Bereavement and Grieving
Bereavement is a distressing but common experience. Sooner or later most of us will suffer the death of someone we love or the loss of a deeply meaningful relationship. Yet in our everyday life we think and talk about death very little, perhaps because we encounter it less often than previous generations. For them, the death and loss was a far more common experience. For us, these losses usually happen later in life. So we do not have much of a chance either to learn about grieving – how it feels, what are the right things to do, what is ‘normal’ – or to come to terms with it. In spite of this, we have to cope when we are finally faced with the death of someone we love.
We grieve after any sort of loss, but most powerfully after the death of someone we love. It is not just one feeling, but a whole succession of feelings, which take a while to get through and which cannot be hurried. Mostly, we grieve for someone that we have known for some time. However, it is clear that people who have had stillbirths or miscarriages, or who have lost very young babies, grieve in the same way and need the same sort of care and consideration.
In days following the death or loss of a close relative, friend or relationship, most people feel simply stunned, as though they cannot believe it has actually happened. They may feel like this even if the death has been expected. This sense of emotional numbness can be a help in getting through all the important practical arrangements that have to be made, such as getting in touch with relatives and organising the funeral. However, this feeling of unreality may become a problem if it goes on too long. Seeing the body of the dead person may, for some, be an important way of beginning to overcome this.
Similarly, for many people, the funeral s an occasion when the reality of what has happened really starts to sink in. It may be distressing to attend the funeral, but these are ways of saying goodbye and starting the process of bringing closure. At the time, these things may seem too painful to go through and so are not done. However, this can lead to a sense of deep regret in the future.
However, this numbness soon disappears and may be replaced by a dreadful sense of agitation, of pining or yearning for the lost person. There is a feeling of wanting somehow to find them, even though this is clearly impossible. This makes it difficult to relax or concentrate and it may be difficult to sleep properly. Some people feel that they ‘see’ their lost person everywhere they go. People often start to feel angry at this time.
Another common feeling is guilt. People find themselves going over in their minds all the things they would have liked to have said or done. They may even consider what they could have done differently that might have prevented the death. Of course, death or loss of a relationship is usually beyond anyone’s control and a bereaved person may need to be reminded of this. Some people may feel guilty if they feel relieved that their loved one has died after a painful or distressing illness. This feeling of relief is natural, understandable and very common.
This state of agitation is usually strongest about two weeks after the death or loss, but is soon followed by times of quiet sadness or even depression, and withdrawal. These sudden changes of emotion can be confusing both to the individual or close friends, but are part of the normal process of grief. Although the agitation lessens, the periods of depression become more frequent and reach their peak between four and six weeks later. Spasms of grief can occur at any time, sparked off by people, places or things that bring back memories of the lost person. Other people may find it difficult to understand or be embarrassed when the bereaved person suddenly bursts into tears for no obvious reason. At this stage it may be tempting to keep away from other people who do not fully understand or share the grief. However, avoiding others can store up trouble for the future, and it is usually best to start to return to one’s normal activities within a couple of weeks.
As time passes, the fierce pain of early bereavement begins to fade. The depression lessens and it is possible to think about other things and even to look again to the future. However, the sense of having lost a part of oneself never goes away entirely. For bereaved partners there are constant reminders of their new singleness, in seeing other couples together and from the deluge of media images of happy families. After some time it is possible to feel whole again, even though a part is missing. Even so, years later you may sometimes find yourself talking as though he or she were still here with you.
These various stages of grief often overlap and show themselves in different ways in different people. Most recover from a major bereavement or loss within one or two years. The final phase of grieving is a letting-go of the person who has died and the start of a new sort of life. The depression clears completely, sleep improves and energy returns to normal. Sexual feelings may have vanished for some time, but now return – this is quite normal.