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According to statistics, around 60 million people across the globe die each year. Each of these people leaves behind 4–5 bereaved people on average. Here in the UK, statistics are sombre too.
Child Bereavement UK estimates that a parent of a child under 18 dies every 22 minutes. This equates to 111 children bereaved every day. If we take a typical school classroom, 1 in 29 has been bereaved of a parent or sibling by the time they are 16.
With such staggering statistics, it is surprising that few people are comfortable with discussing bereavement and grief.
What is bereavement?
Bereavement occurs after the death of a loved one. It is essentially the period following the loss and it is characterised by mourning and grief. The word ‘bereavement’ has its roots in the ancient Germanic meaning “to seize by violence” or “to rob”. It is not difficult to understand why such a root word has come to have its modern meaning in English today.
Bereavement also can be said to describe the fact of a loss rather than an emotional response. The duration of the bereavement period is dependent on how close the relationship was with the person who died and is also influenced by how long the death was anticipated.
Is bereavement different from grief?
Bereavement and grief are often used interchangeably and inconsistently in English. However, their meanings do differ somewhat. Whilst bereavement describes the initial mourning period following a loss, grief refers to a person’s experience of that loss regarding their emotional and physical reactions to the death.
Mourning is also often confounded with bereavement and grief. Mourning describes the rituals, behavioural manifestations and events that follow a death during the bereavement period. These can include wearing black clothing, funeral services, lowering a flag, or closing a business or place temporarily. Such public statements of bereavement are often time-limited.
Grief, on the other hand, has no time limit. It is a normal process in response to a loss, whether a physical loss through death or in response to a social or symbolic loss (such as due to redundancy or divorce). Grief is a personal experience, and no two people and no two losses will be experienced in the same way even by the same person. Each loss can trigger a reaction mentally, physically, emotionally and/or socially.
Mental and emotional reactions include the common feelings of sadness, despair, anger, guilt and anxiety, whereas physical reactions refer to appetite changes, difficulty sleeping and other illness reactions. Socially there may be some withdrawal from work, interests and hobbies as well as from friendships and other relationships.
Bereavement is a complex and highly personal experience, and no two people experience it in the same way. Many factors are at play in what happens after and how someone responds to a death.
- Religious beliefs.
- Ethnic traditions.
- The relationship with the deceased.
- Beliefs about what happens after someone dies.
- The age of the deceased.
- The cause of death.
- Whether the death was expected or sudden.
- Fear and anxiety of others’ and one’s own eventual death.
What is the bereavement process?
When we talk about the bereavement process, we often mean the grieving process. It is important to remember the keyword that grief is a ‘process’. In 1969, Swiss Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed a model around the five stages of grief. Initially, her work was used to describe those with a terminal illness and therefore facing their own death. Later, it was adopted as a model for grief in general.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief are:
These stages of grief are often thought to happen in order, progressing from the first through to the fifth and final stage. People even say things such as “I’m in the depression stage now”. However, it does not often work in such a linear fashion. Kübler-Ross outlines that there is no particular order for the grief process, and you may not experience all of the stages. Different bereavements may also bring about different reactions.
In the early days, feeling numb is common. People often express feelings of disbelief that their loved one is gone and that this is permanent. Some often carry on as normal. Others may believe that they can see their loved one or hear their voice. As outlined in the image, some common emotions immediately after a death include shock, confusion and even fear. Elation, although not common, is also felt by some. This feeling can cause even more confusion for someone who has suffered a recent bereavement.
It is natural to feel anger in the days, weeks and months after someone has died. Anger can often be for different reasons. People can find themselves feeling angry with their loved one for leaving them, angry with health professionals for not saving them or even anger aimed at ourselves for things that happened or for things we wish we had done before the person died. This time is also often fraught with anxiety.
