By Jessica Brown

A person experiences bereavement following the death of a loved one. The length of time bereavement lasts for depends on the individual and their circumstances. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, but there is support available to help you come to terms with your loss.

What is bereavement?

The majority of us will encounter bereavement at some stage, as death is an inevitable part of life, and grieving will be a completely normal and natural part of that. People suffering with bereavement will experience grief for the deceased person, followed by a period of adjustment. Grief can cause many emotions, including disbelief, panic, confusion, anger and depression. Bereavement can also cause physical symptoms as your body reacts to the intense emotions you are experiencing; some of these symptoms may require treatment.

Death is quite an unspoken topic in Western culture, and there is often stigma attached to the grieving process. Those suffering with bereavement, however, need to remember that there is no ‘normal’ grieving process, and no one should feel rushed to overcome their emotions.

Shelley Gilbert, CEO of bereavement charity Grief Encounter, says: “Grieving is not over in a day, week or month, although there are many pressures to behave as if it is, following the death of someone special - and, to ‘move on and accept’. We prefer the word ‘adjust’. Pain that can't be seen is very hard to express and manage.”

Symptoms of bereavement

No two people will grieve the same. While bereavement does not have definitive symptoms,  it is a very traumatic process and can put a lot of stress on the body. You may find that the emotional response creates physical reactions, grief may set off the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response, causing symptoms of anxiety.

Physical reaction to grief may include:

  • Nausea
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Dry mouth
  • Restlessness
  • Fatigue and lethargy
  • Shortness of breath
  • Loss of appetite
  • A change in sleeping pattern/disrupted sleep
  • Heart palpitations
  • Over-sensitivity to noise
  • Headaches
  • High blood pressure

Emotional feelings may include:

  • Shock
  • Deep sadness
  • A feeling of helplessness
  • Anxiety
  • Guilt
  • Regret
  • Anger

Bereavement and mental health

There is a distinct difference between bereavement and depression, but some people may experience both as they go through the bereavement process, especially if they have a history of depression. It is estimated that around 33 per cent of bereaved people suffer depression one month after their loss, and half of those continue to be depressed a year later.

It is important to note that experiencing depression, as a reaction to difficult circumstances is different to suffering from a ‘disorder’, it is natural to meet the criteria for depression soon after a loss. However, if you are struggling to cope with the way you are feeling, your GP will be able to advise you based on your individual circumstances.

Elizabeth’s Story

My grandmother passed away four years ago and it hit me a lot harder than I thought it would. The day she passed away, I was unnaturally calm – the shock of it halted the start of my grieving process for a day or two.

I think I was affected more due to the fact that it was a sudden, unexpected death and I was with her when she passed away. In hindsight, however, despite this being a traumatic memory, I’m glad I was with her in her final moments in hospital.

I didn’t seek any treatment for my bereavement, in a way I felt that it was a natural process to go through, and it wasn’t affecting my daily life. I also had little coping mechanisms, such as looking at old photographs of the two of us and wearing the scarves and brooches that were passed down to me. Four years on I do still get upset from time to time, and I have a reoccurring dream where I relive the day she passed away. It’s not an unbearable sadness, though, and I have come to terms with it now. Memories of her make me smile, rather than get upset.

This is a very natural bereavement experience, but others will experience different. We can all expect to loose loved ones in older generations, but owing to good health and long life in the Western world, we may not experience, or talk about this as a natural part of growing older. Other loss, that of parents when we are young, or the loss of a child, for example, are not so common and can be harder to deal with. However, it is not wrong to feel intense grief when losing distant relatives, friends or even pets.

Treatments for bereavement

The process of overcoming bereavement is learning to adapt to the new situation, and there are many bereavement counsellors across the UK to help achieve this.

After a loss, the first source of help is friends and family. They can help you to open up and talk about what you’re feeling. They can also offer practical help, such as aiding with everyday tasks.

Some people find that grief counselling is the next step towards feeling better. Grief counselling is available in either individual or group settings, and helps the bereaved to identify feelings related to the loss and move onwards, adjusting to their life without their loved one, whilst providing continued support. Counselling should also support you during milestones, such as anniversaries and birthdays.

Medication is not routinely prescribed for those suffering bereavement, however if depression is present; antidepressants are an option of treatment. Similarly, if your sleep is disturbed and affecting you during the day, sleeping medication may be prescribed. Medication will not get to the root cause of the bereavement but may work well in combination with counselling.

Everyone has different coping strategies during the bereavement process that cannot be generalised. Simple steps, however, such as getting dressed, showering, eating well and exercising may seem obvious, but they will make a big difference to mood. Talking to others and giving yourself time to grieve are the most important steps.

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