The death of someone close to us is the most severe stressor imaginable. Bereavement brings a high risk of mental and physical health problems for a long time afterward.

Grieving is a completely natural process, but it can be profoundly painful and distressing. Occasionally we are aware in advance that someone is reaching the end of his or her life, and in this case the experience of grieving partly begins before their death occurs.

To a certain extent it is impossible to be prepared for the loss of a loved one. It is a time of overwhelming emotions. Despite these feelings, however, it may be possible to plan ahead for this difficult time, particularly to ease any practical issues surrounding the eventual death. This can help reduce the complications in the first hours and days of bereavement, and also later as you struggle to carry on. Taking action in advance can be comforting because you are able just to cope with the circumstances without the added pressure to “get yourself together” and sort things out.

  • Build a network of caring people. Family friends, neighbors, colleagues and strangers in a self-help group who have “been there” can give support. Let the people close to you know what you’re going through and warn them that you may soon need more support that usual, or not to be offended if you don’t contact them for a while. Knowing when to ask for help is important and so is being allowed to be alone with your thoughts. One of the keys to coping is to consider bereavement as a normal natural part of life which can be a topic of conversation without fear or discomfort.
  • Look after yourself physically. Try to eat well and get plenty of rest. It is very easy to overlook your physical needs when you are busy dealing with everything that has to be done surrounding a death or struggling with grief.

    You may have difficulty getting to sleep, and your sleep may be disturbed by vivid dreams and long periods of wakefulness. You may also lose your appetite, feel tense and short of breath, or drained and lethargic. Don’t try to do too much.

  • If possible, speak to your boss about having time off work or at least delegating some of your workload to a colleague. Gather information on the financial and legal aspects of bereavement in advance, so you feel less overwhelmed.
  • Prepare children by explaining the situation and how they are likely to feel at the time of the death and afterward. Warn them if any practical arrangements are going to change. Think about whether to find a specially-trained counselor to help them, and keep their school informed.

Emotionally, you will be getting used to the idea of the loss, but this may happen gradually, in fits and starts. It is often not as simple as it sounds, especially if you have known the person for a long time. You may switch between talking rationally about the situation, then have a sudden surge of hope that the person will recover.

Talking about the future loss may help you get used to the reality of the death and work through some of the pain. Remember it isn’t morbid to talk about death, and it’s sensible to be prepared for it as far as possible. At times, you may be the person who can support others also affected by the loss. As you do this you will probably, slowly, find a way of imagining life after the loss, with the person in your thoughts and memories.

Depression is a natural part of grief, and usually lifts of its own accord. But if it doesn’t, you may begin to worry that you are becoming clinically depressed. This can be treated and there are different ways of getting through it, which you could discuss with your doctor.

Stages of Grief

Grieving is a very personal experience, and no one can tell anyone else how to grieve. However, people usually go through all of these stages before they adapt to the loss. The stages can happen in a different order or overlap, and vary in the amount of time they take.

  1. Denial and shock. In this stage we refuse to believe that the death will occur. This is a natural coping mechanism, but can be very disturbing for yourself and others. To move on, we have to face reality and begin accepting support.
  2. Anger and guilt. It’s normal to blame others for our loss, or become angry with ourselves and the person we have lost. Try to express this anger rather than keep it in, as it could contribute to long-lasting depression.
  3. Bargaining with ourselves or with God. We believe there is something we or someone else can do to change reality.
  4. Deep sadness and despair. This is inevitable for all people who experience a significant loss. This can be the hardest and longest-lasting stage, with the most physical symptoms. In this stage, we have to work through painful memories and start coping with the changes in our life resulting from the loss.
  5. Acceptance. The final stage in which the sadness is less intense and we come to accept that life must go on. Energy returns and we begin to look to the future.