SOAS University of London

Student Advice and Wellbeing

Experiencing a Bereavement

Coming to terms with death can involve many feelings; for example, denial, isolation, anger, deep sadness, loss, emptiness, and depression. These are normal. Each person experiences bereavement in their own way and every bereavement will have its own unique process. 

A bereaved person might alternate between denial, anger, sadness, fear, and guilt many times a day. The way bereavement is experienced depends upon individual personality and the way a person typically responds to crises and loss, the circumstances of the death, the relationship the bereaved person had to the person who has died, and our attitudes and beliefs towards death and life in general. It may also be affected by how much we are supported by others and by how much other stress we have in our lives at the time.

Bereavement may also bring physical effects such as weight loss, lack of concentration, and sleep disturbance. The bereaved person may experience a loss of memory, loss of self-esteem and identity, and on occasion may even begin to take on the characteristics of the person who has died. They may begin to neglect their appearance for a time and feel that nothing matters any more. Although these are all normal reactions, at such times it can help to talk to others about what is being felt. Friends, family, health care workers, religious leaders, university staff, all may be able to offer support until life begins to make sense again.

‘Complicated Bereavement’ 

This can occur when the bereaved person, after some time, remains unable to deal with their feelings of loss and grief. The following are groups of people who might have a more difficult experience of bereavement. There is no science to this, people are different, and so these are only guidelines:

  • If the bereaved person has experienced multiple bereavements within the past few years
  • If the bereaved person is also a carer for others, especially a single parent of young children
  • If the bereaved person has had a history of mental health problems
  • If the relationship between the bereaved and the deceased was a difficult one, characterised by strong feelings, positive and/or negative
  • If the bereaved person is under additional stress at the moment of the death, for example, a divorce, financial worries, unusual pressures from job or school, his or her own poor health
  • If the death was sudden or violent
  • If the person who died was the person to whom the bereaved would have turned for help and support

Bereaved persons may find they have intensified thoughts regarding their own lives, their choices, regrets, and their own mortality. 

Bereavement can instigate many deep changes that can affect those left behind in ways that extend far beyond the specific loss of relationship. Although living through these changes often feels painful and sometimes even overwhelming, the eventual outcome of this process can be quite positive. For example, some people find that confronting the fact of death helps them to become more compassionate, or to pursue what’s really important in their life.

In Brief
  • The reaction to bereavement will be influenced by the relationship the bereaved person had to the person who died, and the way that person died
  • Usual daily life will feel different for a while. For example, the bereaved person might feel numb, or like everything is unreal
  • This change in reality can feel scary and isolating. It can be helpful to seek the advice and support of a GP and/or counsellor during this time
  • Sadness, fear, and anger are common feelings during bereavement
  • It may be a challenge for the bereaved person to have compassion for their own suffering while not taking their anger out on others
  • Working through grief has no limit; this varies from one person to another and takes as long as it takes. It can take longer than is commonly expected, long after others think it has passed. These feelings may also re-emerge if the bereaved person suffers another loss of any kind
  • It is advisable that the bereaved avoid making important decisions, if possible, during the months immediately following the death
  • Termination of a pregnancy is a specific type of bereavement and there are other sources for the difficulties arising from this experience

Bereavement Counselling

Bereavement counselling, like all counselling, offers a person the opportunity to hear themselves express their thoughts and feelings, or to sit in silence with someone who is willing to be with them as they are, without trying to change them or cheer them up. 

Counsellors usually do not give advice, but will help a person to find their own answers to their life issues and conflicts. Bereavement counsellors will expect a person to want to talk about the person who died and also about how to adjust to life without that person. 

During counselling, a person can talk about anything that’s important to them and this means that a counselling session might be spent talking about practical matters, future hopes and plans, or new relationships that are developing with friends, family members, and others. Although bereavement is the issue that may bring a person to a counsellor, the sessions may eventually and naturally begin to lead to other matters.

Counselling can be accessed from Student Advice and Wellbeing, as well as many GP surgeries, voluntary bereavement services, and counselling centres.

Some people seek counselling for only one session, or occasionally when they feel they need it, or on a regular basis (often once a week) for a longer period. It is important to note that a person does not have to feel in crisis to ask to see a counsellor. They may just want to check out how they are coping, to be reassured that what they feel is OK.

Some professionals suggest that bereavement counselling is best left until six months or more after the bereavement. It is at this time that friends and families have begun to get on with their own lives and may assume that the bereaved person is ready to do the same. It can be difficult to bring up the issue when others expect the person to be over it. It is perfectly acceptable for a person to seek counselling years after the bereavement, when others seem to think everyone must be over it. Another bereavement, illness, divorce, job loss, etc. can unexpectedly rekindle feelings of grief that had subsided.

Clients might begin counselling thinking it will help them to get over the person’s death, making that person less important so life can proceed. But many people don’t want to ‘forget’ how important their loved one is to them. They want to be allowed to ‘talk’ to the person they miss, and think about how they would handle present situations. This can be quite comforting. 

Counselling can be used to help find a way to integrate the bond with the deceased back into present life, albeit now without that person’s physical presence. Bereavement counselling aims to provide comfort and support, facilitate mourning, and ameliorate complicated bereavements.

Useful Contact Numbers

Useful books:

  • ‘You’ll Never Get Over It’ The Rage of Bereavement, Virginia Ironside (1996), Penguin Books
  • All In The End Is Harvest, Agnes Whitaker (Editor) (1984), DLT Publ
  • The Power of Focusing. A Practical Guide to Emotional Self-Healing, Dr. Ann Weiser Cornell (1997), New Harbinger Publications.
  • The Courage to Grieve – Recovery and Growth through Grief, Judy Tatelbaum (1997) Vermillion
  • Facing Grief – Bereavement and the Young Adult, Susan Wallbank (1996) Butterworth Press
  • Remembering My Brother, Ginny Perlais (1996) A. and C. Black
  • Badger’s Parting Gifts, Susan Varley (A Children’s Book)
  • The Dead Good Funeral Book, Sue Gill and John Fox (1991) Engineers of the Imagination

Your local bookshop will have a selection of other books on bereavement and how to deal with your feelings.