How to Cope With Bereavement
The loss of a loved one is something we all experience sooner or later, yet it’s arguably the life change we dread the most. Even if someone’s been ill for a long time, when they pass away it’s always huge shock. Indeed, it can affect every aspect of your wellbeing, including eating, sleeping and carrying out essential daily activities.
Bereavement can make you physically ill but it can affect your emotional health too. Here are some of the things you may experience:
Sadness, depression and overall low mood
Longing for the person who has died
The problem is the older you get, the more likely you’ll have had a number of bereavements. Yet losing someone close to you never gets any easier.
How we deal with our grief varies enormously from one of us to another, with many of us swinging between two or more different emotions, sometimes within the space of just a few hours. We may not be able to hide our sadness. Or we may bottle up our feelings and look as if we’re coping – though inside we may feel like we’re falling apart.
Losing a loved one can also be particularly challenging for the millions of people in the UK who are carers, many of whom feel a huge void in their lives when the person they’ve been caring for dies.
Do you need help?
There’s no hard and fast rule as to how long it should take to get over the passing of a loved one. People often say time heals, but the truth is most of us will never stop missing someone close to us who we’ve lost. Eventually, however, we should feel more ready to look to the future, and the number of good days we have will outnumber the bad.
On the other hand, if some considerable time has passed and you’re still experiencing any of the following, you may need some extra help from a grief or bereavement counsellor (see below, Where to get help):
You still feel very depressed
You struggle to find the energy to get out of bed
You can’t stop thinking about the person you’ve lost
You still long to see the person who has died when you’re out and about, or when you return home (sometimes you may even think you have seen them)
You can’t stop crying
You want to cry, but can’t
You have no appetite
You can’t concentrate
You find it easier to shut yourself away than see friends or family
As we all experience grief differently, there’s no right or wrong way to handle it. But there are a few things you can do that could help you cope with the emotions that can overwhelm you when you lose someone you love:
Look after yourself
When you lose someone, it can be easy to neglect yourself. For instance, you may not feel like eating, which is perfectly normal under the circumstances. However, it’s important to make sure your body is getting the nourishment it needs, even if you’re not hungry. And while it may not sound easy, try to eat as healthily as possible rather than falling back on convenience foods (though having something to eat is better than nothing).
It may also seem tempting to drink more than usual, as you may feel alcohol offers an escape or distraction when your emotions are raw. But try to stick to safe drinking guidelines, as drinking too much in the long term can lead to health problems (aim to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol each week).
If you’re worried about how much you’re drinking, you can speak to your GP about it in confidence or get some advice from your local alcohol addiction service. There’s also more information in our alcohol misuse guide.
Establish a routine
Losing someone you love can make you feel utterly lost, so having some structure to your day – no matter how small – may be helpful. Try to stick to your usual meal times even if you’re not feeling hungry, go to bed and get up at the same time as you would normally, and set aside some time each day for some gentle exercise. If you can do something that would help you relax at the same time each day, that’s a good idea too.
Also try to make time to keep in touch with your friends and family. After a loss you may find you want to spend more time on your own and avoid social situations. But try to realise that others may be feeling the same way too, so it may be up to you to keep the connections going, even if it’s just a case of sending them a text or calling them for a quick chat.
Try not to bottle things up
Some people find it easy to express their sadness openly. But if you’re not one of them, try to be aware that repressing your feelings isn’t helpful. Instead of keeping everything to yourself, try talking to someone you trust about how you feel and the person who has died. This may help you accept what’s happened. If you know someone who was bereaved previously, it may be a good idea to talk to them too, as you may find it comforting to talk to someone who knows what you’re going through.
On the other hand, it's not a good idea to compare yourself to someone who has gone through a similar experience. Remember that grief affects us all differently, and you may not cope in the same way as someone else. Also avoid putting a time limit on how long you’ll grieve for or compare the amount of time you spend grieving with that of someone else. Getting over a bereavement may take you much longer than you’d think.
If, however, you’re finding it particularly hard to cope with feelings of loss and it’s affecting your ability to go about your daily life, you may want to consider speaking to your GP about being referred for counselling.
Get plenty of rest
Bereavement can leave you feeling drained, especially when you have to make arrangements for the funeral and other practical things. You may also not be sleeping very well, or you may be exhausted from travelling. If you’re feeling tired are struggling to get a decent night’s sleep, take it easy on yourself and rest whenever you can, even if it’s in the middle of the day.
Spend time with young people
Being around young people after a bereavement could help reinforce your faith in life and give you hope for the future. So if you have children or grandchildren, or you have other family members or friends with children, consider spending some time with them. If you don't have any regular contact with children, you may want to consider doing some voluntary work helping children, or why not volunteer at your local primary school as a reading assistant?
Indeed, doing any type of voluntary work could help restore your sense of purpose after someone you love dies, especially if you’ve lost the sense of being valued by the person you’ve lost. Find organisations that are looking for volunteers in your local area by visiting do-it.org.
