Dealing with a bereavement – Supporting yourself and others

Losing a loved one can be an overwhelming experience, even if the death was expected. It’s not uncommon to feel like you’re living in a nightmare from which you can’t wake up. Grief is a natural part of life and with the right help, you can move forward.

Supporting yourself through a bereavement

  • Acknowledge that you’re experiencing normal reactions to a normal part of life. There is nothing unhealthy about grief, and grief is not an illness. Although death is a painful part of life, you need to go through it to get through it.
  • Understand that grief can feel very chaotic. Anyone who has been bereaved can tell you that they moved back and forth between the five stages – sometimes multiple times. Grief isn’t linear. It’s messy.
  • Try and maintain even a basic routine when you’re first bereaved. Getting out of bed, showering and dressing, or even eating a small meal can feel monumental after a loss but do what you can to keep to some semblance of structure. It will help you to feel as if there is at least one thing you have control over.
  • Avoid numbing the pain. Some people turn to alcohol or drugs while they grieve, but they can find that they become even more distressed. The pain of loss cannot be medicated – talking, sharing, crying, and remembering are all key to recovering from loss. Substances only delay grief and make it harder to see things clearly.
  • Practice self-care even when it’s the last thing you want to do. Eating healthily, staying physically active, and getting enough rest will help you to stay as well as possible during this difficult time. Stress management is also particularly important when grieving and you might find these tips helpful.
  • Let time take time. There is no schedule for grief, and everyone is different. Be gentle on yourself and allow yourself the time and space to work through your feelings.
  • Don’t feel pressured by other people to ‘move on’ or give your loved one’s belongings away either – you know what’s best for you.
  • Reach out to people who will listen to you and not judge you for your feelings. If you don’t have anyone you think can support you, you might find it helpful to connect with others via online support groups such as the Sue Ryder Online Bereavement Support Community. Speak to your GP about how you feel or contact retailTRUST for in-the-moment support.
  • Accept that some people – even people you care about deeply – may not know how to cope with your loss. They may avoid you, and while this can be very hurtful, try and accept that they are doing the best they know how. Focus on the networks of people you know who are actively supportive of you.
  • Don’t start counselling too quickly after your loss. Counsellors and healthcare professionals all agree that it’s important to wait at least 12 weeks to give you time to come through the initial stages of a bereavement such as registering the death, holding the funeral, and dealing with other practicalities. You also need time to emotionally process the loss. This is not to say that talking to someone, including a retailTRUST counsellor, won’t be helpful, but you’ll get the best out of structured bereavement counselling if you wait until you’ve come through the first three months.
  • Be realistic about what you can and cannot do. Ask if you need help around the house or someone to look after your children to give you some space on your own. You don’t need to be a superhero. Be gentle on yourself.
  • If possible, avoid making any major decisions that will affect your life for at least 12 months after your loss. For example, moving house might feel like a good idea if you want to avoid painful memories, but you may make a decision in haste and regret it. Wait until your head clears and you’ve come through the ‘firsts’, such as the first family birthdays, holidays, wedding anniversary, and so on.
  • Accept that grief can trigger many different and unexpected emotions. It can feel like you’ve been blindsided but it’s important to understand that each loss we bear in life is tied in some ways to previous losses (even if they weren’t related to a physical death). Allow yourself to feel these emotions and share them with people you trust or consider keeping a journal of your thoughts and feelings.

