Grief is a unique process, which everyone will experience differently. It was once thought that grief followed a number of sequential stages. But, in reality, grief is far more complex and variable. Many people experience a toing and froing between different emotions, sometimes within the space of a few hours. The emotions you experience, the intensity of those emotions and how you cope with them will depend on a variety of factors such as your life experience, the circumstances of the death and your own personality.

Having some understanding of grief won’t prevent those emotions, but it can help to prepare you for them.

Remember that there is no right or wrong way to grieve and everyone will experience it differently. For some people, grieving starts at the time of death. For others, it starts at the time of diagnosis.

During this time, you may need the support of others. Speaking to someone about how you feel may help you to feel less isolated in your sadness (please see further support at the end of this article).

The following paragraphs summarise some of the thoughts and emotions, which are entirely normal, and that you may feel. No two people grieve in exactly the same way, so not all of these comments will be appropriate to you. We hope that knowing that other people have similar feelings may make them less disturbing and frightening for you.

I don’t believe they are gone ... I can still see and hear them ...

Even when you have known for some while that someone is going to die, there is still a sense of shock when the death occurs. You may feel cold, numb, empty and unreal for a time, and have trouble believing that he or she is really dead and not coming back.

This sense will start to fade in a few days or weeks, although it may return from time to time. When it does, you may feel you can hear or see him or her again, and each time there will be a fresh shock and disbelief when you realise the truth of the loss. You may dream about the person who has died.

All these feelings, while not universal, are normal and do not mean that you are going crazy.

I don’t seem to be able to settle down to anything, yet there is so much that still needs doing ...

You will probably find it difficult to concentrate, feel that your thoughts are confused and that everything is an effort. You may lose your appetite, become forgetful and tired, yet have difficulty in sleeping.

Try to eat proper food, rather than snacks, and try to get adequate rest, even if you cannot sleep. Most people cry a lot when they remember the person who has died. While this can leave you exhausted, it is a normal way of letting your grief out. Holding it in can be just as exhausting.

I don’t feel so good ...

It’s easy to neglect yourself because you don’t care at a time like this. It’s important though not to neglect your health and because you’re under stress you may be more susceptible to infection. You may also be needed by others, so take care of yourself, otherwise you will be no good to anyone! (See Looking after yourself for advice on how best to do this.)

Try to eat regularly, even if your appetite and enjoyment of food have disappeared. You may experience difficulty with sleeping, waking early or finding it difficult to get off to sleep.

It seems to help if you can fit some exercise into your day, like a 20-minute walk. Milky drinks, a warm bath and settling down to rest with your favourite music may help to re-establish the pattern of sleep. It can take time.

I think I’m going mad ...

Grief is associated with stronger emotions than most people have felt before, and you may feel that these emotions are taking over. For example, you might find yourself busting into tears at the most unexpected, either in your home or when out. Unforeseen triggers can bring back strong memories.

While you are going through the grieving process, you may feel and act differently from usual. It may be tempting to feel that things would be easier if you moved house or disposed of possessions, but in reality this is not a good time to make major changes in your life – what seems right now may not seem right in several months’ time.

If you cannot avoid having to make important decisions, try to talk them over with a person you can trust and who can help you to consider the various options.

Why us?

Many people have strong feelings of anger that may be difficult to express or understand. You may feel anger at the fact of the death itself, at being deprived of companionship, or at God or the world for such a painful and seemingly pointless loss.

You may even feel angry with the person who has died for leaving you. You may also feel angry with people close to you who may not seem as upset as you are, or with those who were involved during the illness or at the time of the death. Sometimes there is reasonable cause for this anger, but even if there is not, the feeling may still be there. It will diminish in time, but it is real and normal.

If only ...

It is natural to feel at times that things would have been different if you had acted differently. There may be regrets for things said, done or not done.

We are all human, and some misunderstandings and disagreements are inevitable in our relationships. When someone dies we lose the opportunity to change things with them.

Guilty feelings are frequently experienced but will pass in time. If they persist, it may help to talk to a bereavement counsellor, a clergyman or your doctor to try to understand better why you continue to feel as you do.

I always seem to want to talk about it ...

There is often a recurring need to talk about the dead person, their illness and death – the good times and the bad times. The best way in which family and friends can help is to listen and to share this remembering, although they may find this listening painful and embarrassing because they don’t know what to say.

Friends and family are often available early in bereavement but may be less so later on, but the time for grieving is individual; the feelings of loss will be there and recur for a long time, so it is important to reach out to them when you need them. Don’t wait for them to guess how you feel.

Sometimes I can’t remember ...

Life may seem flat and aimless, but you should allow memories to come and go – whether they are good memories or bad. Just as our own faults can lead to regrets and feelings of guilt, we must remember that other people have faults too. We preserve their memory more fully if we remember the whole person, faults as well as virtues.

If you find your memories have gaps, try talking with someone who will help you to explore these spaces and fill them. It is often difficult to remember the person you love as he or she was before he or she became ill, but this will gradually pass as the memory of that time fits into the other memories of your life together.

I don’t think I’ll ever be happy ...

Things may feel so bad that you cannot see any prospect of these feelings ending. In some ways they don’t end, because your memories remain, but much of the pain does become less acute.

At some stage, you will find that your sadness is interrupted by pleasure about something that happens now.

These feelings of pleasure don’t mean that you’re not caring for the dead person. You should therefore renew old interests and in time seek new ones. But being alternately sad and happy can be very confusing and difficult to cope with.

Special anniversaries, including birthdays and Christmas, can be particularly difficult. You may need extra help at such times – do ask for it.

Further support

People who tell you not to get upset mean well, but perhaps do not realise that distress, which may continue for a very long time, is natural and right when someone close to us dies.

Try to go to someone who will understand your need to be upset and grieve. If your family and friends find this too hard, your GP, clergyman, the Katharine House Hospice bereavement service or branch of CRUSE might be able to help you (see Where to turn to for support when grieving). You may want the privacy that comes from being alone at times, but at other times find loneliness a burden.

If you find you are alone a lot, try to tell someone, and ask for companionship. Here at Katharine House Hospice, we run a companionship service, which offers one-to-one regular phone conversations. You may find yourself hurt and convinced that some of your friends are avoiding you. This does happen, often as a result of ‘not knowing what to say’. It may be up to you to take the first step.

Related pages

  • What is grief?: there's no right or wrong way to grieve and here we look at how the experience of grief is unique to each person.
  • Looking after yourself: advice for looking after both yourself and others following the death of a loved one.
  • Dealing with grief and bereavement at work: you may or may not want to take time off from work following a bereavement, but if you need time away from work find out what your rights are as well as other support that might already be in place.

The EPiC Resource Centre is kindly sponsored by Cleenol: working for a cleaner, safer, kinder world.