Bargaining or pleading is a frequent occurrence during the bereavement process. We try to make sense of the loss and ask frequent “what if” questions. Our “if only”s become part of our pleading or hypothetical deals we desire to make. Bargaining comes from a struggle to accept what has happened and that there is nothing that we can do to change it. If a person is religious, they often plead with their God for a miracle. It is only natural to believe that if we do certain things, it will make us feel better. Even the most intelligent of people who know the true reality that death is final, still succumb to pleading and bargaining. Many in this stage feel regret or remorse, wishing that it were possible to go back and do something different so that the death did not happen.
When we think about the bereavement process, depression and sadness are often the two emotions that come to mind first. Depression, feelings of longing and sadness can be very intense. These feelings tend to come in waves and can arise months and years later.
As mentioned, during the bereavement process, feelings of sadness and the emotions associated with grief come in waves. Initially, there is the feeling that things will never be right again and that nothing will ease the pain. However, gradually, the pain does ease and it becomes possible to accept the loss.
There is an often-shared poetic description of how this acceptance happens, playing with the wave metaphor. It starts with how, initially when your ship is wrecked, the waves are overwhelming and there is wreckage everywhere reminding you of your loss. For a while, all you can do is cling on and float.
The first waves are hundreds of feet tall and arrive seconds apart. Then, you notice the waves start coming further apart but, when they do, they still take your breath away and are just as powerful. You start to be able to function in between the waves hitting. Later, you find that the waves are not quite as high and, while they still come, they are not as close together.
Sometimes they are not as powerful. Also, you now know that, although the waves will likely never cease, you can come to anticipate them, and you learn how to navigate through them.
Acceptance is often presumed, therefore, to be the last stage of grief. But, as LoveJoinMe explains, “that’s the thing about grief. There is no last stage. The grief dies with you, leaving someone else’s new grief in its wake”.
Whilst you may never ‘get over’ someone’s death, it is possible to move forward with life. Many people now explain that grief does not lessen, we simply grow around it. This is something first explained by Grief Counsellor Lois Tonkin in her article Growing Around Grief – another way of looking at grief and recovery. She attributes her explanation to an unknown woman whose child had died. The woman believed that her grief would lessen over time, that the circle she drew to represent the grief would shrink.
In reality, what the woman found was that the circle stayed the same size, but her life grew around it. At times, she felt the grief just as intensely as she did at first, when she had moved into the circle of grief. But, at other times, she was able to step out and function normally in the space outside the grief. Cruse Bereavement Support has a version of Tonkin’s diagram to help explain this part of grief and bereavement acceptance.
This view is much more informed as it acknowledges that a person does not simply ‘get over’ a loss but explains how it is possible to carry on with life after a death.
Who can be affected by bereavement?
Throughout their life, everyone will experience bereavement at some stage. Death is as much a part of life as life itself is. Unfortunately, as outlined in the introduction, many children are affected by bereavement. On average, one child in every typical school classroom has suffered the loss of a parent or sibling.
Once a person reaches adulthood, the number of losses only increases. It is understandable that older people are more likely to experience more frequent bereavements as their loved ones and friends reach the end of their lives. For elderly people, this can also bring with it complicated feelings of anxiety that their time may also soon be up, as well as loneliness. Such feelings can also make their existing health conditions worse.
As Grief Psychologist J. Shep Jeffreys outlines, many older adults have been learning the ‘language of loss’ over time. But this does not mean that they will experience bereavement in the same way as each other, just in the same way that children and younger adults’ experiences are all different. In his article, Jeffreys explains that many social factors are specific to grief in older adults.
What is bereavement leave?
Given that most people will experience the loss of a close friend or relative during their working life, it is important to be aware of rights, rules, regulations and expectations at work.
Anyone who is an employee has the legal right to time off for bereavement leave in certain situations:
- Following the death of a ‘dependant’ such as a partner, child, parent, or someone who relied on them.
- Their child is stillborn or dies under the age of 18.
The law does not state how much time a person can take as bereavement leave, just that the amount of time must be ‘reasonable’. The purpose of bereavement leave is primarily for attending to the needs the death brings about, such as organising paperwork, emergencies caused by the death, and arranging and attending a funeral.
