Coming to terms with the passing of a loved one can be difficult and unpredictable. Here’s how to get through it according to Dr Mel Wynne-Jones

Woman looking upset

Coping with death can be very difficult © iStock

Grief is the price we pay for love, but it can feel as if our own life has ended, too.

We may never really get over our loss, but we can find ways to live with it, and even be happy again.

Stages of grief

These often apply to other losses, too, such as a relationship break-up or redundancy. Initially we’re shocked, can’t believe it, think we’ll wake from this nightmare, and endlessly ‘rerun’ events in our minds but the ending’s always the same.

Distress overwhelms us – we may cry, collapse or seem unnaturally calm. Funerals can help to keep us busy, do justice to a loved one’s memory and we can feel comforted that others cared deeply, too.

Determined activity may keep us going for a while, although sleep is almost always a problem. But eventually anger and bargaining (‘if only’) set in, followed by depression, as we acknowledge that they are never coming back.

These stages of coping with death may last months or years, and we may go forwards and backwards, or get ‘stuck’, before final acceptance.

How it feels

Sudden and expected deaths can trigger very different emotions, although time to prepare may help. Some losses seem inevitable, such as an elderly parent, but we may still feel ‘orphaned’.

It feels particularly unjust when someone dies young, and losing a child is possibly the worst loss of all.

Losing a much-loved pet can also feel terrible.

Bereavement may trigger financial difficulty, new responsibilities or affect how others treat us  – friends may even avoid or exclude us. We may struggle with mixed feelings if the person had an unpleasant side, we feel we let them down or we cared more than others suspected.

We may feel unbearably lonely, guilty for not ‘getting over it’, angry that others have ‘moved on’ or feel life’s no longer worth living. But there’s no right way to feel or grieve, and most of us simply do the best we can.

Ways to cope

Be kind to yourself. Try to do the essentials, such as looking after yourself, eating properly, exercising, and so on, but don’t worry if you seem to achieve nothing some days – plan something to do on ‘autopilot’ tomorrow.

Accept or ask for help – whether it’s practical (shopping, cooking, paperwork), or emotional (company, support, invitations) – even if you are struggling to summon any interest or enthusiasm.

It’s not easy, but if you keep saying no, people may stop asking.

And don’t feel guilty if you suddenly catch yourself enjoying something – it’s allowed. Grief is very lonely; if you don’t have someone close to share your deepest feelings with, it may help to contact one of the many support organisations that help with grief.

Ask at your GP surgery or visit nhs.uk. But if depression feels unbearable or persistent, do see your GP, who can help.

7 Ways to help someone through loss

1 Phone or call round frequently, even if only for a few minutes, so they know you’re thinking of them.

2 Take a cake or casserole or invite them for a meal – cooking or eating alone can be particularly difficult.

3 Invite them to come out for a coffee, shopping, to the cinema, a walk or other shared activities – and keep asking.

4 Don’t be afraid to mention the dead person – you can’t make them more upset, and people sometimes day they feel as if their loved one never existed.

5 Ask how they’re feeling today – do they want to talk or would they rather not?

6 Remember and mention birthdays, anniversaries and other special days.

7 If you’re worried they are becoming deeply depressed, encourage them to seek help.