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Coping with Initial Emotions

The loss of a loved one often comes as a huge shock. Louise Voss draws on her own experience to offer practical advice on how best to cope with the initial feelings of grief.

Losing a loved one is probably the most unpleasant, painful experience that we as human beings will ever suffer, and these days, it’s far less common than it ever was in previous generations.  Obviously this is a good thing – but it does mean that when bereavement occurs, it is seen much less as ‘a part of life’s rich tapestry’, and much more of a frightening, alien event.  The reactions of others can often make a bereaved person feel even more alone and down, so it is important to understand what could help someone cope with a loss – and, if you are the one suffering the loss, how others might perceive it.

When I was 18, my beloved father died after a short battle with cancer.  It was many years ago now, but certain things still stick in my mind, both negative and positive.  I remember Mum crying because people she knew well were crossing the street to avoid her.   I was furious at the time, but both Mum and I eventually came to understand that it wasn’t because they were shunning her; it was simply that they had no idea what to say that would be in any way helpful.  They were afraid of saying the wrong thing.  As a result, I always now contact bereaved friends – nothing over the top, but a simple ‘I’m so sorry for your loss.  Please let me know if there’s anything at all I can do to help,’ or a heartfelt, ‘I’m there for you whenever you need me, day or night.’

A lady from church wrote such a moving letter to my mother that I can still remember parts of it all these years later:  ‘For you, my dear, and for the family, there is no easy way…’   It was so honest and caring, and it meant more to all of us than she would ever know, even though she wasn’t even a particularly close family friend.   I know of others who say they still cherish such supportive letters from friends, and that they really do help through the worst of times.

Bereavement itself is never just one feeling, but a whole myriad of different emotions that come at different times with differing intensity and duration, depending on the depth and closeness of relationship with the deceased, and the personality of the bereaved.  The Kübler-Ross model is commonly accepted as the five most definitive stages of grief  (introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book  On Death and Dying):  from disbelief  (shock and numbness) into anger, then bargaining (‘if only I’d said or done something different…’ or even, ‘I wish I’d died instead’),  into depression – which can often be the longest stage –  and finally into acceptance.

You should not feel surprised, though, if the grieving process is not what you might have expected, or have seen in other people – everyone is different.  The key thing is to be kind to yourself, allow yourself to grieve in your own time, and don’t shut yourself off from the world.

When Dad died, I was astonished that I did not cry, not for several days. I felt completely numb. I remember going for lengthy walks alone, around town, at night.  My mother, brother and I seemed to disappear into our own separate worlds, and I don’t recall really communicating with either of them at all, for a long time – which is awful to look back on. I think we were afraid of each other’s emotions. It would have been healthier to sit together and cry, but we couldn’t. In the end, about four days later, a friend took me for a long walk in the forest, and it was then that I finally crumbled – and felt much better for it afterwards. It’s not good to repress the grief – it will always find some way of coming out eventually and possibly in a more damaging form, such as physical illness or mental breakdown.

One of the myths about mourning is that it has an ending point, that if you just wait long enough, it suddenly stops hurting. It doesn’t. It requires work. More than time, bereavement takes effort to heal. Mourning is a natural and personal process that only you can pace. It cannot be rushed and it cannot happen without your participation.”

On Being Alone: A Guide for the Newly Widowed (AARP leaflet)

 It is equally important, though, to know that you will get over it, in time, and you will be able to lead a normal, happy life once more.  It’s a cliché, but such a truism too:  time is indeed a great healer.

Tips for coping with the immediate aftermath of a bereavement:

–  If possible, have a friend or family member with you to look after you for the first few days.

– Go to see your GP.  Get sleeping pills for short-time relief if you aren’t sleeping.

– Accept practical help offered from friends, neighbours or family – having something to do for you will make them feel better too.

– Talk to any of the organizations listed below.

– If the death is unexpected, give yourself at least 24 hours before making any decisions regarding funeral arrangements.

– Don’t drink to excess – it won’t help.

– Try not to take it personally if people behave slightly oddly towards you.

Contacts for Further Help and Information

Bereavement Advice Centre offers offers advice on all aspects of bereavement. Helpline: 0800 634 9494

Compassionate Friends is an organisation of bereaved parents and their families offering support after the death of a child or children. The helpline is always answered by a bereaved parent who is there to listen. Helpline: 0845 123 2304; email:

Child Bereavement is a national charity to help grieving families and the professionals who care for them. Support and Information Line: 01494 446648.

Cruse Bereavement Care provides counselling and support, and offers information, advice, education and training services.

Helpline: 0844 477 9400; email:

RD4U (Cruse Bereavement Care’s young persons services). Helpline: 0808 808 1677; email:

National Association of Widows is a self-help organisation, run by widows, for widows, that offers comfort, friendship and a listening ear to widows and unmarried women who have lost a partner through bereavement. Tel: 0845 838 2261; email:

Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society (SANDS) Helpline: 020 7436 5881,

Samaritans Helpline: 08457 90 90 90, email:

The Way Foundation is an organisation for people who have become widows or widowers at a young age.Tel: 0870 011 3450; email:

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