People often expect to be back to normal after just a few weeks or months, and others might expect this of you too. Try to be patient with yourself. Many people are hard on themselves, thinking things like: “I should be over this by now”. Grief is very individual: there is no set time frame. Giving yourself time to grieve is the best way to heal.
After the funeral
The period after the funeral can be challenging. Between the death and the funeral, you may have been surrounded by family and friends, and keept busy making arrangements. It may not be until after the funeral that you feel the full intensity of your grief. Everyone else may seem to have returned to normal but your life is forever changed. It will take time to create a “new normal” for yourself.
Friends and family sometimes make comments such as “Life has to go on. It‘s time to pick yourself up and get on with living”. Such messages may feel like criticism, as if you are being told not to grieve any more. Often the person making the comments feels uncomfortable themselves about grief or may have particular ideas about the right way to grieve.
If you feel like you are being told to rush your grief, try to connect with people who are more understanding. Those who were there alongside you when the person was dying may have particular insight into your experience. You can also consider joining an online or face-to-face support group. Talk to the social worker on your palliative care team or at the hospital, or call Cancer Council 13 11 20 to find out what support is available.
“I think time does heal, but the pain is still there and you just learn to cope with it. Sometimes I still cry out ‘Why?’ Darren was so full of life and never complained about anything; I’m still amazed at how he coped with it all.” – Troy
Triggers for your grief
Many people talk about the first year – all the “firsts” without your loved one – as being especially difficult. As all of these events pass, most people learn to cope a little more. With time, they find it does get easier, although milestones might always trigger some sadness and worry.
You may continue to feel a deep sense of loss for the experiences that the person didn’t get to have and that you didn’t get to share. Some people find comfort in visiting the burial site or another significant location, or in gathering with family in remembrance of their loved one.
Other losses could trigger your grief again. This might happen when someone else you know dies or when a pet dies, when a relationship ends or when you lose a job or special possessions. Sometimes you may forget that the person has died, and when you suddenly remember, you may be shocked all over again.
You might find there is a time of day when you miss the person most. Or it might be a song, a smell, an anniversary or doing something you used to do together that reminds you of them, and you may feel upset again. The experience of grief section includes ideas on how to help yourself through these times.
The up-and-down nature of grief
People sometimes speak of stages of grief, but grief isn’t something you begin one day, move through step by step, and come out from unchanged. Rather, the stages reflect a range of emotions that you may move between.
For most people, grief involves ups and downs. They may move between focusing on the loss (crying, missing the
person, feeling pain) and going forward (returning to activities, learning new skills, forming new relationships). This can feel chaotic but both the ups and downs are part of grief.
Most people find they slowly learn to cope better with their loss. Don’t worry if it seems like two steps forward and one step back. It is common to have feelings of intense grief again and again. The experience is often described as like being on a roller-coaster, but it can also be thought of as a series of cycles or waves.
“At times the sadness and pain I feel is all consuming and hard to bear, while at other times these feelings are just in the background of my day-to-day activities.” – Anne
Will it always be this hard?
When people find grief particularly difficult, they sometimes worry they will be unhappy for the rest of their life, For most people, it isn’t like that. After a while, the grief usually becomes less overwhelming; they find that they start to enjoy things and feel enthusiastic about life again. If your grief doesn’t seem to be getting more manageable over time, read “If you feel ‘stuck’ or desperate”.
Many people say that coping with grief doesn’t mean getting over the death of a loved one. It’s about finding ways to live with the change and adapting to life without them. It’s not that your feelings about the person lessen, so much as a new way of living grows around the loss.
Ways to remember
You may find that doing something special to remember the person helps you cope with the loss. Here are some ideas that other people have found helpful.
- Plant a tree or or flowerbed.
- Put a memorial plaque in a place that mattered to the person or in your garden.
- Create an artwork in their memory.
- Yse some of their clothing to create a quilt, cushion covers or memory bear.
- Make a memory box filled with keepsakes such as photos; a favourite item of clothing, such as a cap or scarf; a bottle of perfume or aftershave; letters or cards; a special recipe; and a list of shared memories.
- Frame a photo of the person and display it.
- Share memories by setting up an online memorial page.
- Establish an award or scholarship in memory of the person.
- Make a donation to charity in their name.
- Create special rituals such as lighting a candle, listening to special music or visiting a certain place. Rituals can be particularly helpful at challenging times such as anniversaries.
- Be prepared for birthdays, anniversaries and holidays by planning how you want to handle the events.
- Get involved in a cause that was special to the person. Many people have found an energy in their grief that motivates them to make a difference.
- Talk about the person who has died. You may feel uncomfortable at first but sharing your memories with other people can help you cope.
- Remember goals you shared and consider if you want to continue working towards them.
If you feel “stuck” or desperate
Most people have times after a major loss when they feel they just can’t go on any longer. The pain of grief is too hard or just doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Be kind to yourself – it is normal that some days are much harder than others. After a few weeks, you will usually start to notice a pattern of good days and bad days, with the good days gradually increasing.
Sometimes a person may begin to feel “stuck” in their grief and become very depressed or anxious. Or worse, they may begin to feel suicidal, as though not going on is a real option. If this is the case for you or someone you care about, it is important to seek help. You may need to seek professional help if you experience these situations:
- find it difficult to function on a daily basis
- begin to rely on alcohol or drugs
- stop eating regularly
- are sleeping too much or having a lot of trouble sleeping
- are worried you might hurt someone because your feeling of anger or aggression do not settle
- are thinking about self-harm or taking your own life.
There is no need to face this experience alone. Find out about the options for professional support and talk to your doctor, or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
If you are having harmful or suicidal thoughts, call Lifeline 13 11 14 immediately. The service operates 24 hours a day.
Expert content reviewers:
Kate Jurgens, Bereavement Coordinator, Southern Adelaide Palliative Services, SA; Gabrielle Asprey, Cancer Support Consultant, Cancer Council NSW; Assoc. Prof. Lauren Breen, Psychologist, Curtin University, WA; Rev. David Dawes, Manager, Spiritual Care Department, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Victoria; Rob Ferguson, Consumer; Karen Hall, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Joanna Mangan, Psychologist, Cancer Council Queensland; Kate Reed, Nurse Practitioner National Clinical Advisor, Palliative Care Australia; Maxine Rosenfield, Counsellor and Educator, NSW