You are here:

Relationships And Bereavement

Relate logo

Relationships and Bereavement

Bereavement and loss is a process, a process that is a direct result of someone they know well dying or perhaps life becoming overwhelming because of sudden change. Most of us will recognise some of the stages in the process, although we may not have recognised the journey in detail.

People experience grief, the emotion that is associated with bereavement, when losses other than death occur, for example, moving house, separation and divorce, being made redundant, changing continents and so on. The same process usually kicks in. By the time we are adults, most of us can expect to have experienced some losses e.g. pets dying or changing schools and some people will have experienced the death of someone close to them.

In all situations, the process often starts with some kind of denial. The brain (conscious and unconscious) tell us that this has not actually happened (it is what we want to believe, so that we don’t have to face the terrible truth). Denial is usually associated with shock and can vary from person to person. In the case of separation or divorce, one partner chooses to ignore all the signs and only ‘wakes’ up to the reality when the other person actually leaves. In the case of death, it is not at all unusual to think you see the person who has died in the street or in a public place.

Those who have experienced the death of a partner, parent, family member or close friend will often be able to tell you what it has been like for them. This is helpful, although it is useful to remember that their experience is not the same as your experience and some of the deeper and confused feelings will be quite unique to you and to the circumstances of the event surrounding the death.

If you know what your coping strategies are, use them, and don’t worry about how extreme they are at this time. Here are some that other people have used:

  • Cleaning – baths, kitchen, cupboards
  • Digging the garden - probably unnecessarily
  • Playing sport - more than usual
  • Singing - at the top of your voice
  • Writing - letters that you will never send
  • Walking - more than usual

To help understand the process, the following diagram shows a typical journey and it can help to think through what stage is happening at what time. Family members and friends will all be at different stages at different times, and by understanding this, it will help the expectation that not everybody feels or behaves in the same way at the same time.

Relate Bereavement Guide

People sometimes get stuck at the blame or shame part of the process and end up with the ‘what if...’ questions whirring around in their head. It is helpful then, to seek help, talk to a good neutral friend, or seek counselling support. Not everyone sinks into depression or rock bottom and if they do this could be a very temporary stage and will depend on the individual’s ability to copy or manage change. At the point when there is realisation that the person you have lost is not going to come back, or the change that has been made cannot be undone, there is often a sense of acceptance and energy starts to increase. Really helpful ways of getting to this point are by actually doing something practical. For example, although funerals are definitely obvious rituals, there may be things like planting a bush, a tree, writing a letter, a piece of poetry, a memory box or another ritual that feels as though you have marked the acceptance of the loss in some concrete way.

Lastly and quite importantly, it is useful to note that it is not unusual for people to move from disorientation to re-organisation - just getting on with it. If you imagine a line between those two points on the diagram, you will see that it presents a sort of well underneath and this often referred to as “skating on thin ice”. If another loss comes along, perhaps a lesser one, it could see you crashing through the ice and you wonder why this minor loss has hit you so badly. It will be because this event has triggered you back to the major loss where the stages in the process have been missed. This would also be a good time to take care of yourself by seeking help to talk things through to keep the process shorter and healthier.

Martin's story

Martin’s wife had been ill for 2 years and although the prognosis was terminal he didn’t quite believe that she would die. When she did, he spent several days doing his daily things, cleaning, shopping and of course, arranging the funeral – but on sort of automatic pilot. At times he found himself not being quite sure what he was doing and began to worry about little things more, like locking all the doors at night several times.

After the funeral, he began to feel very angry with the doctors who did not make it clear to him that this could happen so soon. He also felt guilty that he had not done enough to make her last months and weeks better, and sank very slowly into not bothering with the housework or taking care of himself.

His daughter visited often and one day just told him to get himself to the doctor and sort himself out! He couldn’t even do that, but it was enough of a jolt to get him cleaning again. He and his daughter then had a long talk about their anger and their own different kinds of guilt and both decided to seek help as well as reassure the other that they could not have done anything very different. Over the next few months he thought about how he was going to spend the rest of his life, and with the help of friends and his counsellor started playing bowls again. It took him a long time to feel confident as a single person but now has a full life – one he would much rather have spent with his wife, but feels certain that he is making the best of it.

This factsheet was produced by Relate, charity number 207314, company number 394221. Revised April 2019.

Give us a call...

For confidential support and advice call 0800 056 2424 Monday to Friday 9am to 4pm