There are no two ways about it; bereavement is devastating. Losing someone you love is the most intense and debilitating emotional pain you’re ever likely to experience. And sadly, there’s only one way to find that out – by actually losing someone…
I’ve overcome a string of devastating bereavements: my best friend committing suicide when I was 13, a brother being killed by a Tsunami; my girlfriend going to bed with a headache and dying in her sleep of a brain aneurysm; my foster father being killed in a horrific traffic accident. I’ve lost so many friends in tragic ways that I no longer have enough fingers to count them. Their numbers are still in my phone. Obviously, they will never call again, but I can’t bring myself to delete them.
Through these tragedies, I’ve learned a few things, and while there’s no definitive answer to bereavement (it’s such a deeply personal journey), there are a few practical tips that might make those earth-shattering first weeks and months a tiny bit easier to endure.
UNDERSTANDING YOUR LOSS:
Here is a non-exhaustive list of things a bereaved person may experience:
Shock – You are in shock. This is normal. Somebody you loved has died. Nothing is more shocking than that.
Numbness – It’s as if your loss is too much to bear, so as a defence, your emotions shut down.
Sadness – Obviously. But it’s hard to overstate how overwhelming this sadness can be. It eclipses everything.
Crying – Spontaneous, and uncontrolled. Sometimes you will cry yourself raw. Other people may not cry much, or at all. This is fine too. Everyone is different. There is no right or wrong here. What is wrong is to believe that crying is somehow compulsory. Do what feels right, and don’t feel guilty about it.
Guilt – Depending on the circumstances, you may blame yourself, healthcare professionals, God, the universe…
Relief – possibly – if the death followed a long, unpleasant illness.
Anxiety – We generally don’t like sudden, massive, unanticipated change. It’s unsettling.
Worry – You will worry about things that seem crazy. Nothing is crazy when you’re bereaved. You just have to live through it.
Trouble concentrating – You’ll be absent-minded, and seemingly incapable of making even the simplest decisions.
Anger – The injustice of your loss may burn fierce and bright.
Helpless – You may be crippled by grief. You need looking after. This is nothing to be ashamed of.
THE FIVE STAGES OF GRIEF:
In the late ’60s, Swiss Psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross concluded that there were five stages of grief. In relation to death, and bereavement, they are as follows:
Denial – What’s happened is so awful, your mind refuses to accept it as true.
Anger – Denial gives way to the second stage; anger. Anger arises from the suddenness and perceived injustice of the loss.
Bargaining – you make deals on what you’re willing to sacrifice in order to have your loved one back. This is the stage of “if only” statements.
Depression – The reality of your loss has set in now. You know they are never coming back. This often leads to a period of depression.
Acceptance – You’ve passed through the other stages and now accept the permanent reality of the loss you suffered.
COPING STRATEGIES: Take Time To Grieve: Take time off school/college/ work etc. to grieve properly. Nothing is more important than your physical and mental health. Whether you’re around family and friends, or on your own, it’s important to allow yourself time to adjust. It may take days for the reality of the situation to really sink in.
LOOK AFTER YOURSELF: Eat well. Try to eat, even if you don’t feel like it, which is common. Sleep when you can. If you can’t sleep, stay in bed and rest anyway. Exercise when possible. It doesn’t have to be strenuous. Even a good walk can do wonders.
TALK: about your loss and the deceased is one of the very best coping strategies. To heal, it’s important to let your feelings out. When friends/family ask you how you feel, tell them. Be truthful. If you’re hurting, say so. Bottling up your feelings will only prolong your grief. If you want to talk but feel unable to talk to family and friends, professional help (bereavement counselling) is recommended.
GET CREATIVE: Express your grief with music, poetry, pencils, crayons. clays, or paint… Use your imagination. Some of mankind’s most poignant artworks were born of sadness and grief. There is no reason why you can’t use your sadness and loss to inspire the creation of something beautiful.
HONOUR YOUR LOVED ONE: Create a “memories” scrapbook. Create a photo album or a collage to put on the wall. Create a compilation CD. Start a tribute page on Gone Too Soon. Plant a tree, or make a charitable donation in their name. You could have a piece of jewellery engraved, or have a commemorative tattoo done. Everyone is different and their choices varied. Find something that resonates with you… whatever that may be.
AVOID BIG DECISIONS: In your grief-stricken state, you might not be capable of making great decisions. There will be plenty of time for big life changes later. For now, concentrate on grieving, accepting, and healing. Impulsive decisions may not pan out the way you hoped. And right now, you can do without added pressure and stress. If you must make an important decision, explore your options with a trusted friend.
AVOID DRINK & DRUGS: Turning to drink and drugs will only prolong your suffering as they will prevent you from adequately processing your grief. It is best to feel what you have to feel without the influence of drink or drugs. It will be unpleasant, it will hurt, it will at times seem overwhelming, but the sooner you face it, the sooner you’ll heal.
HAVING FUN: Is Not Taboo: During the saddest moments of your life, laughter and smiling are still allowed, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. In the week following my girlfriend’s funeral, I watched a fair few comedy DVDs. They were shows we used to enjoy together, but that’s not the main reason I watched them. In all honesty, I needed some relief. I needed the intensity of my situation taken down a notch. As I’ve said in various places on the site, there’s no right or wrong to any of this. If you want or need to cry, do that. If you want to laugh from time to time while you’re grieving, that is perfectly okay too.
