When someone dies there’s often an overwhelming feeling of grief and loss. While it’s incredibly important to process the emotions associated with death, often the practicalities of arranging a funeral have to be dealt with first. A systematic and pragmatic approach to arranging a funeral is often best, but the occasion should be as much about celebrating the life of the friend or loved one as it is about saying farewell. So, read on to find out what to do when a loved one dies.

And to help you through this often difficult and confusing time, our guide to grief and loss will assist you to balance the legal, financial and practical requirements of the process, fully understanding the role of a funeral director and costs of a funeral, while addressing the wishes of the person you have lost.

What is grief

If you’ve ever lost a loved one, then you will recognise grief – a natural and inevitable response to loss. 

However, grief is very individual. Everyone experiences and expresses grief in their own way. Nevertheless, as a starting point, it may help to be aware of the five stages of grief ­– denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – even though you may not experience them in such a defined manner.

Denial

In this very first stage of grief, it is common to feel numbness, shock and disbelief. At this stage, we may not actually believe our loved one has passed away. It’s the way in which we protect ourselves from the great intensity and shock of loss. Time will allow us to take in the initial impact of losing a loved one, and, with it, the denial diminishes.

Anger

When reality sinks in, anger can be a normal response to loss, particularly if you feel helpless, powerless or abandoned. This can be expressed in many ways, and be directed at anyone: your loved one, a doctor, at the world or even yourself. Anger towards yourself tends to arise if you feel guilty, perhaps for leaving things unsaid, having under-appreciated the deceased or not ‘having done more’. But anger can dissipate once you acknowledge it and allow yourself to feel it as part of the healing process.

Bargaining

At this stage of grief, you may find you’re ‘bargaining’ in your mind. You may have thoughts such as “what could I have done to prevent the death”. Some people may become obsessed with thinking of ways in which the person's life could’ve been saved. This may bring about deep guilt or anger, which may interfere with the healing process. This can be exacerbated by the manner of the death of your relative or friend, particularly if they were involved in an accident or chose to suicide. In this case, specialised grief counselling may be necessary.

Depression

In this stage, the grief enters a deeper level. Realising the true nature of the loss can bring with it intense emptiness and sadness. You may find you have trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, bouts of crying and extreme exhaustion. Feelings of loneliness, abandonment, and anxiety may also arise. These are all signs of depression, which is a normal reaction to loss. This stage can last for some time – there’s no ‘normal’ period. So, remember to be kind and patient with yourself, and, again, seek professional help if you feel unable to function on a day-to-day basis.

Acceptance

The acceptance stage usually signifies that you are coming to terms with your loss. While this doesn’t mean you’ll no longer miss your loved one, you may not feel the grief as intensely as you once did. In time, you may find that instead of triggering sorrow, memories bring a smile to your face. At this stage, people are usually ready to learn how to live in the world without their loved one – it’s about processing how you’ll live your life now.

While understanding the five stages of grief can help you realise grief is a normal response to loss, it’s also important to remember grief is complex and very individual. Which is why not everyone will experience the five stages in the above order and some stages may overlap

Acknowledging your feelings – allowing yourself to feel them – and being kind to yourself will help you to heal when grieving the loss of a loved one.

Experiencing grief – what’s normal

Even though psychiatrists often refer to the above-mentioned five stages of grief in response to a significant loss, grief is a very personal response – as such, there is no wrong or right way to express it.

Some people wear their emotions on their sleeve, while others may not appear as if they’re grieving at all. In fact, individuals may come across as cold-hearted if they don’t cry at a funeral, or, if delivering a eulogy, do so without a tremble in their voice. Then there are those who may appear utterly insensitive for smiling at the news of a death; yet, it may be that they’ve done so out of a feeling of discomfort, or because they are genuinely ‘happy’ the deceased is no longer in physical and emotional pain.

And each person’s behaviour and emotions may change from one day to the next, while grief may last from a few weeks to years. There is no set or ‘right’ period to grieve. Such is the complexity and individuality of grief.

For these myriads of reasons, it’s important to not make assumptions or judge others on their reactions to death, or how they express, or don’t express, grief.

While everyone finds their own way to process grief, remember that you can also reach out to friends, family or specialised support groups for strength and solace at a time of deep pain and loss.

Doris Zagdanski at My Grief Assist offers further information on the experience of grief and loss which you may find helpful.

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