If you have experienced the death of someone who was important to you, you might be finding it difficult to adjust to the changes happening in your life right now. Grief can shake everything up - your beliefs, your routines, and even your sense of normality. Counselling aims to help people find a place for their loss so they can carry on with life and eventually find acceptance.
What is bereavement?
Bereavement is the time we spend adjusting to loss. There is no right or wrong way to feel during the bereavement period - everyone copes in their own way. Grief, although normal, can manifest in unexpected ways. Some people get angry, some people withdraw into themselves and some people become completely numb. Sometimes, grief can trigger mental health conditions, like depression.
Bereavement is accepting what happened, learning to adjust to life without that person, and finding a place to keep their memory alive while you try to get along as best you can.
In this video, counsellor Ella Pontin explains how grief counselling can help when you're bereaved, and how to find the right therapist for you.
If you’re worried about your child and how to help them navigate grief, please see our page on childhood bereavement for more information and resources.
The stages of grief
This can be a confusing time involving a lot of powerful emotions. These emotions can grow, fade and shift as we move across the different stages of bereavement. Not everyone experiences the same stages of bereavement at the same time or in the same order, though most people generally go through the following four stages at some point:
- accepting that your loss really happened
- experiencing the pain that comes with grief
- trying to adjust to life without the person who died
- putting less energy into your grief, finding a new place to put it and moving on
Most people go through all of these stages, but not everyone moves between them smoothly. Sometimes, people get stuck on one stage and find it difficult to move on. For others, grief may not surface until later on in life, such as finding out about a lost sibling — as in the case of womb twin survivors (for more information on womb twin survivors, watch our video by psychotherapist Lisa Bodenstein).
You may have heard of other models that take you through five or seven stages of grief. You may find that one model works better for you than another, and that's OK. The important thing is to take your time to process your feelings in a way that feels right for you.
The importance of mourning
Mourning is an important part of bereavement, which allows us to find ways to explore our loss and express our grief. Mourning involves rituals like funerals, wakes and anniversary celebrations, which help to add structure to an otherwise chaotic and confusing time. Mourning allows us to say goodbye. Seeing the body, watching the burial, or scattering the ashes is a way of affirming what has happened.
As hard as it is, sometimes we need to see evidence that a person really has died before we can truly enter into the grieving process.
Grief can be suffocating and my husband and I agreed that we didn’t want to spend our lives forever in mourning. We have adapted to living without her, but we’ll never ‘get over it’, that’s just not an option.
- Kelly shares her story.
Talking about the loss often allows a person to adjust to their new life with all its changes - good and bad. Keeping things bottled up or denying the sadness could prolong the pain. Any loss has to be acknowledged for us to move forward.
Bereavement counselling is designed to help people move through the stages of grief and learn how to cope with the death of a loved one. Counselling aims to get you to the point where you can function normally - however long it takes. You will probably never stop missing the person you lost, but with enough time and the right support, a new life can be pieced together and purpose can be reclaimed.
Specifically, counselling for grief and bereavement can:
- offer an understanding of the mourning process
- explore areas that could potentially prevent you from moving on
- help resolve areas of conflict still remaining
- help you to adjust to a new sense of self
- address possible issues of depression or suicidal thoughts
How to deal with grief
Many people compare their grief to waves rolling onto a beach. Sometimes those waves are calm and gentle, and sometimes they are so big and powerful that they knock you off your feet completely. Sometimes, the wave of grief can be so powerful that it leads to:
- not wanting or feeling able to get out of bed
- neglecting yourself - not taking care of your hygiene or appearance
- not eating properly
- the feeling that you can't carry on living without the person you've lost
- not feeling able to go to work
- taking your feelings out on other people
All of these reactions are normal parts of bereavement - unless they go on for a very long time. If you feel like you are no longer coping with grief very well or are recognising the following behaviours, you may need some extra help:
- you are beginning to drink a lot
- you are tempted to or starting to take illegal drugs
- you are having suicidal thoughts
- you are acting recklessly
- you are starting to behave violently
- you are withdrawing yourself from people or isolating yourself
Grief and bereavement take time, a gradual process as you come to terms with the loss and find an acceptance so you may move forward. Yet there are things that you can do to help yourself in that process.
