How Does Bereavement Affect Your Mental Health

Traumatic life events can take a toll on your mental health, with the loss of a loved one being one such event. Unfortunately, bereavement is an unavoidable facet of life and something we all must experience, and yet, it’s never easy when the time comes.

People of all ages can find grief hard to deal with and the readjustment to life without a loved one difficult to come to terms with. No two people grieve the same and there is no right or wrong way to deal with it – everyone grieves differently. For some people, grief can become all-encompassing and starts to affect their mental health on a long-term basis.

Grief itself isn’t a mental health condition, but for some, it can be a contributing factor to a mental health condition. In this article, we’re going to explain more about how bereavement affects mental health, and what to do if you think you might need help to come to terms with your loss.

Common bereavement feelings and experiences

Bereavement can give way to a number of different feelings. As mentioned, grief is entirely unique to each person and how one person feels, another might not. That being said, there are some common mixed feelings that lots of people experience following the death of a loved one. These can include:

  • Numbness
  • Guilt
  • Anger
  • Agitation
  • Panic
  • Loneliness
  • Sadness

Some people also find that they can’t express how they feel, or as if how they are reacting is different to how they think they should react, e.g. not being able to cry. The common feelings associated with grief are all normal and to be expected following the death of a loved one, but this doesn’t mean they’re not distressing. Grief is largely unpleasant and a gradual process that takes time to heal from. Though you may never get over the loss of your loved one, the common feelings of grief should fade over time.

Chronic grief

If you find that you’re unable to move on from your loss, you may be experiencing chronic grief, also known as prolonged grief disorder or complicated grief. This occurs when you continue to feel intense emotional pain and the immediate symptoms of grief for six or more months after the loss. In this case, it can be hard to live your life as you had done before your loss.

Some people who experience chronic grief feel stuck and like things won’t get better. If you feel like there’s no way out and you can’t envision being happy again, returning to normal life, or moving on from your loss, it can take a big toll on your physical or mental health.

Another sign of chronic grief is being unable to do basic daily tasks, such as going food shopping, eating, and going to work. In the immediate aftermath of a loss, you may well find that you lose your appetite, you can’t go to work because you can’t focus, and that you don’t want to go outside and do the things you used to do in a world without your loved one. This is to be expected, but if you still feel this way after months have passed, it could be a sign that you’re experiencing chronic grief.

As mentioned earlier, grief can bring lots of feelings to the forefront. It’s natural that, during the initial grieving process, you might struggle to see a world without your loved one in it, there’s no respite from your feelings, and you spend a lot of time reminiscing on time spent together and yearning for that time back. However, if you still feel this way months after your loss, it could be a sign of prolonged grief.

Finally, a lack of enjoyment in life is another sign of prolonged grief. It’s normal to be uninterested in things and feel a lack of happiness after a loved one dies, and the first time you smile or laugh after their death might even make you feel guilty because it feels wrong to enjoy life without them. If you find that you’re uninterested in everything, including things that used to make you happy and feel that you can’t ever be happy again because your loved one isn’t here, months after the loss, you might need additional support.

How does bereavement affect mental health?

Grief and depression are sometimes experienced at the same time, with people who struggle to cope with a loss sometimes going on to develop depression. Not everyone who is grieving will become depressed, and not everyone who is depressed has depression because they are grieving. Anyone can feel depressed, but only those who have experienced a loss can feel grief (a loss can be the loss of a person, a relationship, a job, a home etc.).

Sadness and many of the mixed feelings associated with grief are not the same as depression, but if you feel intense feelings of emotional pain and stress for a prolonged period of time, you may go on to develop depression or anxiety. For most people, grief comes in waves. For example, one day you might be struggling to come to terms with your loss and you might feel an overwhelming sadness or emptiness, but the next day you might feel okay and able to do daily tasks without feeling quite so sad or overwhelmed. Depression is a mental illness which means it is constant and doesn’t come and go. People experiencing grief tend to cycle through emotions.

Some people are more likely to be depressed or experience mental health issues following a loss compared to others, but it’s important to remember that anyone can develop mental health issues at any time, including after a loss. That being said, research indicates that people who suffer a ‘major’ loss, such as the loss of a child or a spouse, are more likely to have both physical and mental health problems following their loss. According to a study, a third of people who were directly impacted by a ‘major’ loss, such as bereaved parents, went on to develop physical and mental health problems.

