Common questions when coping with grief
When someone close to you dies, you can feel a whole range of emotions. Everyone’s experience with grief will be different, and there is no right or wrong way to grieve.
There are lots of thoughts, feelings and questions involved when losing a loved one. Here we try to help you answer them to help you understand your grief.
What does grief feel like?
Grief is a natural response to loss. It's the emotions you feel when something or someone you love is taken away. Grief does not always unfold in orderly, predictable stages, although there are common feelings you may experience.
Many of us experience the following emotional symptoms when grieving:
Sadness – Profound sadness is probably the most experienced symptom of grief. You may have feelings of emptiness, despair, yearning, or deep loneliness. You may also cry a lot or feel emotionally unstable.
Shock or disbelief – Right after loss, it can be hard to accept what has happened. You may feel numb, have trouble believing that the loss really happened or even deny the truth.
Anger – Even if the death was nobody’s fault, you may feel angry or resentful. If you have lost a loved one you may be angry with yourself, the doctors, God or even the person who has died for abandoning you.
Relief – you may experience feelings of relief, particularly if the person has died after a long, difficult illness.
Guilt – You may feel guilty about things you did or didn’t say or do. You may also feel guilty about certain feelings you have had, for example any feelings of relief. You might even feel guilty for not doing something to prevent the death, even if there was nothing more you could have done.
Fear – Losing a significant figure in your life can trigger a host of worries and fears. The death of a loved one can trigger fears about your own mortality or facing life without that person, or the responsibilities you now face alone. You may also feel anxious, helpless or even insecure. Some people may even suffer from panic attacks.
You may also experience physical symptoms of grief including fatigue, nausea, lowered immunity, weight loss or weight gain, aches and pains and insomnia.
How long should grief last?
There is no ‘normal’ timeframe for grieving, and it is not a process that can be forced or hurried. Grieving is a natural, gradual process where you learn to live and cope with your loss.
How long this takes can differ from person to person, and can be influenced by many factors, including the circumstances of the situation that is causing grief. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months. For others, the grieving process may take years. Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to naturally unfold.
Does grief ever go away?
Grief is not necessarily something you “get over” or that will ever go away completely, it is something you learn to live with over time as you gradually adjust to the physical absence of the one who has died.
Grief tends to soften and is triggered less frequently as time goes on, but it can revisit you at any time and in varying intensity, sometimes when you are reminded of their loss or there is a particular occasion such as a birthday or anniversary. You will not be able to stop these reminders, but you can learn to cope with them.
When people find grief particularly difficult, they sometimes worry they will be unhappy for the rest of their life. For most people, it isn’t like that. Eventually you’ll find that you spend less and less time hurting, and more and more time feeling okay.
Do children experience grief?
Yes, children do experience grief, although they may experience and express grief in different ways to adults. The way a child grieves 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.
Children, more than adults, may switch quickly between expressing signs of grieving and getting on with their normal lives. They can be upset one minute and asking to play football the next.
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.
For more information on how children experience grief, see our explaining death to a child guide.
How do I know if I should seek professional help for my grief?
A therapist or grief counsellor
Grief is a normal human process, and while it can seem as if it will never get better, you should begin to see improvements in the weeks or months after losing a loved one. If you are worried about how long you’ve been grieving, still have intense painful feelings, or are having a hard time functioning up to a year after you lose someone you love, you may have complicated grief and you need to seek out support from a professional with experience in grief counselling. Your GP should be able to put you in contact with a counsellor in your local area.
While complicated grief is not the normal pathway for processing the death of a loved one, it is important to know that you are not alone if you are struggling with it. An experienced therapist can help you work through intense emotions and overcome obstacles to your grieving.
Join a support group
Grief can feel very lonely, even when you have loved ones around you. So even if do not believe you are experiencing complicated grief, you may find joining a support group and sharing your sorrow with others who have experienced similar losses can help. To find a bereavement support group in your area, we’d recommend you contact local hospitals, hospices and counselling centres.
How can I help a friend who is grieving?
When someone you care about is grieving after a loss, we naturally want to help that person, but it can be difficult to know what to say or do.
You can help a friend who’s grieving by:
- Not let your fears about saying or doing the wrong thing stop you from reaching out
- Letting your friend know that you’re there to listen
- Understanding that everyone grieves differently and for different lengths of time
- Offering to help in practical ways
- Maintaining your support after the funeral
The most important thing you can do for a grieving person is to simply be there. See our article on how to help someone who is grieving for more advice.
The pain of grief can often cause you to want to withdraw from others and retreat into your own shell. This is understandable and normal to do some of the time. But it is good to allow other people to come alongside you to support you - you may have family and friends that are wanting to help. Often other people are not quite sure how to help, so talking about the person who has died and how you are feeling is often helpful and you may not feel so isolated learning how much other people cared about the person who has died.
When experiencing grief, some people find it easier to talk to someone outside of their family and friendship group. We offer grief help and support through the National Bereavement Service's (NBS) webchat. It is a free online service which connects you to a trained advisor.
NBS has a wide network of contacts within organisations providing bereavement support. They will talk with you to discuss if onging support would be helpful for you and what organisation would be the most appropriate for you.
The service is available Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm and Saturday 10am to 2pm and you can benefit from it by clicking on the chat box at the bottom of this page.
Visit our grief & loss support page if you would like further advice on how to help someone who is grieving or for further help with personal grief. You'll also find a list of helpful organisations that may be able to help someone who has suffered a bereavement.