If a dependant dies, there is no legal right for bereavement leave to be paid. However, a new law named Jack’s Law was introduced in April 2020 which means that parents who suffer the loss of a child under the age of 18, including that of a stillborn baby, are entitled to two weeks of Statutory Parental Bereavement Pay (SPBP). For 2021–22, this amount is £151.97 per week or 90% of the employee’s average weekly earnings, whichever is lower.
Some employers choose to pay their bereaved employees for a set period. This is sometimes called compassionate leave or special paid leave. Employers can choose the amount they pay. The employer can also agree that the time could be taken as sick leave, holiday leave, or unpaid leave.
Unfortunately, if the person who has died is not a dependant or a child, there is no legal right to bereavement leave from work. Most organisations have a bereavement policy, so it is always wise to check what the policy says before requesting time off.
What is bereavement support payment?
The government offer a Bereavement Support Payment following the death of a husband, wife or civil partner. This should be claimed within three months of the death to get the full amount. This is only payable if certain criteria are met.
- The partner paid National Insurance contributions for at least 25 weeks in one tax year since 6 April 1975; or
- The partner died due to an accident at work, or a disease caused by work.
They also must have been:
- Under the State Pension age; and
- Living in the UK or a country that pays bereavement benefits.
Bereavement support payment is paid as a first payment and then monthly instalments.
What is bereavement counselling?
Bereavement counselling is counselling that is intended to help those who have been bereaved cope with their grief. Some people may feel like they need the support of someone outside of their family or circle of friends to cope with their loss. Bereavement counsellors have specific training that helps a person process their feelings throughout the different stages of grief.
Counselling initially serves to normalise a person’s feelings regarding their grief. This is particularly important if it is the first time someone has experienced bereavement. The counsellor also helps people to understand the often-complex emotions that death brings as well as aiming to reduce distress. Some counsellors teach Cognitive Behaviour Therapy techniques to help people to cope with their bereavement.
There are many sources of bereavement counselling. GP practices can often signpost the bereaved to services local in their local area or there are online sources of help and support too.
Signs and symptoms of bereavement
Bereavement is exhausting. The emotional as well as physical toil means that those who are recently bereaved experience a range of symptoms. However, it is important to note that there is no right or wrong thing to feel in the aftermath of a death.
These can include:
- Numbness and shock.
- Overwhelming sadness.
- Exhaustion and tiredness.
- Poor appetite/finding it difficult to swallow.
- Comfort eating.
- Poor sleep/insomnia or nightmares.
- Anxiety – including physical symptoms such as breathlessness, palpitations and panic attacks.
- Physical pain.
One person’s experience of bereavement is likely to be different from another’s. Indeed, a person who has experienced multiple losses may not have the same signs or symptoms of grief from one loss to the next. This is all normal and is dependent on many factors including the relationship with the loved one and the circumstances surrounding their death.
Thankfully, there is a lot of support out there for those who have been bereaved, regardless of how long ago the death was.
Child bereavement support
Children and young people often have different needs when it comes to supporting them and their mental health after a bereavement. If a child has suffered a bereavement, organisations and charities can help. These include Child Bereavement UK, Winston’s Wish and Grief Encounter. There are also other ways that parents and caregivers can support children and young people’s mental health.
Adult bereavement support
There are lots of organisations that can help support you after a bereavement.
- Sudden Bereavement for those who have experienced a sudden or unexpected death.
- The National Bereavement Partnership.
- Cruse Bereavement Support.
- Child Death Helpline for those who have lost a child.
- The Bereavement Advice Centre for practical advice.
- Sands following the death of a baby.
- SOBS – Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide.
- The Compassionate Friends for those who have lost a child.
- The Lullaby Trust for anyone affected by the sudden and unexpected death of a baby or young child.
Aside from organisations, many bereaved people seek support from family and friends. People often find that others treat them differently following the loss of a loved one. According to Child Bereavement UK, 26% of British adults who have been bereaved of a close family member wish their friends had mentioned the person who died. If you are supporting someone through bereavement, it is important to acknowledge the person’s loss, even years down the line.