This page was clinically reviewed by Willis Atherley-Bourne (BA, MA) in July 2022.
There are fewer events in life more distressing than the death of a friend or family member. Bereavement relates to the period of time after we’ve lost people we love, and describes how we adjust to the significant amount of change that usually follows.
While we may grieve after other types of loss such as the end of a relationship, redundancy, retirement, losing a pet or loss of health, the intense range of emotions felt in relation to bereavement may affect us profoundly.
Bereavement therapy is advised if you are struggling to come to terms with your loss, especially if you believe the grief is impacting your day-to-day functioning i.e. your motivation to go to work, your ability to care for dependents, profound changes in your mood etc.
Depending on your individual circumstances, such as whether the person’s death was sudden or anticipated, your response to grief can affect you in unexpected ways. You may experience feelings of anger or unexpected changes in your mood/temperament, which can affect your view of your own life and those in your life going forward.
Another key factor is whether the death was of a child. The death of child draws on a deepened range of emotions in adults and can be confusing for surviving siblings or other child relatives and friends. An applied understanding of child development in child grief is an area our child therapists are able to assist with.
It is important to remember that there is no definitive length of time for mourning, or a particular way you are ‘supposed’ to feel while grieving. The emotional difficulties felt after the death of someone significant in your life are normal.
Dr Radu Iosub, Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Bristol, offers practical advice and support for managing feelings of grief during 'lockdown'. He explains the links between this and PTSD and talks about the different help and support available for those who may have suffered loss during this very difficult time.
What is bereavement?
Bereavement is used to describe the range of feelings associated with grief after someone we know has died. The depth of the bereavement may vary depending on the significance of the relationship between the deceased and the bereaved. An overwhelming sense of loss may be accompanied by emotions such as sadness, anger, guilt, frustration and anxiety, which often follow immediately after the death. This period is often described as ‘being in mourning.’
When you are bereaved, allowing yourself to come to terms with your own emotions within your own timescale is important when learning to cope. Initially, it may seem as though finding peace or acceptance following the death is a challenge. Over time, such feelings and though may ebb and flow, back and forth as you continue to work through your grief.
The way in which a person died can also have an impact on the type of emotions felt after their death. If the deceased had been battling a terminal illness for example, the death might have been expected, in which case you may already have had chance to begin the grieving process and say your goodbyes. If the death of the person close to you was particularly sudden, accidental, or violent, then it may take longer to go through your grieving process.
Causes of bereavement
While the death of someone you care for may seem like the obvious cause of bereavement, the type and nature of the death plays an important part in the grieving process and how the event ultimately impacts on your life.
Some of the primary causes of bereavement and intense grief include:
Death of a parent - the loss of our parents is an unfortunate event many of us have to prepare for during our lives. This will be a particularly significant death if you maintained a close attachment with your mother or father, and can leave you feeling isolated, with close family support important for helping you cope with the situation, particularly from siblings going through the same emotional journey.
Death of a child - outliving your child or experiencing death of a child through cot death, illness or accident can be one of the most painful periods of bereavement. Because the death of a child or adolescent is unexpected in the natural flow of life, you may experience feelings of reduced hope and sadness of your child not getting the chance to fulfil their potential and seeing them grow up, which understandably changes your life forever.
Death of a spouse or partner - as we spend so much of our adult lives with our spouse or partner, their loss can make you feel like you’ve lost a part of yourself and your ultimate companion. The support of friends and family is imperative in this circumstance, as they can help protect you from experiencing complex grief reactions and realise there is still hope for the future.
Death of a sibling - whether you are a child, adolescent or adult, losing your sibling can be very difficult at any life stage. As you have grown up with your brother or sister, you may have a very close bond with them, although feelings of jealously or comparison during their lifetime can make you feel regret. If a child has lost their sibling, it is important to involve them in the grieving process such as making funeral arrangement and preparing them for the range of emotions to come.
Death through suicide - losing someone to suicide is one of the more difficult and complex forms of bereavement you can go through. The more common emotions and symptoms felt during the grieving process can be further complicated by feelings of anger and regret directed either at your loved one for leaving the world, or towards yourself for either not fully understanding their state of mind, or feeling as though you could have done more to help them while they were alive.
The 5 Stages of Grief
There are five widely recognised stages of grief, although there have been some studies that have asserted there may actually be as many as seven.
It is important to understand that these are not sequential. They can occur in any order and people can experience several stages at the same time.
