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What is grief?
Grief is a natural reaction to loss, which manifests itself in emotional pain or sadness. It can occur when you lose someone or something that you care about.
On this webpage we are focusing on grief caused by the death of someone important to us, like a close relation or friend.
Grief can be experienced in other circumstances, such as the loss of a pet or the death of a public figure. It can also manifest itself as the loss of something you consider important such as losing your job, your friend moving abroad or breaking up with a partner.
How might grief affect me?
The grieving process affects everyone differently. Grief is a personal experience that can be complex and unpredictable. You may experience:
- Intense constant grief immediately after your loved one’s death, which gradually changes into unprovoked waves or burst of intense feelings.
- Intense grief that comes back at a later stage. Reawakened grief.
- Delayed grief, which is an intense grief response that can start weeks, months or even years after the death of your loved one. It may happen if you don’t have the opportunity to grieve properly, such as being busy looking after a family member or a business.
Reawakened and delayed grief may come out of the blue, or by experiencing something triggering. For example:
- an anniversary
- a familiar smell or sound
- the loss of someone else you love, such as a family member or a public figure.
Though grief is a completely unique experience, it tends to get easier to manage in time. But for many, the grieving process will never be fully completed.
The grief you experience when you have lost someone to suicide can be more complex and intense. Support is available for coping with bereavement by suicide and you can also contact charities like Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide or Cruse.
For some who have witnessed a loved one’s condition deteriorate, they may experience feelings of relief that the person is no longer suffering, which can be followed by guilt. It is important to remember throughout the process of grieving that if you feel guilty, there is likely nothing more you could have done for the person. If you feel you made mistakes, it’s good to recognise that we’re all human and we all have weaknesses, so we must allow ourselves to acknowledge that we did our best under the circumstances.
As your feelings of grief subside, this does not mean you didn’t care enough – it is natural that you begin to refocus on living your life.
What are the symptoms of grief?
Grief can impact both your physical health and mental health. It can also result in social or emotional reactions, such as having no desire to engage with others, behaviour changes or feeling a range of emotions like guilt and anger.
Common physical issues are:
- disturbed sleep
- changes in eating – such as eating too much, too little, or comfort eating
- physical symptoms of anxiety, such as nausea, palpitations or panic attacks
More information about anxiety is available on our anxiety disorders page.
Common feelings in response to grief are:
- shock and numbness
- overwhelming sadness, crying
- tiredness or exhaustion
- anger, this might be towards the person who has died, God or a religious figure, or their illness
- guilt, maybe about how you feel, or something that you did or didn’t do
- intense feelings of loneliness
- withdrawing from social contact
You may experience positive feelings when going through the grieving process. As humans, we are wired to hold opposing or contradictory feelings at the same time. Keep in mind that grief is fluid and this is part of how we cope.
You may also believe you see or hear your loved one whilst experiencing intense grief. These are known as auditory or visual hallucinations. These experiences do not mean that you are developing a mental illness.
If you are concerned about any of your symptoms, make an appointment to speak with your GP. Emotional support may help you to manage your thoughts and feelings.
What are the stages of grief?
While grief is very personal and everyone’s grief response will be different, there are some commonalities in the grieving process. Studies on grief theory suggest that grief has different stages which can form a cycle, though it’s worth noting that there is no specific order in which these are experienced. The most common stages are:
Denial – feeling numb, shocked or in disbelief. You may feel panic or confusion. Some people at first carry on as if nothing has happened while you process it.
Anger – feeling hostility, resentment or bitterness. You may blame yourself or others or direct your anger towards the person who has died.
Depression – feeling sadness, longing, tiredness, hopelessness and helplessness. You may feel isolated or like life no longer holds meaning.
Bargaining – feelings of guilt or vulnerability. This can often prompt “what if” or “if only” statements as you look to regain control and want to feel like you can change the outcome.
Acceptance – while it may feel like nothing will be right again, gradually most people find the pain eases and it’s possible to accept the loss. You may acknowledge the implications of the loss and be prepared to learn to live again and move forward.
Where can I get emotional support?
You can talk to the people in your life or a professional about how you’re feeling. It’s an important step of the grieving process for many people. Take this step when you feel ready.
You can get emotional support from:
- Friends and relatives
- Community networks and social circles
- Places of worship
- Emotional support lines
- Support groups
- Specialist bereavement charities, such as Cruse who run a national bereavement helpline and can offer 1 to 1 support.
Emotional support lines aren’t the same as talking therapies. They are also known as ‘listening services’ and they are staffed by skilled and trained listeners.
They can support you if you want a confidential and non-judgemental safe space to talk. For example, you may be:
- finding it difficult to talk to others who have experienced the loss too, or
- experiencing feelings which you think other people may not agree with.
Talking therapy also offers emotional support. This is where you talk to a trained mental health professional about your emotional concerns. They can help you work through your grief, or existing issues which may have been made worse by grief.
You may be able to access talking therapy services through:
- The NHS. Your GP can refer you, or you make a self-referral in many areas.
- An employee assistance programme (EAP). Ask your employer or HR department if your company has an EAP.
- Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic support services. Such as Black Minds Matter.
- Your local LGBTQIA+ centre.
- Charities sometimes offer talking therapy services.
- A private therapist. You will need to pay for this.
Most of the suggestions listed above will provide you with free or low-cost therapy.
Click on the links below to access further information about:
Accessing professional support
If you’re finding that your grief is having a big impact on your life it may be time to talk to your GP, or access talking therapy.
