Grief is a normal response to any loss. The process of grieving is one of adjusting to life without the person who has died. There is no set time frame and the grief may never go away completely. With support and understanding you will find a way forward.
Everyone grieves differently
Everyone responds to loss in their own way and in their own time. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.
You may experience grief after any loss in your life. Sometimes this is when someone close to you dies. Other times it may be the loss of a relationship, a job, a pet, your good health, your way of life or treasured possessions. This section focuses on grief after a death from cancer, but much of the information applies to any type of grief.
Grief is not an illness – it does not need to be cured or fixed – but it can be a confusing and overwhelming experience causing strong emotional and physical reactions. You may find it helpful to learn more about common grief reactions and ways of coping.
How you experience grief depends on a number of things:
- your age
- your gender
- your personality
- the circumstances of the death
- your relationship with the person who died
- the circumstances of the death
- the support you have from other people
- how much your life will change as a result of the death
- the losses you have had in the past
- your cultural background, including any rituals or customs associated with death
- your spiritual view of life and death.
Sometimes people find that a death brings back memories of other losses. They feel they are grieving those losses all over again.
Family members grieving for the same person may not mourn in the same way. This is normal. Some people express grief through crying and talking, outbursts of anger or keeping busy. Other people prefer to be quiet or shut the world out.
People may behave differently at different times – and their behaviour may be unpredictable. It is important to respect individual ways of grieving and not take reactions personally. This can be an opportunity to offer support to each other and understand other ways of grieving.
People who tend to cope well during tough times often find that they show this resilience after a loss. This does not mean they are not grieving but that they already have coping strategies. Thinking about what has helped you deal with stressful events in the past may help you now. Or you may find that your usual coping mechanisms are not enough to help you cope with your current loss, and you need to find new coping strategies.
Bereavement, mourning and grief
The terms “bereavement” and “mourning” are closely related to grief, but they have slightly different meanings.
- “Bereavement” usually refers to the fact that someone close to you has died.
- “Grief” is the process of responding to the loss and it can affect all parts of your life.
- “Mourning” is the outward expression of sorrow for the loss, often influenced by cultural customs and rituals.
Circumstances can affect your grief
What happened in the hours and days before the death can make a big difference to how you grieve.
An expected death
Although it is difficult to know that a loved one is dying, you may have been able to spend time with them, talking about their death and what it will mean. This is often helpful, even though once the person dies you may feel you could never have been truly prepared for their death. If the person died at peace, having said and done what they wanted to, you might find you draw comfort from that peace. You may find you can accept the loss, even if you feel sad.
An unexpected death
If the death was very sudden, or in traumatic circumstances, you may feel that things were left unfinished or unsaid. You may not have been able to be with the person when they died, or things may not have gone as you wished. You may also be managing symptoms of shock and disbelief.
Grief may be more challenging if you had a difficult relationship with the person who died, but still cared about them. If other people didn’t know about or understand your relationship with the person who died, you may feel very alone in your grief.
Grief can begin before someone dies
When someone is ill for some time, their family and friends often begin to grieve their death before it happens. This is known as “anticipatory grief”.
The person who is dying may experience “preparatory grief” as they process the fact that their life will end soon.
- They may grieve the loss of their health.
- They may grieve for the things they may miss out on, such as an upcoming family wedding or grandchild.
- They may feel anger about what is happening to them.
- They may become very motivated to organise and plan things ahead of their death.
They may find it worthwhile to talk with someone on their palliative care team, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or read our Facing End of Life booklet.
While a lot of attention may be taken up with caring for a sick person in the family, it is common to think: “How will it be when they are not here? How will I cope on my own?” It is natural to try to picture the future without your loved one. This doesn’t mean you are a bad or uncaring person.
Even when a death is expected, it may still feel like a great shock. This can be especially hard if the person has rallied again and again in the past, and you may have thought that they would always “pull through” somehow. Sometimes the experience of anticipating the death actually makes you become closer to the person, which can increase your grief.
Some people are surprised by how little they feel or by feeling a sense of relief when the person actually dies, and say that they have done much of their grieving already. This is also a normal response. It doesn’t mean they are denying their loss or that they did not really care for the person.
Other people don’t feel greatly affected by their loss at the time of the death, but find it harder as time passes. Again, this is quite common.
Cancer Council produces a number of resources, including Living with Advanced Cancer, Understanding Palliative Care and Facing End of Life, which you may find helpful. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for more information.
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