way we feel is needed.

Understand the feeling of guilt

If you’re feeling a sense of guilt, that’s perfectly normal. Health Assured point out that many people feel guilt after losing someone. Whether you feel you could have done more or you're struggling with 'survivor's guilt', it’s okay to feel that way. It's a natural part of the grieving process. Let yourself understand the feeling, and if needed, talk it through with someone.

Don’t rush the process

Grieving is a slow process. Life after the death of a loved one is forever different. Time doesn't take that away. But it teaches you that you're resilient. You can cope. You can adapt. Over time, you'll discover new ways to be okay. At first, it might seem disloyal to the one you've lost. But in time, you may start to see it as a tribute to their memory and the joy they've given you.

Enjoy the memories

Another valuable method is to allow yourself the joy of your memories. Share these with a trusted friend or counsellor. It’s good to remember the happy times. Cruse Bereavement Care has noted the healthy ways to keep their memory alive:

  • Talk about them
  • Share your special memories
  • Write down your memories
  • Keep an album of photos
  • Keep a collection of some of their special possessions
  • Do something that commemorates them. Plant a tree. Sponsor a park bench. Support their favourite charity

Look after yourself

When you've just lost someone, the last thing you're likely to think of is how to look after yourself. The first thing to do is to let yourself feel what you feel. To quote Health Assured: "Grieving is hard work; exhausting and stressful."

Get enough rest. Exercise. Avoid alcohol - don't try to numb the pain with alcohol. It solves nothing and doesn't last. If you're struggling, speak to someone you trust. It helps.

Be prepared

Health Assured make a very good point:

"Plan ahead: the first year following a bereavement is hard. And after that year, the anniversaries begin. It’s important to prepare for the impact these can bring. Plan any time off work you need, and think about ways to commemorate those times."

Keep a few small reminders of how important that person was to you - it can help.

Also, remember that you're likely to feel stress after you've lost someone. There are many aspects of a relationship. When you lose someone you love, it can feel like these unravel. Be gentle with yourself. Slow down if you need to.


Whatever you do, give yourself time.

You're stronger than you think, and you will come out the other side of this.

And always remember to talk to someone

Health Assured has some great advice for processing loss:

"You may find that sharing your loss with others helps it to become more ‘real’. Many people find that they feel better when they have expressed their feelings openly. Use your support system, or speak to a professional counsellor at any time of the day or night."

"With counselling, communication is always a two-way process. It’s non-judgemental and it focuses on the problems and difficulties you identify. Most importantly, counselling gives you an opportunity to be heard, time to talk, cry, shout or just think. It may help you to look at your problems in a different way or bring relief by being able to talk to someone without being interrupted. It can also help you to sort out some of your feelings and confusion as a result of your loved one’s death."

You’re not alone

You shouldn’t struggle alone. Whether you’re going through anxiety, stress, loss, or grief, please reach out. Talking about how you’re feeling to others, such as family, friends or your GP, can help you come to terms with your loss. There are also support groups available, and plenty of websites out there which provide advice and guidance on grief and how to get help and counselling if you need it.

Take all the time you need to grieve. People are there for you. 

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