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Coping with grief

Coping with cancer

Read about coping with grief after the death of someone close to you. There is information about


What is grief?

When a close friend or relative dies, you go through a normal process called grieving. We grieve after any sort of loss in our lives. But it is most powerful when someone we love dies.

Grieving is not just one feeling, and it usually involves a range of different feelings. Over time, it can help you accept and understand your loss.

Grief is a very personal thing and there is no right or wrong way to react. But we have tried to put together some information for you on the different reactions people have. It can help to realise that others feel the same way in similar circumstances.


The grief process

Some people say that when you are grieving, you move through different stages. But it might not feel like that to you. Instead you might seem to switch back and forth between feeling very upset, and then feeling better or focusing on something else. So at times, you will be facing up to and confronting strong feelings about your loss. And at other times you will be avoiding these feelings, and you may focus on other activities. This can be a way of coping, and can stop you becoming overwhelmed.

The way you grieve is also affected by other factors. These include your relationship with the person, how they died, and your own life experience.


The range of emotions you may feel

When a close friend or relative has died you may have a range of feelings, which are a common part of the grief process. These feelings may include some of these.

Being shocked and numb

Immediately after the death of a close friend or relative, you may feel numb. Some people feel so shocked that they can't accept that the person has died at all, and even deny it is true. This feeling usually passes as they start to talk to other people about the death.

Agitation and longing

As the numbness passes, you might feel an overwhelming sense of agitation or longing for the person who has died. This feeling of missing the person can make it difficult to relax or concentrate. 

Some people dream that the person they've lost is still alive. Or they may walk into a room and think they've seen their loved one standing there. Some people find this disturbing, but others find it comforting. It seems to happen because we want to see the person again so much.


It’s common to feel angry. You may think it unfair that someone close to you has died. This can make you feel very angry with everything and everyone. It’s not unusual to feel angry with the person who has died, for leaving you. Or you may feel angry with other people such as doctors, for not stopping them from dying.


Some people feel guilty, going over in their mind things they would have liked to say or do before the person died. Or they feel guilty that they are still alive and for not preventing the person from dying.

Sadness or depression

To begin with you may have periods of intense sadness, where you strongly miss the person and cry aloud for them. As time passes, these may become less frequent. But you may have times of quiet sadness. Many people may feel very sad for some time after the death of someone close to them. Spending time thinking about the person you have lost can be a quiet but essential part of coming to terms with their death.

Depression is a much more intense feeling. It can stop you being able to relate to things that you previously felt were important. You may feel that you can’t be bothered with everyday things such as eating, sleeping, hygiene, social activities and work.


You might feel as though you have lost a part of yourself, and there is a big hole in your life left by the person who has died. This sense of pain and emptiness can be very intense at the beginning. It may never go away completely. But as time passes you may begin to feel whole again, even though a part of you is missing. 


Acceptance doesn't always mean you will feel happy again. But it does mean you will begin to feel able to cope with the death of your loved one. Most people who have had someone close to them die say that they never fully get over it. But they find a way to cope with it. And they can enjoy things in their life again and feel that life is worth living. Hearing this can sometimes be a relief to people who are going through the stormier stages of grief.

You will eventually be able to think about the person who died and it won’t be as painful. Everyone reaches this point at different times. You will start to feel like planning ahead and looking forward to more good times. This doesn’t mean in any way that you have less feeling for the person who has died. You will always remember and love them for what you shared together.


How long grief lasts

How long people grieve for is a very individual thing. It may be months or even years. But it won’t always be so intense. Don’t worry if you still feel very strong emotions months after a death. The first Christmas and birthday of your loved one after their death are usually very upsetting.

You may be affected around significant anniversaries for many years after someone dies. Some people find it helpful to plan something to do on those days, such as visiting a special place. Other people find it too painful to do this. You need to find your own way, which is right for you.

Some of the emotions can be very difficult to face, and some people may try to avoid the pain of grief. They may keep very busy to distract themselves from the painful loss. And some people drink more alcohol than usual or use other drugs to numb the pain. But this might slow your recovery and cause new problems.

Suggestions of how you can help yourself when you are grieving

Give yourself time to heal. The most important part of healing is to acknowledge that you are grieving. Two things that help the most with grief are time and support. You can't force yourself to feel better. It is important that you grieve for your loved one and allow yourself to feel the way you do. Here are some suggestions that may help

  • Don’t try to fight your feelings – allow time for your thoughts and feelings, both positive and negative
  • Talk to someone you trust about how your friend or relative died and how you are feeling
  • Don’t be afraid to cry a lot – crying is an important part of grief and will give you a release
  • If you have to clear out the person’s home or finish off any business they left, it can be helpful to try to do it sooner rather than later – ask a friend or relative to help
  • Remember to take care of yourself – eat well, get plenty of rest and some exercise
  • Some people find it helps to write down how they are feeling or about their loved one
  • Some people find it helps to go to a support group and talk to others who have had people close to them die
  • Be patient with yourself, it will take time and some days will be easier than others

If at any time you feel everything is just too much see your GP. They might suggest you get some grief counselling. Or you may find it useful to contact an organisation that offers support and advice to people in this situation.


Complicated grief

Bereavement can be one of the most painful experiences you ever go through. Your feelings can be incredibly powerful and overwhelming. But, despite this, it is a normal part of life, and usually people do not need help from their doctor.

But some people do need help. It can be hard to know what is normal, as everyone’s grieving process is different and personal to them. But you may find that you start to grieve and then get stuck. So the early sense of shock and disbelief may go on and on. Or you may get stuck feeling very angry, and unable to accept the death.

Some people hardly seem to grieve at all. This may be normal for them and not cause any problems. But not acknowledging feelings may cause problems, and some people develop physical symptoms or have periods of depression over the following years.

These situations are called complicated grief. They can also be called unresolved grief or delayed grief. If this happens, or if at any time you feel everything is just too much, see your GP. They might suggest

  • Putting you in touch with other people who have been through a similar experience
  • Grief counselling
  • A short course of tablets to help you sleep
  • Antidepressants

You may find it useful to contact an organisation that offers support and advice to people in this situation, such as Cruse Bereavement Care

Go to the CRUSE website


For more information

Find out about

Sadness and depression

Coping emotionally

Advanced cancer organisations

Books about coping with grief


For general information and support

Contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040 (Open 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday)

Share experiences on our online forum – Cancer Chat

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Updated: 13 May 2016