Here are the most well-known stages of grief:
Denial, disbelief, and numbness
Particularly if the death of your loved one has been sudden, initial feelings experienced may include heightened levels of shock and disbelief. This can make you feel an out-of-body sense of numbness and even denial that the death has actually taken place, finding it difficult to believe that you won’t see someone important to you again.
In the initial days and weeks, it can also feel as though you are ‘drifting’ through an alternate reality that isn’t your own, reflecting your brain’s attempt to process such extreme emotions within a short timeframe.
Anger or blame
Even if you aren’t prone to feelings of anger or aggression, these emotions are common in people who are grieving. The death of someone you love can make life feel extremely unfair, particularly if the person you are grieving was young or they had a lot of future plans in place.
Blaming yourself for something you did or didn’t say to the person before they died, or feeling angry towards them for their role in their death if it happened by suicide for example, are also common emotions.
Bargaining (for instance, "If they are cured of this cancer, I will never smoke again")
If you are religious or believe in any higher power having control over the situation you are experiencing, it is possible to go through a bargaining stage of grief, whereby you make promises or personal sacrifices in the hope that the death will not occur, or that things can go back to the way they were after your loved one has passed away.
Depressed mood and sadness
Symptoms of depression are likely when you are grieving someone who was close to you. Feelings of hopelessness and feeling as though your life no longer has any meaning can lead to suicidal thoughts when severe, so it is important you seek help from therapists at Priory specialising in the treatment of depression as a part of your bereavement programme should you feel this way.
Coming to terms with the death of a loved one is the final stage in the grieving process for many, although it can arrive earlier during bereavement or after skipping other stages of grief depending on the nature of death and whether it was expected.
While this stage isn’t promised to anyone during bereavement, it is characterised by a period of distinguishable calm, whereby you may feel ready to rebuild your life and return to work and other tasks you carried out before the person’s death.
Specialist bereavement counsellors at Priory
Priory understands that bereavement can be one of the most difficult experiences you may face, which is why our team of highly experienced bereavement therapists work with you to understand the nature of your loss. We can then create a therapeutic plan to help you cope with your grief and prepare for the future. Bereavement therapy is about supporting you to come to terms with something you cannot change, but may help you to understand how you can continue to take care of yourself and grieve at the same time.
It is important to remember that grief is a normal and healthy response to loss. As many of us are living longer, it can be some time before we experience grief, and every individual will cope with the associated emotions in different ways.
Bereavement Therapy at Priory
Bereavement therapy at Priory can help you increase your capacity to grieve while managing your day-to-day life, knowing you are getting support at a crucial point in your life. Such support is designed to reduce the risks of depression, prolonged grief reactions, anxiety and other associated indicators of complicated grief.
Our wide range of outpatient options exists alongside more structured approaches, including an inpatient stay at one of our nationwide network of Priory hospitals with access to psychological group therapy programmes and regular sessions with a specialist consultant. This is often used when treating associated symptoms and illnesses of bereavement including depression.
The unique and complex nature of your bereavement process and its intensely personal nature are recognised at Priory, with therapists providing tailored treatment programmes suitable to your level of need.
Some of the therapy methods we offer include:
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
This action-focused and problem solving approach is an effective talking therapy which can help you manage your thoughts or behaviours relating to your loss more effectively, which can involve finding different ways to maintain a link to the deceased person through accessing pleasurable memories, reflecting on their influence in your life, or feeling comfortable enough to talk about the person with others.
This approach involves offering space for you to not only reflect on memories of the deceased, but to develop methods of moving forwards in a way that enables you to understand what loss means for you and its application to your wider life experiences. You become more able to understand the past, present and future aspects of grief from your own cultural perspective.
As there can be associated symptoms of depression or anxiety during bereavement, mindfulness helps reduce the prevalence of negative thoughts by allowing you to ‘tune in’ to your body to identify and take steps to prevent any serious mental disorders from developing as a result. Mindfulness and meditation can help you live in the present and begin the path towards acceptance of what has happened, which can be vital when going through bereavement, as it can be difficult not to dwell too much on the past or the future.
While bereavement is something most of us have to face at some point in our lives, the unique set of emotions felt when grieving can feel isolating, even when trying to explain the situation to friends or family. Group therapy enables you to gain valuable insights, share anecdotes and coping methods surrounding loss with other people going through similar feelings. When observing different stages of bereavement others are experiencing in this setting, it has the capacity to help you realise you won’t always feel the same level of negative emotions, particularly during the early stages of grief.
If you are unable to attend one of our locations nationwide, we also offer online therapy at a time and place that suits you.