It’s impossible to predict how you’ll react to the death of someone you care about, even when you know what’s going to happen.
You may go into shock or feel numb. You may feel disbelief and that what’s happened isn’t real. You might carry on – or try to carry on – as though nothing has happened. In the first few minutes and hours, you may go through many different feelings and emotions, and that is normal. There’s no right or wrong way to feel and react.
If you’re alone at this time, you could ask family and friends, or a spiritual or religious leader, to come and support you.
How you might feel
Grief isn’t just one feeling – it’s many emotions that follow on from one another. You may find your mood changes quickly, or that you feel very differently in different situations. People who are bereaved sometimes say they feel ‘up and down’.
You may feel:
- shocked or numb
- anxious or agitated
- lacking in purpose
You might also find it difficult to concentrate or carry out tasks that would normally be easy.
There’s no right or wrong way to feel and no timetable for grief. Everyone is different.
It’s common for people to swing between feeling OK one minute and upset the next. You might find that these feelings come in waves or bursts – this can be unpredictable and might make you feel worried, ashamed or afraid.
How long does grief last for?
People sometimes ask how long they’ll grieve for. There’s no good answer to this. It’s different for each person. You may have feelings that come and go over months, or years. Gradually, people find that their feelings of grief aren’t there all the time and aren’t as difficult to cope with. At times, these feelings might still be stronger – like on anniversaries, birthdays or in certain places.
Some people find their feelings of grief don’t lessen, and they find it difficult to manage daily activities. For example, they might struggle to go to work, look after children or socialise with friends. If you’re experiencing this or you’re not able to cope, speak to your GP or the Dorothy House Family Support Team. You can also call the Samaritans on 116 123.
Remembering your loved one
When someone’s died it can seem as if part of your life has stopped. You may want to find ways of treasuring your relationship with the person, even though they are no longer physically here. Looking at photos or writing down your memories may help you. Talking about your loved one with other people who knew them well may be comforting.
You may experience longing or yearning. You may dream about them, or think you’ve heard their voice or seen them in the distance. This is quite a common experience after someone has died. It might help to be gentle with yourself and give yourself time. Sometimes people can worry that they might forget what their loved one looked like or how their voice sounded. But there are many ways to keep their memory alive.
Supporting a child
Adults often want to protect children by not telling them what’s going on. But children are likely to notice that something’s wrong and feel anxious and confused if things aren’t spoken about. Grief can affect them in different ways than it does adults, and they may prefer to know what’s happening.
Children, more than adults, swing quickly between grieving and getting on with their lives. They can be upset one minute and asking to play football or have some ice cream the next. It can be so quick that it’s sometimes called ‘puddle jumping’ – the puddle is their feelings of grief, and they move quickly in and out of the puddle.
When you tell them the person’s died, they might not react very much. You may even wonder if they’ve understood. It may take a while to process the news and they may not have words to express their feelings. You can say you know it’s a huge piece of news and you’re ready to talk whenever they like.
A child’s understanding will depend on many things, including their age, stage of development, family background, personality and previous experience of death. Children don’t develop at the same rate – they’re all individuals. Two children from the same family of the same age may react very differently to a death. You know the individual child best and will be able to adapt what you say to suit them. Be led by what they want to know and don’t be afraid to tell them if you don’t know the answer to something.
They may come back to the subject and ask you the same questions several times. Or they may try not to talk about the person if they think it upsets you. You can reassure them that it’s OK to talk and much better than keeping their worries to themselves.
Children may not have words for how they feel, but you can watch for changes in their behaviour, which could be their way of expressing feelings they can’t talk about. These could include:
- Clinginess. Refusing to be left behind and clinging to you can be a sign the child needs reassurance you aren’t going to die and leave them too.
- Distance. Some children can put up a barrier with other members of the family because they’re scared of getting hurt again. They might want to spend more time away from home, with friends or at school.
- Aggression. This may be the child’s way of expressing helplessness in the face of loss.
- Regression. Acting younger than their age can be a sign of insecurity. Young children may start wetting or soiling themselves, or wanting a long-forgotten bottle or dummy.
- Lack of concentration. The child may find it hard to concentrate at school and fall behind with their work.
- Sleep problems. Children may find it hard to sleep and become afraid of the dark.
- Trying too hard. Young children believe their behaviour can influence events. They might think if they behave really well and do things such as eating broccoli and cleaning out the hamster cage their mum might come back to life.
These are all natural reactions and often with time, they will pass.
Supporting a young person
Adolescents normally have a better understanding of death and can think about the long-term impact it will have on their lives.
They may worry more about changes to the routine, like who will take care of them or look after the house. They might worry about things like finances or the future.
Some common reactions include:
- Finding it difficult to talk about their feelings or wanting to talk to friends rather than adults.
- Feeling sadness, anger or guilt. Their emotions may be quite intense.
- Feeling worse about themselves.
- Wishing it hadn’t happened, or wondering why it had to happen to them.
- Changes in how well they do at school or work.
- Worrying they might develop the illness which the person died of (especially if they were related).
You may notice that a teenager who is grieving may experience changes in their behaviour. These can include:
- Aggression: They may be struggling to manage their strong emotions, so end up acting out or being angry.
- Regression: They might start to act more childish, as a way of feeling more secure.
- Acting like the adult: They may be worried about the future now the person has died, so they might feel like they need to take on a more grown-up role.
- Distance: They might bottle up their feelings and want to avoid talking about it. Or, they may prefer to speak to their friends about their emotions, rather than an adult.
These are all natural reactions and often with time, they will pass.
We’ve complied a few lists of the top resources we’d recommend. Included are articles, websites, podcasts, books, courses and more. Also, some of the resources relate to the coronavirus pandemic, recognising the vast impact it’s had on our ability, as a nation, to grieve.
Also, there’s a separate document on top myth busting on grief; we hope you find this especially helpful for yourself or someone you know who has been bereaved.