A big impact on your life may look like:
- Not being able to move on
- Not being able to do the things you normally do. Like concentrating on tasks
- Losing interest in hobbies, work and study
- Self-neglect, such as not washing or eating
- Unable to maintain relationships with people
- Sleeping problems
- Undereating or overeating
- Giving up on your dreams
It’s important to be aware that you can contact your GP or talking therapy services at any point. You don’t need to wait a certain length of time, or reach a certain point, before asking for help. If you are concerned about how you are feeling, seek support.
Looking after yourself
Though you may seek support from other people to help you through the grieving process, there are also things that you can do yourself to help you manage. Such as:
Follow your treatment steps – this includes attending therapy appointments and completing any follow up work as part of your treatment.
Manage stress levels – find more information on stress
Allow yourself time – it is important to allow yourself the time and space to process your feelings. You might find it helpful to talk to a friend, but equally you might want to write down your thoughts, meditate or carry out something cathartic like painting how you feel. There are many ways to express your grief.
Socialise – it is important to stay in touch with people who can support you. Whilst you might feel you want to avoid people, it can be really helpful to talk about your feelings with friends. You can always decide on the location and number of friends you meet. Or you could join a local support group, or community group.
Exercise and physical activity – staying physically active is proven to reduce cortisol (the stress hormone), boost mood and wellbeing and aid sleep. Find out more information about how to take care of your physical health.
Keep in mind important dates such as anniversaries – certain days in the year or other reminders may cause symptoms of grief to be reawakened. Plan ahead, such as arranging to be with family on potentially triggering days. This may be an opportunity to turn a difficult day into one which honours the memory as well as caring for yourself.
Handling practical issues following the loss of a loved one – you may have practical issues to deal with following someone’s death, such as registering the death or dealing with your loved one’s finances.
The government website has a useful step-by-step guide called ‘What to do when someone dies.’ This gives practical information on what to do after a death.
You can also contact the Bereavement Advice Centre for advice. They offer a national service with free practical advice about what to do after a death. They have guides available for you to follow on their website.
Debt and money issues – you can get free, expert advice from debt organisations if:
- the deceased has debts, or
- their death has caused you financial hardship.
National Debtline have useful information called ‘Debts after death’:
Our Mental Health & Money Advice service have created practical webpage on how to manage finance during the cost-of-living crisis.
National debt organisations are:
Making a will – when someone dies it might make you think about your own mortality. Some people may find it comforting to use this moment as an opportunity to set your own affairs in order:
Mental Health & Money Advice have practical guidance on how to make a will
At a Loss
At a Loss is a charity that help bereaved people find support and improve their wellbeing.
Animal welfare charity with pet bereavement support services.
Citizens Advice is a national charity that gives people the knowledge and confidence they need to find their way forward – whoever they are, and whatever their problem.
Cruse is a UK bereavement charity, which provides free care and bereavement counselling to people experiencing grief.
Gov.uk is the best place to find government services, information and support.
National Health Service website providing guidance and information on physical and mental health issues.
Rethink Mental Illness
An England-wide mental health charity supporting people severely affected by mental illness.
Sue Ryder is a charity that support people who are living with a terminal illness, a neurological condition or who have lost someone.
The Loss Foundation
A charity that provides free bereavement support for loss to Covid-19 or cancer.
Widowed and Young (WAY)
WAY is the only national charity in the UK for people aged 50 or under when their partner died.
Bereaved children and young people
Bereavement by suicide
Grieving is very common when someone dies. For many people, grief causes short term intense mental and physical distress. Grief isn’t a diagnosed mental health condition or disorder. It is a normal human reaction to bereavement. Over time, these emotions become easier to manage and it’s possible to accept the loss and move forwards.
If you have persistent grief that affects your everyday life, you may get diagnosed with prolonged grief disorder. Prolonged grief disorder affects about 9% of adults. You may be given this diagnosis if:
- You have had intense and persistent emotional pain since your loss,
- You spend most of your time thinking about your loss,
- Your loss has impacted your ability to function in important areas of life, and
- You have experienced the above symptoms for a longer time than expected based on social, cultural, and religious norms.
You might be at greater risk of developing prolonged grief disorder if:
- You are an older adult
- You have previously experienced a mental health condition such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety or PTSD
- You are a caregiver
- You have experienced the death of a loved one suddenly or under traumatic circumstances
Those with prolonged grief disorder may be at higher risk of suicidal thoughts, if you are at immediate risk of suicide please call 999.
PTSD – With prolonged grief disorder you may be preoccupied with memories surrounding the death of a loved one but you will not re-experience them as happening in the here and now.
Depressive episode – With prolonged grief disorder, symptoms are specifically focused on the loss of a loved one, such as difficulty accepting the loss, feeling angry about the loss or feeling as though a part of you has died.
Prolonged grief disorder and mood disorders often occur at the same time.
Grief and bereavement are often used interchangeably. Although they do overlap, they mean slightly different things. Grief is a person’s natural reaction to a loss that can present itself in emotional pain and sadness while bereavement represents the time period after the loss when the person grieves and mourns that loss. Bereavement, which is also known as the mourning period, is the process whereby we adapt to a loss.
It’s worth noting that bereavement doesn’t always involve the death of a loved one – you can experience bereavement for lots of types of losses which impact your wellbeing, such as the end of a relationship, a job loss or moving away to a new location. Similarly, you can grieve for losses that don’t relate to human life, such as the loss of a pet.
In summary, grief describes the response to any type of loss and bereavement describes the period after someone has died in which we grieve that loss.