How to deal with grief and bereavement

profile picture of Naomi Humber
Head of Mental Wellbeing, Bupa Health Clinics
04 July 2022
Next review due July 2025

At some point in our lives, all of us will experience the loss of a loved one. Here I talk about how grief and bereavement generally affect people.

woman looking out of the window

What is the difference between bereavement and grief?

Bereavement is when we experience loss, usually after the death of a loved one. Feeling grief and mourning (great sadness for someone who has died) are reactions to this loss. The death of a loved one is recognised as the most stressful thing people ever face in life. But other types of loss that may also cause you to feel grief and mourn for are:

  • the loss of a relationship after divorce
  • the loss of a job or
  • the loss of their health after a disabling injury or illness

What are the symptoms of grief?

Grief symptoms will be different in each person. People generally have quite specific symptoms in the first weeks or months after losing someone close. These include:

  • feelings of shock and disbelief
  • feeling numb
  • confusion and difficulty thinking straight
  • anger
  • guilt
  • sadness and tearfulness
  • difficulty sleeping
  • loss of appetite

You may have heard of “grief stages”. If you are grieving, you might expect to go through these stages. But it is not quite like that. Grief doesn’t follow a specific pattern. Sometimes you may feel angry. Other times you might feel numb and find it hard to accept what’s happened. Or you may feel that your emotions are all jumbled up.

It may be more helpful to think of the ‘four tasks of grieving’:

  • to accept the reality of the loss
  • to work through the pain and grief of the loss
  • to adjust to your new environment without your loved one
  • to find an enduring connection with your loved one while moving forward with your life

What is complicated grief?

For some people, grief symptoms don’t gradually get better after a bereavement. They carry on and may even get worse. Doctors call this complicated or prolonged grief.

If you have complicated grief, you may find it hard to believe that a loved one has died. You may feel anger or a lot of guilt over their death. This can make it hard for you to get your life back on track.

You may go through complicated grief if:

  • you’ve had other losses or upsetting experiences in your life
  • you’ve had (or still have) mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety 
  • you were the carer for the person who’s died
  • you had difficult relationships or someone very close to you has died early in life
  • you have little support from family or friends
  • the death was caused by violence or suicide

How do I cope with grief?

You may not feel like it, but it’s important to take care of yourself while you’re grieving. People who’ve been bereaved are more at risk of physical illness, as well as depression and stress. Here are some things that may help you with your grief:

  • Make time to talk to other people. Keeping your feelings to yourself won’t help.
  • Make time to remember and share happy memories of your loved one. This can help you to feel better and work through your loss emotionally.
  • Give yourself time to grieve. It’s OK to be upset and there’s no time limit on it.
  • Make sure you eat properly and get enough rest, even if you can’t sleep.
  • If you can, try to get some exercise or do outdoor activities. Just a few minutes of brisk walking, raking leaves, gardening or even physical housework can really help.
  • Try to reach out to people you know if you need specific help.
  • Ask for support from family, friends, a GP and your colleagues. If you need time off work, talk to your manager about bereavement leave.

Sometimes, people may cope with grief by drinking alcohol or taking drugs. Drinking can numb your feelings and may help you to deal with your grief in the short-term. But, if you regularly drink too much alcohol or binge drink, you can put your health at risk.

Can grief or bereavement lead to depression?

Depression is often linked to complicated grief. Half of people with complicated grief may also be depressed. However, it’s likely that they will have already experienced depression in the past. If you have depression, your symptoms may include:

  • feeling very low and hopeless for at least two weeks
  • loss of interest in your normal activities
  • struggling at work or in your social life

With complicated grief your thoughts keep coming back to your loss and separation from your loved one. If this tips over into depression, you can feel miserable and hopeless about life in general.

If you have symptoms of depression, your doctor might suggest a course of antidepressants, as well as some therapy. They may also suggest medicines for anxiety. Antidepressants generally start to work after a week or two. They can take a couple of months to work fully. But, you should gradually find your mood lightening and your depression symptoms improving.

If you’re worried about your mental health, our direct access service aims to provide you with the advice, support and treatment you need as quickly as possible. You’ll be able to get mental health advice and support usually without the need for a GP referral. Learn more today.

profile picture of Naomi Humber
Naomi Humber (she/her)
Head of Mental Wellbeing, Bupa Health Clinics

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