HAVE THINGS TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Make plans for special occasions. Think about how you’ll spend the day. Prepare in advance everything you need to make it memorable (or even just bearable). Plan ahead of time so there are no last-minute disappointments that could lead to feelings of guilt… Enlist the help of family and friends.
Strive to create new rituals, new memories. When I was newly bereaved I made a big deal of the anniversary of the death. Now, I no longer do that. I consciously shifted the focus of my remembrance away from the day of their death. I decided I would rather celebrate the day they were born instead. So that’s what I do. On their birthday I do something nice. Something fun. Something they’d have enjoyed or approved of… I raise a glass in their honour, and I smile while remembering all the wonderful times we shared.
STAY CONNECTED: You may be tempted to withdraw from social interaction. So if you have good friends, lean on them. They’ll be only too happy to support you. You’d do the same for them if the boot were on the other foot. If, however, you don’t have any close friends to rely on, join a support group, or get in touch with one of the bereavement counselling services. The important thing is not to spend too much time in isolation.
MY COMFORT OF CHOICE: MUSIC!
Life is challenging, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel better. Never more so than when we’re hurt. Music has always been my medicine of choice and never is it more comforting than when you’re bereaved.
Each of my bereavements had its own soundtrack – songs that made my playlists were either directly connected to the lost relationship or somehow embodied the essence of my feelings. I couldn’t always articulate how I felt, with words alone seeming inadequate in the face of such all-consuming devastation, but I could listen to a great song or beautiful piece of music and think, “Oh my god!!! That is EXACTLY how I feel… Music was and continues to be, a source of great comfort to me. I hope it will be for you too.
LOOKING AFTER YOURSELF:
Here is our guide to looking after yourself when faced with bereavement. You are hurt and wounded right now, maybe even broken. So, looking after yourself is more important than ever. You may lose your appetite but you must still eat. You may be unable to sleep, but you must still rest. Some ideas for inspiration.
- Stay hydrated – drink lots of water.
- If you haven’t the energy to cook, have family/friends cook for you.
- Take naps.
- Take a relaxing bath or shower.
- Go to bed with a good book or some soothing music.
- Take a hot water bottle to bed with you.
- Eat your favourite food.
- Invite a friend over.
- Go for walks in the park.
- Sit by the river.
- Take the dog for long walks.
- Spend time with the children in your family.
- Watch movies.
- Make a scrapbook.
- Organise photo albums.
- Make lists – Things your loved one liked, things like that.
- Rearrange your bookshelf/wardrobe/CD collection.
- Do some exercise.
The list is endless… but it’s worth repeating, there is no formula. No universal solution to bereavement. You just have to survive it. But keep one thing in mind: the person you loved, loved you back, and would want to know you were safe, and looking after yourself. As special as they were to you, you were to them. Honour that bond by doing the best you can. Even if that means no more than a good meal and an early night.
When looking after yourself seems too difficult, lean on your friends. It’s what they are for. It’s what they want; to comfort and support you in your hour of need. Remember, there is no standardised time frame when it comes to the grieving process. There is no formula; no right or wrong. As I always say: You just have to live it.
HOW TO HELP SOMEONE ELSE WHO IS BEREAVED:
This is our guide to helping the bereaved. If you don’t know what to say to someone recently bereaved, say just that; Something along the lines of, “I’m sorry for your loss, I don’t really know what else to say”. How eloquently you speak is the last thing a bereaved person will be thinking about. You will actually be more useful if you just listen, allow the bereaved person the time and space to express themselves. Even if you sit in silence, they will usually just appreciate you being there with them in their hour of need.
As much as you would love to “fix” them, and make things better, you cannot. You can, however, be with them. Hold them when they cry. Make them a cup of tea, or a sandwich, or help with other practicalities… sorting transportation, helping with funeral arrangements. The list is endless.
But try to get out of the mindset that you can “make it better”. You just can’t. And you know what The bereaved do not expect this from you, so don’t put that unnecessary pressure on yourself.
WAYS TO HELP THE BEREAVED:
- Take the lead, and call them.
- Make sure they’re eating/sleeping.
- Run errands for them – doing Shopping/laundry etc.
- Ask: What can I do? / How can I help?
- Acknowledge the death / loss / grief.
- Talk about the deceased.
- Mention their name (it is not a taboo subject)
- Offer them a hug.
- Help arrange the funeral / memorial services.
- Let them talk / Be a supportive listener.
- Drive them places.
- Help them contact Cruse or similar service.
- Let them cry.
- Let them be angry (this too is quite normal.)
- Be patient.
- Watch Netflix or a DVD together.
THINGS NOT TO DO:
- Be embarrassed when they express their loss – in words or tears.
- Avoid the bereaved.
- Avoid mentioning the deceased.
- Be impatient, in a hurry to “make them better”
- Judge the bereaved or the way they choose to grieve. (We are all different).
- Tell them how to grieve.
- Think alcohol will help.
- Thing drugs will help.
- Facilitate any other damaging/self-destructive behaviour.
THINGS TO AVOID SAYING:
- “Cheer up”
- “Chill out”
- “It was for the best”.
- “I know how you feel”
- “It’s all part of God’s plan”
- “Isn’t it time you moved on”.
- “You’ll meet someone else / make other friends”.
You might not always have the right words at hand, and that’s okay, just always speak with sensitivity, kindness and compassion. Imagine how you would feel having lost a loved one, and let that guide and influence your tone.
For further Bereavement Organisations in the UK please visit the Further Support page.