Supporting someone through bereavement

  • Send a letter or card. In this day of email and social media, a handwritten card of condolence is increasingly rare. But many bereaved people report reading the letters and cards many times throughout the grieving process and find great comfort in them. If you include an offer to help in the letter, make sure that you follow up a few weeks later. Don’t wait for the bereaved person to come to you to ask for assistance. They may be too shy to ask, or they may be so out of sorts that they’ve forgotten who has offered a helping hand.
  • Be there. You can’t fix this – it’s way too big – and there’s nothing that you can say that will bring the person’s loved one back. Human beings like to help people and solve problems but in the case of death, it’s enough just to ask the person how they are, and if they want to talk. If they prefer not to talk at that moment, let them know that you’re there when they’re ready. Because they will be.
  • Make time. If they initiate a conversation, make time for them. This isn’t something that can or should be rushed. Let them lead and validate what they’re saying to you, even if you can’t relate to their experience.
  • Be patient. The bereaved person may tell you the same story about their loved one’s death multiple times. This is actually very helpful and can allow them to process their feelings in a safe, non-judgemental space.
  • Be aware of the impact of language. We are a death-denying society on the whole, and we tend to use euphemisms to describe the experience of grief. Being sensitive with your language can have a profound impact on the bereaved so follow their lead; if they choose to say ‘he passed on’, or ‘she’s in a better place’, that’s appropriate. But if they are using more stark ways of describing their loss such as ‘he’s dead’, ‘she was killed’, don’t try and soften their language.
  • Don’t worry if you didn’t know the deceased person or aren’t close to the grieving – reach out anyway. Sometimes, the people we think we can count on the most aren’t there when we need them, and instead, someone we only have loose connections to steps in. A written card expressing your condolences will be welcomed, and the quality of your support doesn’t rely on how well you know the grieving person.
  • Don’t compare your grief with theirs. It’s natural to want to share our own experiences in the hope that the bereaved will take heart that we’ve come to the stage of acceptance. However, this can take away from their own experiences and may make them feel as if their pain doesn’t count. Every death is different but each one is significant.
  • Offer practical help as well as emotional support. Offer to mow their lawn, weed their garden, get their shopping, babysit their children, pick up prescriptions, and generally do what they might not have the time or energy to do themselves.
  • Set up a rota to help the bereaved person. If you’re part of a group of friends, creating a rota to ensure that there is always someone available to help out where needed can be really helpful. A WhatsApp or email group can be implemented so that the people on the rota can stay in touch and highlight anything that needs doing. Remember that someone who is grieving may not have the energy to reach out and ask for help so make it as easy on them as possible.
  • Be honest with yourself about what you can and cannot do. Witnessing someone else’s pain – especially if we’re struggling ourselves – can be difficult. If you don’t feel like you’re in the right headspace to support the bereaved person at that particular moment, arrange to speak another time when you feel like you’ll be able to give more of yourself without compromising your own wellbeing.
  • If you use social media, get permission from the grieving family to put up a memorial site, post photos or mention the deceased person. Seeing a photo of a loved one, or reading about them, without expecting to may cause the bereaved unnecessary pain. Always check that whatever you post is acceptable to the family.
  • Don’t avoid talking about the deceased person. They might not be here physically, but they are alive in their loved one’s memory, and always will be. Make an effort to contact the bereaved on important anniversaries, such as the deceased person’s birthday, or anniversary of their death just to acknowledge that you’re there and thinking of them.

Further resources you might find helpful

Organisations which you might find helpful

For bereaved adults:

Click for more information on Cruse Bereavement Care

A confidential helpline for anyone who has been directly or indirectly affected by bereavement.

One-to-one grief counselling.

Online discussion and support forums for bereaved people.

Support groups.

Publications and downloads on all aspects of grief.

For parents and carers of children and young people who have been bereaved:

Click for more information on the Childhood Bereavement Network

A range of online resources for parents, carers and others who are supporting a child or young person through a bereavement.

Local support group network for any parent or family member wanting to share experiences of helping a child through bereavement.

Click for more information on Winston's Wish

A confidential helpline offering emotional support and advice for any parent, carer, or other adult who is helping a child or young person through a bereavement.

For bereaved children and young people: 

Click for more information on Child Bereavement UK

A confidential helpline offering emotional support for children and young people (up to the age of 25) who have been bereaved.