- Counsellor Graeme Orr discusses five ways to help with bereavement and grief.
How to tell if grief has become depression
Unlike depression, grief is not considered a mental health condition. Sorrow, anger, confusion and emptiness are natural reactions to death. However, when these low feelings last for a very long time, it may be worth seeking additional support.
Of course, there is no 'normal' length of time for bereavement. Loss stays under the surface of our lives and continues to permeate long after it first happened. Sometimes all it takes is a certain date, a place, or a song, for all of that grief to come surging back.
So, how do you know if grief has become depression? Grief and depression share a number of symptoms, including sadness, insomnia and change in eating habits. One of the main differences between grief and depression, however, is that grief comes in waves while depression is like a cloud that hangs over everything.
Sometimes, a grieving person is able to forget their sadness for certain lengths of time - perhaps when concentrating on something, perhaps when surrounded by people who make them feel happy. Grief is often triggered by something - a smell, a sudden memory - while depression is pervasive, cutting through everything.
If you think you, or someone close to you, is suffering from depression, it's important to find support as soon as possible. Visit our depression fact-sheet for more information.
Loss and bereavement come in many shapes and forms. Some sources talk of over 20 different types of loss and reasons for grief from anticipatory (such as the death of an elderly relative) to collective (such as the grief of a nation following war or a natural disaster).
As Claire Kerby MBACP explains in her article, Bereavement doesn't need a death, ‘disenfranchised grief’ was a term developed by American grief researcher Kenneth Doka in the 1980s. He described disenfranchised grief as, “Grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned”.
Disenfranchised grief can be experienced when a person is made to feel that their loss is invalidated or insignificant as a result of cultural or societal attitudes. This can occur when the circumstance of the death is stigmatised (death by suicide, overdose, HIV/AIDS, drunk driving), the relationship is seen as insignificant (an ex-spouse, co-worker, miscarriage, or a pet), or when the loss experienced is not a death (dementia, divorce, substance misuse).
Here, we will explore two common types of disenfranchised grief.
As with any bereavement, the death of a pet can be a devastating loss. To some, the pet may have become a member of the family; a companion, a friend. And, in this case, it’s normal to have the same reaction as you would with the death of a person, such as feelings of shock, anger, pain or grief.
It can sometimes be hard for others to recognise the extent to which the loss of a dog, cat or another beloved pet may affect someone. But, it’s important for you to process your feelings and allow yourself to grieve - there is no right or wrong way to feel.
Give yourself time to grieve and remember your pet in whichever way helps. You may benefit from writing your memories down, looking at photos or watching videos of your pet. It’s also helpful to have someone to talk to who understands how you’re feeling and what the loss of your pet has meant to you. This is something that a counsellor can help with.
For more advice about pet loss, including how to help a child understand pet bereavement and how counselling can help, here are some helpful resources:
All loss is devastating. However, grief after suicide can be a particularly complex process. Family and friends left behind when someone dies by suicide often experience confusing feelings. Self-directed anger and guilt are natural reactions. It's easy to start blaming yourself and wondering if you could have done something to help. It's also natural to feel angry at the person themselves, asking why didn't they tell you how they were feeling?
While we will all process grief in different ways, there are typically thought to be three common stages of grief after suicide.
1. Numbness or shock
At first, you might feel like you've stepped into a slightly different dimension. Everything will feel different and it's possible that you'll even want to distance yourself from others to avoid facing what's happened.
Eventually, you will come to a point where you'll be ready to address what's happened. You might feel lonely and deeply sad at this point. People often have trouble eating, sleeping and functioning normally. It's during this stage that people tend to go over the days leading up to their loved one's suicide, agonising over what they could have done and why it happened.
Over time the initial shock and horror of the situation will begin to fade as your loss becomes a part of your life. You will begin to get back into the day-to-day swing of things and soon you will be able to focus on other things in your life.
Whatever the circumstances, know that one day, it is possible for you to find happiness again. By creating a place to keep the person you lost, and finding ways to remember them (like anniversary celebrations, or leaving flowers at a memorial site), you should be able to preserve their memory and honour the impact they had on your life, without letting their absence obscure your own future. With time, pain does settle.
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