Organise a green memorial
Maintaining bonds with someone who has died is seen as healthy, as it may help you feel better to know your loved ones won’t be forgotten. Being able to pay your respects at a graveside can be helpful, as it provides a place you can associate with the person you’ve lost. But with so many friends and families scattered far away from each other these days, regular visits may not be practical depending on how far away you live from the person who has died.
One thing you could do is to plan to plant a tree in your local park, or even a rose bush in your garden as a reminder of the person you've just lost. Most local councils have tree planting programmes you can join as a sponsor, or to plant a tree in a favourite spot - contact your council’s parks department (find your local council at gov.uk).
Take small steps
When someone dies there are a few things you have to do within legal time frames – for instance, you usually have to register the death within five days at a register office. But where other things are concerned – such as sorting through your loved one’s possessions – there’s no need to rush, just take things one step at a time and only when you feel ready.
It’s also a good idea to put off making big decisions soon after someone close to you dies. Making big changes can itself be stressful, so take your time and only start thinking about what you want to do – moving house, for instance – when you feel strong enough.
Breaking bad news
One particularly challenging aspect of losing a loved one is having to tell other people about their passing. But remember, the way you break the news can make a big difference, not just for the person you’re telling but for you too.
Here are a few things you could keep in mind:
Always try to break news of a bereavement face to face. Try to remember that the way you break bad news will stay with that person forever. If you can’t speak to them in person, give them a call – but don’t leave a message, make sure you speak to them personally. Also try to remember to be sensitive as to how the news may affect them.
If you think it may help, try practicing what you’re going to say beforehand and give yourself plenty of time when you’re breaking the news. Make sure, wherever possible, that you’re in a safe and confidential environment too.
Use plain and simple language when breaking bad news – try not to beat around the bush or start by talking about unrelated issues. Also ask if the person you’re talking to has understood what you’ve told them, and encourage them to express their feelings – this will help confirm that they’ve taken everything in. If it’s clear they haven’t understood you, repeat the news again until you’re satisfied they realise what’s happened.
Helping someone who’s been bereaved
If someone you know has lost a loved one there are several ways in which you could support them. Here are some of the things you can do:
Don’t avoid them, but try to be there for them when they’re grieving. This could simply involve keeping in touch by phone, text or email, or you may want to offer practical support such as helping to organise the funeral or doing some shopping for them if they can’t face going out.
Encourage them to talk, not just about the person they’ve lost but how the loss has affected them. Try not to interrupt them, just listen. Also try to avoid saying things like, ‘I understand how you feel’ or ‘You’ll get over it’.
If they don’t want to talk, just sit with them – they may find simply having someone in the room is a great comfort, especially if they have suddenly found themselves living alone.
Remember to take care of yourself when you’re supporting someone who is grieving too. You may find yourself becoming emotionally drained, so make time to rest and relax and do things that make you feel good.
Where to get help
Your GP can refer you for counselling if you’re finding things difficult after losing someone. There are also several organisations that offer advice and support for those who have been bereaved:
Cruse Bereavement Care
0808 808 1677
Cruse Bereavement Care Scotland
0845 600 2227
The Good Grief Trust
At a Loss.org
Child Bereavement UK
0800 02 888 40
Child Death Helpline
0800 282 986
0800 800 6019
Grief Talk (Grief Encounter)
0808 802 0111
Bereavement Advice Centre
0800 634 9494
The Bereavement Trust
0800 435 455
The Compassionate Friends
0345 123 2304 (0288 77 88 016 Northern Ireland)
National Association of Widows
WAY Widowed & Young
War Widows’ Association
0845 2412 189
08088 020 021
Natural support for when you’re grieving
If you’re not eating properly after losing someone, taking a good-quality multivitamin and mineral supplement may help make sure you’re getting a daily supply of the essential nutrients your body needs, especially during difficult times. There are also certain supplements you could take to support your mental wellbeing including when you’re feeling low, when you’re experiencing anxiety or you’re struggling to get any sleep.
Many people find it difficult to sleep after the death of a loved one. If this is the case for you, taking a herbal supplement that contains valerian may be an option. This herb has been used for thousands of years – it was often taken by the ancient Greeks and Romans – and it has a history of traditional use for the temporary relief of sleep problems and mild anxiety. There are studies that back up the idea that valerian may help improve sleep quality (ii), with one clinical trial suggesting some postmenopausal women taking valerian root extract slept better than those taking a placebo (iii).
This herb is often used in the traditional Ayurvedic system of health to help with stress and anxiety, with one small-scale study suggesting it may reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body (iv). And if you’re not sleeping very well, Ashwagandha has also been found to improve sleep quality significantly (v).
5-HTP – or 5-Hydroxytryptophan – is an amino acid that’s often used as a remedy for depression and low mood. Some studies suggest it may be as effective as conventional antidepressants (vi). There’s also some evidence that 5-HTP may help with anxiety disorders (vii).
Rhodiola – also known as arctic root or golden root – is a herb used traditionally throughout Europe for stress relief. Its roots contain many active ingredients, including rosavin and salidroside. Studies suggest it may help reduce anxiety and stress more effectively than a placebo (viii). Experts have also discovered it may improve mental alertness in people with sleep difficulties (ix) and that it may help alleviate symptoms of depression (x).
