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Emotional response to grief

Publish date: 01/04/2014

Emotional response to grief

The feelings experienced at such a difficult time can change from day to day, week by week, and month by month.

Some people are able to work through these emotions in a shorter period of time than others. For some, the process of coping with loss and grieving may take years.

The emotions experienced can be varied, such as feeling numb and / or unable to accept what has happened. This can be further complicated by not being able to express your feelings, or perhaps even talk about the loss of a loved one. This could also be likened to a form of denial, and those who experience this kind of grief, may even continue to carry on, almost as if nothing in their lives has changed.

For others, the feelings of anger and perhaps even guilt can be experienced. The difficulty of accepting being left, or trying to understand “how could this happen?” or “why did this happen to us or me?” are a normal response to such a loss, particularly when the loss was unexpected.

It is normal for some to feel as if we didn’t do enough, or perhaps conversations we’ve shared, upon reflection, can leave us feeling guilty and sad, as now it’s too late to address what has gone before.

During the grieving process, it’s not unusual to experience any of the following emotions

  • mood swings,
  • restlessness,
  • anxiety,
  • an inability to settle,
  • constant tearfulness or intermittent crying,
  • low mood or even a mild form of depression.

Some may choose to distance themselves from friends and family, whilst some may find comfort from being in the midst of relatives and friends.

Experiencing such emotions may affect your ability to cope. You may find that they can affect your levels of concentration, disturb sleep patterns and appetite. The ability to function within your normal activities of daily living can become an almost uphill struggle whilst at the same time, trying to adjust to your loss.

All of these physical, mental and emotional responses are only to be expected, and in time, you will settle back into your normal patterns of daily routines and functioning.

Whilst you may expect to experience some or all of these physical, mental and emotional responses, it’s also important to recognize that when, or if, these responses don’t appear to be getting any easier to manage, that you may need to ask for help. You can do this by consulting a Doctor, or perhaps having some bereavement support or bereavement counselling.

Practical things that you can do to help yourself

Talking and expressing yourself – It’s important to talk through your feelings with somebody else, when you feel able. Some people find family and friends helpful to speak to and share their emotions with, others may choose to speak to someone not affected by the grief.

There are various charities that offer bereavement services and are able to organise for trained Bereavement Volunteers to come and visit you at home and talk about your loss with you on a one-to-one basis. It’s often easier to open up to somebody you don’t already know about your feelings. Some organisations also run helplines that you can contact when you just need someone to talk to on the phone.

Some people choose to speak to their doctor or other health care professional and the GP is then in a position to refer you to a bereavement counsellor if that is appropriate.

Letting yourself feel sad – It’s perfectly normal to feel very sad and you must allow yourself the time to do this. Crying is a way of letting your body relieve tension and is part of the grieving process.

Allowing yourself a break from the grieving – Although it’s normal to feel sad and you need to allow yourself to do this, it’s also important to give yourself breaks from this too. If watching TV or reading a book etc. distracts you for a while, or if watching a funny film makes you laugh, it’s important to let yourself have that moment to enjoy. Some people feel guilty if they laugh or smile when they’re grieving but it’s important for you to be able to do this. It allows you to rebuild some strength for the moments when you will be feeling intensely sad.

Keeping to a routine – When someone important to you has died you can feel as if you’ve lost all control over your life. Having a simple daily routine will give you some of this control back and make you feel safer and calmer at a time when you need stability. As part of this it’s a good idea to make arrangements to see somebody else at least once a week, as this will help to ground you.

Sleep – Grieving will make you very tired as it uses up a huge amount of your emotional energy. Just at the time when we need sleep the most, sometimes our bodies will not let us. If you do start to have problems sleeping it’s important to let your GP know. They might prescribe you a short course of sleeping tablets, just to help you get back to a normal sleeping pattern. 

Eat well – It’s hard to find the enthusiasm to cook when you’re feeling low. It’s very important to try to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet in order to maintain your strength. You may want to have a look at our Healthy Living Guides.

Avoid alcohol – Don’t be tempted to turn to alcohol as a way of numbing the pain. This will not help in the long run and could become a health issue in the future.

As you start to feel a little stronger you may want to start socialising a little more. Bereavement organisations such as Cruse often run drop-in clinics or friendship groups where people who are going through bereavement can meet up and share their experiences and offer support to one another. In some cases people can go on to develop long-term friendships with others who they meet in the group.

Some people prefer to meet people by starting a new hobby or returning to a previous interest. If there is something new that you’ve always felt like having a go at, now might be the time to do it.

You might also consider becoming a volunteer if you have free time. Helping others is a good way of meeting people and finding a new focus.

Memory boxes – When you’re in the right frame of mind, creating a memory box can be a way of remembering the person who you’ve lost. You can choose a box that you think the person would’ve liked and put things in it that hold special memories. These might be photographs, their perfume/aftershave, an item of clothing, jewellery, cards that they may have sent you or received from someone else, their favourite book or anything that brings back a happy memory. You can bring the box out whenever you feel like it and it can be a wonderful way of sharing memories with the family e.g. grandchildren.

Our altered lives

Everyone will of course find some degree of difficulty when trying to adjust to a loss.

Throughout the grieving process, there may be additional concerns and responsibilities to face, which can feel like a burden and be just as daunting and overwhelming as grief itself.

These responsibilities can be managing financial affairs and supporting your family, in particular, your children or your elderly relatives. This in addition to maintaining your job and your life in general can almost become an all-consuming burden to bear.

It’s important to make allowances for these everyday responsibilities which may require a period of adjustment.

Finally, whatever your worries or fears, anxieties or circumstances, it’s important to remind yourself that you’re not alone and in time, you will find the strength to accept your loss, and be able to adjust to the change in your life.

You may find the following websites helpful if you would like further information.

Bereavement support and counselling services UK

CRUSE – Bereavement Care
National Helpline: 0844 477 9400

Pilgrims Hospice Bereavement Support and Counselling Services

NHS Choices  

Way Foundation – Support for Widowed Men and Women under 50
Helpline: 0300 012 4929

National Association of Widows
Helpline: 02476 634848

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