How to deal with grief, advice from a bereavement counsellor

Husband consoling his wife after a loss

We spoke to mental health coach and psychotherapeutic counsellor Allegra Salvoni about what to expect when a loved one has died.

By Sarah Lewis

Bereavement is one of the most difficult, isolating and lonely experiences a person can go through – but, unfortunately, something almost all of us will experience at some point. And it affects us all differently. 

Bereavement is one of the most common reasons to seek therapy

“Most people I see are struggling with some sort of loss,” Allegra tells me. “Where there’s loss – usually the loss of some form of connection – we grieve.” 

It might not be the loss of an actual person; Allegra explains that people can grieve all sorts of things: “the loss of health, losing our home, moving away from our roots, the end of a close relationship – grief and bereavement comes in many forms.”

Grief affects everyone differently, but most people will experience these stages

“When we grieve, we don’t always understand what is happening to us and whether it is ‘normal’. We often have so many questions about it. The seven stages of grief model from Dr Kübler-Ross is a really helpful way to understand what happens to us during the grief process. These seven stages include shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, and acceptance,” says Allegra. 

Bereavement counsellor, Allegra Salvoni
Bereavement counsellor, Allegra Salvoni

When dealing with the death of a loved one, Allegra explains, “to begin with there’s abject shock, unless there’s been a long illness, there’s always shock. And sensory overwhelm. Then busyness – there’s lots to do immediately after someone has died”.

“The busyness often happens in a sort of numb state. It’s actually when all the activity stops that the loss and real-life begin to merge. That’s when people start to look at what that loss means. There’s processing that needs to happen,” she says.

It can take a long time to process

“Grief doesn’t always start immediately either, it can happen years down the line. It took me four years before I fully grieved my father because I was so numb to the loss,” Allegra tells me. “It’s not the same for everyone and it will be a very personal experience. You need to discover for yourself how you grieve and for how long. You might not ever fully get over it, but life goes on around you, and in time we must move on too.” 

However, you wouldn’t expect to be severely affected for a very long time, she warns: “If you still can’t function – and I’m talking can’t get out of bed or leave the house – after six months, then I would be quite worried.” Allegra advises seeing your GP as well as speaking to friends and family if you’re unable to work, go out or see friends for many months. 

Depression and anxiety are to be expected

Don’t be surprised if you suffer from depression, anxiety or insomnia, all of these are common following bereavement. As is anger:

“Anger is a common effect of grief, particularly following the loss of a parent. Many clients don’t understand some of their anger – or even why they are angry. Strong feelings are normal and part of the process,” says Allegra.

“Also common is the feeling that you can’t be bothered with anything, there’s a lack of interest in work and life,” she says. “But when you’ve lost a meaningful part of your life this ‘what’s the point of anything?’ feeling is also part of grieving.”

Allegra calls this ‘numbing’. “We are in life but not of it. You can see, but everything is behind a veil or a wall,” she says. 

Bereavement can trigger other issues

Feeling numb and angry can also lead to substance abuse, drinking more or addictions to sex or gambling.

Allegra explains, “These things are used as a way to either feel something or to not feel something. When something shocking happens, when we feel dysregulated, we don’t know how to cope. We reach for other things – things that take you out of yourself because you can’t be with yourself or your pain.

“It’s important to be aware of this if you know someone who is grieving,” she says, “and to watch out for any excesses you see in their behaviour”.

Practical tasks and celebrations can be a challenge

Household tasks can be an unexpected struggle. “You might have to figure out how to do things your partner used to do,” Allegra says. “And when you do these tasks, there can be another wave of grief”. 

And celebrations can be very difficult. “It might be difficult to go to weddings or baby showers if you’ve lost a partner or a child,” says Allegra. 

Happy events, in general, can bring mixed emotions. “People might feel guilty for starting to feel happy again,” she says. “For example, a good friend of mine, who lost a partner a few years ago, said the most difficult thing for him now was the feeling he was falling in love again with someone new. We make a lot of rules in our head about what’s right and wrong but it’s okay to love, to laugh to be happy. You have to be kind to yourself.”

Grieving pets can be just as difficult

“It’s very possible to grieve a pet for a long while,” says Allegra. “The attachment we form to animals can be very strong and, in some cases, animals become our family. A neighbour of mine found the loss of his cat very hard, it was the one companion in his life.”

“Tragedies in the news can also affect people profoundly, but if there’s a huge outpouring of grief and no personal connection, I would be curious to know what else is going on in that person’s life. This kind of ‘loss at a distance’ touches us profoundly usually because we connect it on some level to something very personal in our own life,” she says.

It’s important to acknowledge miscarriage

“Miscarriage can be very difficult because, as well as the loss of the baby, there’s the physical reality of that loss to contend with. Your body has to physically ‘let go’ of something that was part of you. It’s so important to respect and acknowledge that,” says Allegra.

There are lots of ways to support someone who’s grieving

“Most of it is just checking in, grieving can get very lonely,” Allegra says. “It’s also tricky sometimes. People often find it hard to know what to say – and on the other hand, sometimes the person grieving ends up feeling responsible for making it ‘ok’ for those offering condolences. It can end up feeling quite complicated,” she says. 

“I think the main thing to remember is to check-in, let them know you’re there. Send cards every so often, not just after the funeral. Look out for if the person isolates themselves too much. Look at the state of their home, how they look, is there a sense of overwhelm? Gentle movement can help, even if it’s just getting out of the house and walking around the block.”

Be mindful of celebrations and meaningful events too. “Be understanding if they feel unable to go,” she suggests.

There are ways to improve your emotional resilience

You can’t always prevent a loss, but you can prepare yourself for it. 

Find meaningful friendships. Have a social life. Find things that interest you, hobbies that uplift you.

There’s a lot to be said for building connections, advises Allegra. “Find meaningful friendships. Have a social life. Find things that interest you, hobbies that uplift you. Make sure your life and world are bigger than one person.”

Bereavement support 

Allegra’s advice for dealing with grief.

  • Be kind to yourself. Give it time and don’t pressure yourself to get back to normal quickly. Grief can take a long time to process.
  • Don’t isolate. It’s important to have things in the diary and to keep moving. Talk to a friend or therapist. Loneliness can cause the stress hormone cortisol to rise, making you feel worse in the long run, both in terms of mental and physical health.
  • Physically moving can be key to processing grief. Get out of the house or go for a walk in nature – it helps regulate your breathing and makes you calmer. 
  • Nutrition is important. Make sure you’re eating enough.
  • Speak up at work. If grief is affecting your work, speak to a colleague, manager or whoever you feel comfortable with. 
  • Get extra support if you need it. Visit your GP if things are bad. Especially if you can’t sleep or leave the house, or you’re struggling with substance abuse, drinking more alcohol than usual or addictions.

Find out about the effect bereavement can have on finances.