Chapter 1: The experience of grieving

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Grieving is a complex but normal process by which individuals, families or communities cope with the changes that follow a bereavement.

Death is a single event, but the bereaved may be affected in many ways.   What may have been lost is a relationship, an identity in the relationship, or a set of opinons about the realities of the world. What may have to change may be other relationships, available income, responsibilities, work, accommodation, friends or family.

How people react to the changes that follow a bereavement reflects the values, beliefs and attitudes within their culture, family, personality. It also reflects the nature of the death, and of the lost relationship, the character of the grieving person and the social circumstances.  So the process of grieving is unique for each individual after each bereavement.  It is unwise to make any preliminary assumptions about  the grieving person’s needs.

These changes may be so extreme that old ways of coping do not work and people cannot live their lives as before.  They may have to learn new attitudes and coping techniques, a new identity and new perceptions of the world; this can be exhausting and may need your help.

Grieving is not either always present or finally absent. It is dynamic and changing.  In fact change is a constant feature as people recreate their lives.

The process of grieving

So the process of grieving restructures our emotional, physical, spiritual, social and   intellectual responses and behaviours so that we can take our new place in the world;

or, more briefly, grieving revives the power to cope.

Grieving involves the transformation of meanings and emotions associated with one’s relationship to the lost person. The goal of this transformation is to permit one’s survival without the deceased while at the same time ensuring a continuing, but different, relationship with the memories of them.

Changes that may follow bereavement

It can be helpful to consider how the experiences described above may be linked to five fundamental changes that the bereaved person has to deal with. In brief, these are:

External, secondary changes in

  • familial and social circumstances.

Internal, primary changes in:

  • the relationship with the person who has died;
  • one’s sense of identity;
  • one’s perceptions of the world.
  • the capacity to adapt.

Changed familial and social circumstances

The loss of a relationship may be accompanied by the stress of the changed circumstances, e.g. dealing with the grieving family, the funeral or immediate    financial problems, finding work, moving house, caring for children, straitened finances or debt, interfering family or neighbours. These stresses may be so urgent that at first they overwhelm the loss of the relationship aspect of grieving.  Later there may be a need to return to consider that broken relationship.

There may also be changes in the roles one is expected to play, especially in the family. Perhaps, from mother figure to bread-winner; or from young son to “man of family”, or from an unassuming family member to family senior, archivist and “authority”.

There may be practical, medical, legal, financial concerns to cope with, carrying the need to search for and cope with physical assistance or for advice from various services.

Change in the relationship

A person has died, but aspects of the relationship continue. It is rather as if someone has moved to another land, but with no possibility of return or communication. Memories of the past remain, though possibly blurred or distorted for a while. Habits of the present, the experience of touch, sight or smell, awareness of a presence or of a shared intimacy, of loving or being loved, of disliking or being disliked, the need to provide or protect, feelings of involvement, either irritation or enchantment, can no longer be satisfied. Hopes or expectations for the future may be shattered.

Change of a sense of identity

Humans are sociable beings, depending on each other for food, shelter, protection, friendship, love and an understanding of the world about us and of ourselves. We each acquire our perception of ourselves, our identity, and our understanding of the world and our place within our current network of relationships from the ways that we have been treated by parents, school fellows, friends, colleagues, etc.

This sense of identity, especially if unexamined, may be fractured by any crisis such as bereavement. If this happens, then the habits of behaviour and thought that sustain us may also be fractured. We become ashamed, angry or sad when recollecting how things were, and sadder still to realise that they will never return.  We are hurt and distracted and not good at paying attention to other activities or people.  We are not “ourselves”.

Changed beliefs.

Our culture, faith or “spiritual values”, as we had understood them before the death, may have been changed through the bereavement. A spiritual awareness may have been awakened. Alternatively, religious doubts may have darkened our world and familiar sources of consolation may seem to have disappeared. Cultural or generational differences may equally cause misunderstanding and further stress. Our belief systems may have to be reconsidered, and with them our support structures.

