Coping with grief

Grief is very personal. You might go through a range of feelings and could sometimes feel overwhelmed. The two things that help most are time and support.

What grief is

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. It usually involves a range of different feelings. Over time, it can help you accept and understand your loss.

Everyone feels grief differently and there is no right or wrong way to react. Below is some general information about the different reactions people often have. It can help a little to realise that other people feel some of the same emotions.

The stages of grief

Some people say that you move through different stages when you are grieving. A psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, identified 5 stages of grief after someone has died:

  • denial
  • anger
  • bargaining
  • depression
  • acceptance

The 5 stages are often talked about as if they happen in order. But this isn’t always the case. 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 your loss and confronting strong feelings about it. And at other times, you will be avoiding these feelings, and you might focus on other activities. This can be a way of coping and can stop you from becoming overwhelmed.

Other things also affect the way you grieve. These include your relationship with the person, how they died and your own life experience.

Some of the emotions you might feel

When a close friend or relative has died, you might have a range of feelings that are a common part of the grief process. 

Being shocked and numb

Immediately after the death of a close friend or relative, you might feel numb. Some people feel so shocked that they can't accept that the person has died at all. They even deny that 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 you have lost. This feeling of missing the person can make it difficult to relax or concentrate. 

You might find you dream that the person is still alive. You might even walk into a room and imagine you’ve seen your loved one standing there.

Some people find this disturbing, but others find it comforting. It seems to happen because we long to see the person again.

Anger

It’s common to feel angry. For example, you might 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 could feel angry with other people, such as doctors, for not stopping them from dying.

Guilt

Some people feel guilty. They might go over things they would have liked to say or do before the person died.

You might feel guilty that you are still alive or that you couldn’t prevent the person from dying.

Or you could feel a sense of relief when the person dies, perhaps because they had been very unwell for a long time - and that feeling relieved makes you feel guilty.

It is important to know that feeling guilty is very common and not to dwell on it. 

Sadness or depression

To begin with, you might have periods of intense sadness, where you deeply miss the person and cry aloud for them. As time passes, these times might become less frequent. But you may have times of quiet sadness.

Many people can feel very sad 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 from relating to things 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.

Emptiness

You might feel as though you have lost a part of yourself. It could feel that 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 might never go away completely. But as time passes you may begin to feel whole again, even though a part of you is missing. 

Acceptance

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 lost someone close to them 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 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 that you have less feeling for the person who has died. You will always remember and love them for what you shared.

How long grief lasts

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

You might find that significant anniversaries affect you 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 way and do what’s right for you.

Some emotions can be very difficult to face, and some people might try to avoid the pain of grief. For example, they 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.

How you can help yourself when you are grieving

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 feel.
  • 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 get some exercise.
  • Some people find it helps to write down how they feel about their loved one.
  • Some people find it helps to go to a support group and talk to others who have lost people close to them.
  • Be patient with yourself. It will take time, and some days will be easier than others.

See your GP if you feel everything is just too much at any time. 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

Grief can be one of the most painful experiences you have ever gone through. Your feelings can be incredibly powerful and overwhelming. 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 might find that you start to grieve and then get stuck. So the early sense of shock and disbelief could go on and on. Or you might get stuck feeling very angry and unable to accept the death. Sometimes not acknowledging feelings does lead to problems. 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. See your GP if this happens or if you feel everything is just too much at any time. 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 might find it useful to contact an organisation that offers support and advice to people in this situation, such as Cruse Bereavement Support.

Last reviewed: 
20 Apr 2022
Next review due: 
22 Apr 2025
  • On Death and Dying
    E Kubler-Ross
    Scribner, 2014

  • Grief Reaction

    S Mughal and others

    StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 January 

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