The helpline is also available for any parent, carer, or other adult who is helping a child or young person through a bereavement.

Click for more information on Hope Again

Cruse Bereavement Care’s service for children and teenagers offers a range of services designed specifically for those who have been bereaved at a young age:

A confidential helpline for any young person who has been bereaved.

Advice and guidance for parents, carers, educators and health professionals.

Referrals for face-to-face counselling via the Cruse Bereavement Care counselling network.

Downloadable information on all aspects of bereavement.

An online discussion forum for young people to share their experiences of loss.

After the death of a sibling (for children, young people and their parents)

Click for more information on Sibling support

A helpline run by siblings for siblings, offering children and young people emotional support after their loss.

Advice and guidance for parents and carers who are supporting a child or young person through a bereavement.

Downloadable information on all aspects of sibling bereavement.

After the death of a child

Click for more information on the Child Death Helpline

A confidential helpline offering emotional support for anyone who has lost a child of any age including parents, grandparents, extended family members and family friends.

  • The Compassionate Friends tcf.org.uk 0345 123 2304

  • The Compassionate Friends Northern Ireland tcf.org.uk 0288 77 88 016

Click for more information on The Compassionate Friends

A confidential helpline offering emotional support for anyone grieving a child of any age including parents, grandparents, siblings, extended family members and family friends.

Local support groups.

Signposting to other services including face-to-face child bereavement counsellors.

Click for more information on 2 Wish Upon A Star

Emotional and practical support to anyone who has lost a family member under the age of 25.

Structured family bereavement counselling.

Play therapy for young bereaved family members.

After sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)

Click for more information on the Lullaby Trust

A confidential helpline offering emotional support for anyone who has a lost a child to SIDS.

Local support groups.

Online discussion and support forums for bereaved parents.

Care of next infant programme.

Befriending service.

After a miscarriage or stillbirth 

  • SANDS – The Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity sands.org.uk 0808 164 3332

Click for more information on SANDS

A confidential helpline offering emotional and practical support to parents and other family members who have suffered the loss of a baby through a miscarriage or stillbirth.

Local support groups.

Signposting to local counselling services.

Online discussion forums for bereaved parents.

After a miscarriage 

Click for more information on the Miscarriage Association

A confidential helpline offering emotional and practical support to parents who have suffered the loss of a baby through a miscarriage.

Local support groups.

Signposting to local counselling services.

Online discussion forums for bereaved parents.

After a miscarriage (Scotland) 

Click for more information on Scottish Care and Information on Miscarriage

A confidential helpline offering emotional and practical support to parents and other family members who have suffered the loss of a baby through a miscarriage or stillbirth.

Local support groups.

Signposting to local counselling services.

Future pregnancy support via specialised counselling.

After an ectopic pregnancy 

Click for more information on The Ectopic Pregnancy Trust

A confidential helpline offering emotional and practical support to anyone who has suffered an ectopic pregnancy, including their partner.

Downloadable guidance on all aspects of ectopic pregnancy.

Online discussion forums.

Individual and group remote support sessions.

After a suicide

  • Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS) uksobs.org

Click for more information on SOBS

A confidential helpline offering support to anyone over the age of 18 who has been bereaved by a suicide.

Face-to-face support groups are available in many parts of the country.

Downloadable resources for individuals and those involved in the study of suicide bereavement.

After a homicide or manslaughter

  • Support After Murder & Manslaughter (SAMM) samm.org.uk 0121 472 2912 

Click for more information on SAMM

A confidential helpline for anyone who has lost someone to homicide or manslaughter offering emotional support and advice on the legal aspects of this type of loss.

Online support forum specifically for families who share this kind of loss.

Signposting to relevant services local to you.

Retreats for people who have lost someone in this way.

After the loss of a pet

Click for more information on Blue Cross Pet Care

A confidential helpline staffed by trained volunteers offering emotional and practical support after the loss of a pet whether through death or enforced separation.