A bereavement may rouse fears about our own death or the deaths of people dear to us, about death in general and related issues and questions. For example, “Am I ready to die, have I prepared the way, written a will, thought about the welfare of the children? Do I believe in a spirit that survives the body’s death? In what form shall I survive, do I want to renew acquaintances with familiar people in an afterlife? Do I believe in judgement and punishment after the body’s death?”

Changed capacity to adapt

Sometimes a bereavement can bring a disconcerting failure of competence, and this can upset especially the very competent until they feel the reassurance of others or fight their own way back to a balance and good sense. Some forms of bereavement can bring such stress or illness that professional help may be necessary, for example a depression or trauma.

Observations of grieving

For companions, the initial difficulty is to recognise which aspects of their neighbour’s bereavement are causing their current distress.  With some people, the secondary changes may perhaps be the most visibly obvious and are usually the most easily expressed; the primary changes may take longer to be revealed.  But for others, their greatest need is to share their primary distress.

Practical and social experiences of grieving

Physical / stress related

Physical symptoms; fatigue even exhaustion, bodily pain, sleeplessness, sickness.

Many people are hugely distressed by the loss of physical closeness and touch, intimacy, the sure knowledge of loving and being loved, of trusting and being trusted, of familiarity. “I wallow in a nostalgia for the past, for feelings of safety, of the times we had together, for love-making, for that feeling of being an enclosed family.”


Loss of money, status, familiar customs.  Having to move house, find work, care full-time for a dependent relative, search for a pension application, leave the children to go to work, or look after them full time and leave work.


The immediate aspects of the above; getting to work, learning to cook, keeping up with the family, cope with the computer, manage our debt. And, at the same time being aware of a loss of competence and confidence, especially where there is no-one to stand up for you or your cause, and no one to share with or to offer reassurance.

Family and Community

How the family is responding; whether they are interacting well or badly, whether some are dropping out altogether, whether the children or dependent elderly are coping.

Loss of a relationship


Anger when someone has been unfair or incompetent.  Anxiety or even fear where a protective person, a parent, spouse, mentor, hero has died.  Sadness at the end of a life-long companionship, at the end of an era; and also perhaps, at the disappearance of hopes and expectations of the future, of new achievements, shared times, parenthood or grandparenthood. Nostalgia when change has been thrust upon us.

Regret or guilt for failures in oneself for bad behaviour, laziness, or any sins of omission or commission. Bitterness at any injustice suffered, together with surprised shame if you strongly feel the need for revenge. Relief that a long illness or a bad relationship involving violence, drunkenness, physical, emotional or sexual abuse has ended.

Change in identity


How we think of ourselves  - whether we are good, sensible, competent, generous, our capabilities and our place in the world - all these may be changed and we have to get used to the new “me”.

Change in beliefs

Confusion of the mind or spirit

            “I am always lonely. I sit by the grave, clean the house, watch TV, speak to no-one.“

            “I can feel no purpose in living, Why should I keep making such an effort?”

            “God does not speak to me. I have lost my faith. I am filled with emptiness, disappointment or anger.”

            “I can’t stop worrying now about death, my own and that of those I love.”

Changed capacity to adapt

Grieving with trauma, i.e. where the death has been sudden or horrific. {See Chapter 8.}

To the above experiences of grieving may have added:

a) cognitive confusion, difficulty in concentration or in making decisions;

b) greater preoccupation with the circumstances of the death, the suddenness, horror, fearfulness, or deliberation of the death, or the danger to the bereaved person;

c) perhaps greater regret at things left undone, which now can never be done;

d) perhaps nightmares or day-images, replaying the incident; avoidance of similar circumstances and  a high sense of vulnerability;                                        

e) a sense of the pointlessness of ordinary life, and irritability and a tendency to identify rather with those associated with the event than with family or friends.

Grieving with depression i.e. when highly emotional and apparently inappropriate reactions appear alongside the frequently seen experiences of despair. {See Chapter 9.}

The experiences of bereavement together with:

a) {unlike bereavement}, a steady, unremitting lowness of spirit;

b) loss of concentration,  appetite, energy, motivation, libido, faith;

c) strong feelings of inferiority, uselessness and hopelessness;

d) a tendency to self denigration;

e) a tendency to irritate other people.

Continue to Reflections on Chapter 1