St John’s wort
Originating in parts of Europe and Asia but now grown in many other parts of the world, St John’s wort is a popular herbal remedy used for the relief of slightly low mood and mild anxiety, based on traditional use only. There’s some evidence it may be more effective than a placebo at treating mild to moderate depression (xi), with studies suggesting it’s as effective as some popular prescription antidepressants (xii).
Always consult your GP or pharmacist before taking St John’s wort, as it can interact with some other medicines.
Lavender aromatherapy oil
Lavender essential oil has a long-established tradition of helping you feel more relaxed and to sleep better. One study even suggests lavender oil may be an effective natural way of treating the signs of anxiety (xiii), while researchers elsewhere claim it may be more effective for generalised anxiety disorder than a placebo (xiv). Try having a warm bath with a drop or two of lavender oil before bedtime to help you sleep more peacefully.
For more advice on matters of emotional wellbeing, visit the mental health section of our health library.
Bent, S., et al. Valerian for sleep: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Med. (2006 Dec). 119(12):1005-12. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17145239
Taavoni,, et al. Effect of valerian on sleep quality in postmenopausal women: a randomized placebo-controlled clinical trial. Menopause. (September 2011). Vol 18 Issue 9 p 951-955. . Available online: https://journals.lww.com/menopausejournal/Abstract/2011/09000/Effect_of_valerian_on_sleep_quality_in.6.aspx
Chandrasekhar, K., et al. . A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian J Psychol Med. (2012 Jul). 34(3):255-62. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3573577/
Salve , J., et al. Adaptogenic and Anxiolytic Effects of Ashwagandha Root Extract in Healthy Adults: A Double-blind, Randomized, Placebo-controlled Clinical Study. Cureus. (2019 Dec 25). 11(12):e6466 . Available online: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32021735/
Byerley, W.F., et al. 5-hydroxytryptophan: a review of its antidepressant efficacy and adverse effects. J Clin Psychopharmacol. (1987). 7:127-137. Available online: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3298325-5-hydroxytryptophan-a-review-of-its-antidepressant-efficacy-and-adverse-effects/
Poldinger. W., et al. . A functional-dimensional approach to depression: Serotonin deficiency as a target syndrome in a comparison of 5-hydroxytryptophan and fluvoxamine. Psychopathology. (1991). 24:53-81. Available online: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1909444-a-functional-dimensional-approach-to-depression-serotonin-deficiency-as-a-target-syndrome-in-a-comparison-of-5-hydroxytryptophan-and-fluvoxamine
Kahn, R.S., et al. Effect of a serotonin precursor and uptake inhibitor in anxiety disorders; a double-blind comparison of 5-hydroxytryptophan, clomipramine and placebo. Int Clin Psychopharmacol. (1987). 2:33-45. Available online: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3312397-effect-of-a-serotonin-precursor-and-uptake-inhibitor-in-anxiety-disorders-a-double-blind-comparison-of-5-hydroxytryptophan-clomipramine-and-placebo/
Cropley, M., et al. The Effects of Rhodiola rosea L.Extract on Anxiety, Stress, Cognition and Other Mood Symptoms. Phytother Res. (2015 Dec). 29(12):1934-9. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26502953
Darbinyan, V., et al. Rhodiola rosea in stress induced fatigue—a double blind cross-over study of a standardized extract SHR-5 with a repeated low-dose regimen on the mental performance of healthy physicians during night duty. Phytomedicine. (2000). ,7:365-371. Available online: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0944711300800550?via%3Dihub
Kasper, S., et al. Superior efficacy of St Johns wort extract WS® 5570 compared to placebo in patients with major depression: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, multi-center trial. BMC Med. (2006 Jun 23).
Uebelhack, R., et al. Efficacy and tolerability of Hypericum extract STW 3-VI in patients with moderate depression: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Adv Ther. (2004). 21:265-75.
Singer, A., et al. Duration of response after treatment of mild to moderate depression with Hypericum extract STW 3-VI, citalopram and placebo: a reanalysis of data from a controlled clinical trial. Phytomedicine. (2011). ,18(8-9):739-742.
Bjerkenstedt, L., et al. Hypericum extract LI 160 and fluoxetine in mild to moderate depression, A randomized, placebo-controlled multi-center study in outpatients. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. (2004 Nov 12).
Woelk, V. Rhodiola rosea in stress induced fatigue—a double blind cross-over study of a standardized extract SHR-5 with a repeated low-dose regimen on the mental performance of healthy physicians during night duty. Phytomedicine. (2000). ,7:365-371. Available online: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0944711300800550?via%3Dihub
Darbinyan, H. A multi-center, double-blind, randomised study of the Lavender oil preparation Silexan in comparison to Lorazepam for generalized anxiety disorder. Phytomedicine. (2010 Feb). ,17(2):94-9. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19962288
Kasper, S., et al. Lavender Oil Preparation Silexan Is Effective in Generalized Anxiety Disorder--A Randomized, Double-Blind Comparison to Placebo and Paroxetine. Int J Neuropsychopharmacol. (2014 Jun). ,17(6):859-69. Available online: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24456909
Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.
Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.