Bereavement was originally defined as the condition of having been deprived of something or someone of value. More recently, the meaning has shifted to the more specific 'loss of a loved one' - an event that leaves those left behind in a desolate state. This then is often a precursor to an overwhelming sense of unhappiness, with no one way to cope with grief, or a timescale in which it will last. The sorrow we feel will also manifest itself often in the most unexpected ways and can impact on our lives at the most unpredictable moments, sometimes surprising us long after someone has died.
A glimpse of a stranger with a passing resemblance to the person we lost or a few bars of a favourite song heard on the car radio, for instance, can have as big effect on us as any major life event such as the anniversary of their death, a family wedding or birth of the next generation.
We also adjust to loss at different speeds, and seek different coping mechanisms. Unfortunately, when our emotions are at their most raw, some of us may seek comfort in all the wrong places and never more so is this true than during times of sorrow. Our own health and wellbeing can suffer as a consequence and it is important to be mindful of the pitfalls…
1. Seek untroubled sleep. This is seemingly easier said than done. Wakefulness after a death of a loved one is perhaps an inevitability of the emotional rollercoaster we ride as we mull over their lives, think about how, why and when they died, feel empty over the chasm left in our own life and even what we could or should have done to change the course of events. However fruitless these thoughts and worries may be in real terms, they can seem very pertinent at three in the morning as we face yet another night of broken sleep. Additionally, we may have nursed a loved one through illness and our sleep patterns will continue to be out of kilter long after they have passed away. There is no easy solution to an over-active brain during bereavement - nor is there an answer to any heartfelt but unreasonable feelings of guilt. However, by ensuring good sleep habits and avoiding those that disturb it, you have a better chance of a good night's rest. Using calming and relaxation techniques - such as listening to soft music or relaxation tapes or even practising meditation - before bedtime will ease your slumber. If you should wake up, avoid turning on lights or looking at your mobile. Light receptors in the retina signal to the brain about the status of the outside world and may affect sleep-wake rhythms.
2. Talk about it. Burying your head in all the administrative demands following the death of a loved one is a common coping mechanism and one that should be avoided at all costs. Grief will not disappear by ignoring it and sharing your thoughts is a healthy way towards acceptance. Grieving is a personal and highly individual experience but by actively dealing with it you will find it easier to cope during those 'dark' days. Be patient with yourself. Sharing thoughts and memories with those close to you is an important part of the healing process, especially if they have stories to tell about the person you've lost. For some, however, they may seek a professional counsellor who can help them manage the grieving process.
3. Accept that it's OK to feel happy. At times - and this differs from person to person - you will suddenly catch yourself feeling happy or content or not thinking about the person you've loved and lost at all. This is normal. As is the guilt at experiencing this relaxation from the anxiety and grief. The phrase 'time is a healer' is only true in part, but certainly, for many, the sense of loss develops into something much more manageable as the days, weeks, months and years march on and that overwhelming wave of sorrow begins to diminish. Accept that there are moments of happiness, that life does move on - and that you will begin to grow more accepting of what has happened. It doesn't mean you have forgotten or neglected the loved one who died. They are still very much a part of you as your memory of them lives on long after their death.
4. Exercise. Staying active will not only aid sleep, it will also provide an outlet for any excess energy you have. Some people experience anger following a death - and exercise is a well-known stressbuster. You may find you have mountains of paperwork to handle and exercise can offer a physical alternative to the demands of any necessary admin. Partaking in some physical activity can also provide the perfect moment to indulge your thoughts and allow your mind some 'preoccupation' time. Many people find talking to the dead person a comfort - and a long road run, for example, may offer the perfect time for you to do this in private.
5. Think first before opening up your heart on social media. There is a propensity for many of us to share everything we experience on social media sites. Sharing the death of a loved one in a virtual world may not be a good move for those who do so in haste. Updating your status on Facebook, for example, with news of the death could offend others - or even appear somewhat disrespectful, so perhaps we need to be mindful of our audience. Equally, bereavement is a very personal experience and, for some, it may simply be a method by which they can let others know of a loss in an efficient way without actually having to make those dreaded phone calls. However, be wary that you may be forced to reread any painful posts some time after the event. Facebook's On This Day feature highlights past posts on a private page and sometimes inserts them into your news feed and this may prove an unwelcome reminder for some.
6. Keep a journal. The process of logging your feelings and thoughts is widely acknowledged as an important supportive exercise. Those of us who struggle to talk through our emotions may be more comfortable with putting pen to paper, creating an unstructured and open-ended flow of words that we may or may not share with others - or even destroy once written. You may have lost motivation to do the things you once enjoyed. By using a journal to plan ahead one week at a time, you can pencil in activities, which may restart the normality of your day-to-day life and get you doing the things you need to do as well as the things you wish to. Ultimately, this can help to lift your mood as well.
7. Maintain a balanced diet. It is all too easy to drown our sorrows in wine - or resort to 'comfort' eating in times of a crisis. Alternatively, we may feel sick at the thought of food when we are grieving or simply forget to refuel, losing our appetite to spend the time preparing a healthy meal. But food can provide a connection to those we have lost - and may help in the healing process. The sense of smell is closely linked with memory, probably more so than any of our other senses and this, coupled with the taste of favourite ingredients that they once enjoyed, can provide comfort. We can often summon up memories by cooking a favourite meal of theirs or sharing stories with others over a dinner in a restaurant they loved. Choosing to eat out at establishments they often frequented long after they have died is a way to celebrate their life - and gives us comfort, too!