Coping with grief

As well as the practical issues, the death of someone close brings a whole range of feelings and emotions. Each person’s grief is different. But, here’s some general advice about how to manage those feelings and start to come to terms with what’s happened.

Dealing with your feelings

As you try to cope with the emotional upheaval of a death, the following may be helpful.

Take your time

You may feel numb, or find it difficult to believe what’s happened. You may feel relief that the person is no longer suffering. You might find yourself feeling sad, angry or guilty. You may also feel panicky about what needs to be done, or about what lies ahead.

It’s important, especially in the first few days, that you allow yourself time to:

  • take in what has happened
  • talk about the person who has died
  • feel the pain and the loneliness for yourself

Do it your way

We’re all different, and we react to death in different ways. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve. Just try to do what feels right for you.

Take care of yourself

It’s important to look after yourself. For example, you should try to eat well, and avoid drinking too much alcohol. It’s also important to know that it’s normal to feel afraid, have nightmares or struggle to see the point of life. But, if you’re worried about your feelings, you can speak to your doctor.

Remember, grief:

  • is normal – it’s part of what it is to be human and to have feelings
  • is a journey – it’s often hard, but it’ll get easier
  • takes time – often much longer than you and many people around you expect
  • can be scary
  • can lead to depressing thoughts or even thoughts of suicide – while it’s normal to think this way it’s good to talk to someone about these feelings
  • it’s normal both to grieve and live – remember it’s alright to find yourself not thinking about the person who has died

Finally, it’s important not to expect too much of yourself, and to know when to ask for help. The death of someone close is a major event in anybody’s life and there are no quick ways of adjusting.

It can be helpful to find someone you trust that you can to talk to. For example a friend, your doctor, or a religious leader. If after a while you feel you’re still not coping, you may want to speak with your doctor.

Children and young people

It’s important to remember that children experience grief as well as adults.

Child Bereavement UK reports that every year in the UK over 20,000 children and young people under the age of 18 experience the death of a parent. Around 6% of schoolchildren are grieving the death of a close friend.

Children’s understanding of death

Children are individuals and some will understand death better than others. In general terms, children under 3 don’t really understand death. But, they’ll react to the absence of a known person. They’ll also respond to the emotions and feelings of those around them.

By the age of 4, children will have experience of separation. For example, being with a child minder or at nursery. Their experience is that separation is temporary. Death is therefore seen as someone ‘going away’ with the expectation that they’ll come back.

By around the age of 7, the permanence of death is beginning to be understood. The child will ask questions which explore this concept. Children at this age will also explore their feelings of sadness. They’ll begin to recognise that death can happen to other people as well as the person they grieve.

Helping children cope with a bereavement

If you’re supporting children after a death, remember that children grieve too. They often express their grief through their behaviour. They may become quieter, or more easily tearful or angry in everyday situations. They may have physical symptoms, for example a sore tummy.

When someone dies, children usually realise something is wrong. They need help to understand what’s happened and to express their feelings.

It’s important to be honest with children. You should tell them the person has died, and explain what this means using words they understand. Help children understand that death is natural. That all living things die, accidents happen, and illness and old age are all part of the life cycle of people and animals.

Children may feel hurt or angry that the person has gone. They may feel it happened because of something they said or did. It’s important to allow children to express these feelings. You should reassure them that they’re not to blame.

Children will move in and out of their grief. They can be sad and tearful one moment, and playing the next. It’s important to recognise this is normal and to try and support them.

Older people

As people get older, bereavements occur more often. Older people often endure the loss of a husband, wife or partner. They may also lose relatives, friends, former colleagues and associates.

As women generally live longer than men there are more widowed women than men.

Loss through bereavement is a major stress on older people. With other losses experienced in old age, it can reduce people’s ability to cope and be independent.

How does bereavement affect older people?

Older people’s responses to bereavement vary greatly. But, coping with loss isn’t necessarily a by-product of being older.

Other losses in an older person’s life will affect how they grieve the loss of someone close. This includes:

  • existing health conditions
  • communication and cognitive difficulties
  • reduced social support
  • changed living arrangements like moving to sheltered housing
  • financial difficulties

But, people will also experience ageing in ways that’ll help them to cope and adapt to losses, including:

  • the support of family and friends
  • better health for longer
  • financial stability
  • the ability to work or contribute to society in a range of ways

Bereavement and dementia

It can be difficult to know how to support someone living with dementia when they experience the death of a family member or carer.

It may be challenging to help the person accept the reality of the death. It can also be difficult to help them understand their feelings and the emotions of those around them.

Get information on supporting a person with dementia during bereavement

Last updated:
25 October 2023

There are no NHS operators available to chat at this time