People who have a history of mental health problems, such as issues with anxiety or depression, may be more predisposed to experiencing mental health issues following grief and loss, but this isn’t always the case.

If you feel like you’re stuck or unable to move on from a loss, or if the symptoms of grief have been persistent for a number of months and they’re beginning to impact your everyday life, this might be a sign that your mental health is suffering as a result of your loss. If you think you might need some additional support, reach out to your GP or medical care provider.

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is another type of mental health disorder that may arise following the loss of a family member or a friend. PTSD is onset by a stressful event, and a sudden death combined with unforeseen acute grief can indeed bring on PTSD in a bereaved person. Some people develop PTSD after witnessing a traumatic death, such as a car crash, and this can have a big impact on your physical health as well as your mental health. In this instance, support groups can help, but specialised bereavement support could prove to be the most effective method of coping with the situation.

Coping with bereavement: the grieving process

To help your mental health, it’s important to try and process grief and bereavement in a healthy way. This can be tricky because everyone experiences grief differently, but generally speaking, there are five stages of grief which most people cycle through. Not everyone goes through all of the stages, but ultimately, everyone needs to reach the final stage. Those stages are:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

If you don’t accept your loss, you will likely find it hard to move on. As noted, not everyone goes through every stage, but it’s thought most people go through at least two. For example, you might be angry about your loss, and then be denial about it, before reaching the acceptance stage. Some people experience the depression stage and struggle to get out of it, and this is where your mental health can be affected.

Grief isn’t linear

To help you move through the stages of grief in a healthy way, there are some tips you can take on board. The first is accepting that there is no right or wrong way to grieve and however you experience grief is okay. If you don’t cry a lot, that’s okay; if you do cry a lot, that’s also okay. If you feel angry at the person for leaving, that’s okay, and if you feel a sense of relief that they’re gone (e.g. if they had a terminal illness that was debilitating), that’s also okay. If you’re able to resume daily activities and face the world the day after, that’s okay, and if you need a few weeks to be able to do that, that’s also okay.

Learn to live with your loss

It’s also a good idea to try and incorporate your loss into your life. Overcoming grief doesn’t mean totally moving on from your loss – it means allowing yourself to move on despite your loss. It’s alright to feel sad and have down days, but it’s important that you try to distract yourself from your loss sometimes, too. Staying in a perpetual state of sadness and distress can contribute to poor mental health, so it’s important to try and balance acknowledging your loss with distracting yourself from it.

Talk to people

Some people find it very difficult to talk about how they feel following a loss, either because they feel like no one else understands them, or because they feel like they have no one to go to. It’s never a good idea to bottle up how you feel, especially if you’re grieving. This can make you feel lonely and overwhelmed, and these feelings can be detrimental to your mental health. Instead, try and express how you feel to those around you.

Grief counselling

If you don’t have anyone in your social circle who you can talk to, it’s a good idea to seek help and advice from a bereavement therapist. At Psymplicity Healthcare, we have a team of dedicated bereavement therapists who are ready to listen to you and help you through the grieving process. This is particularly useful if you’re experiencing chronic grief, but anyone who has suffered a loss can benefit from bereavement counselling.

You can find more information on coping with bereavement here.

Treating mental health disorders

Grief counselling can be incredibly useful to help you overcome the stages of grief and process your feelings and emotions in a more conductive and healthy way, but if you’ve developed a mental health disorder stemming from grief, you may also benefit from condition-specific support.

For example, a bereavement counsellor can help you navigate through loss and help you learn to adapt to a new life without your loved one, but if you have a condition such as depression, other tools and treatments could prove to be beneficial to you. Medication can help to ease the intensity of some of the feelings associated with depression, and therapy for depression alongside bereavement counselling can teach you ways to cope with your depression.

Grief is never easy and dealing with a mental health disorder can also be difficult. If you feel like you’re struggling and don’t know what the next steps are, know that help is available and you won’t always feel this way. The loss won’t leave you, but it is possible to be happy and move on with your life. If you need professional help getting to that stage, that’s okay.

Bereavement treatment at Psymplicity Healthcare

At Psymplicity Healthcare, we offer bereavement counselling and mental health treatment.Whether you’re struggling with a recent loss or never fully grieved a loss from a long time ago, our team can help you. Your mental wellbeing is our priority. Please get in touch with us today to find out more about how we can support you.

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Mavish S

Mavish is a BABCP Accredited CBT and EMDR Therapist and CBT Clinical Lead at Psymplicity. Since beginning undergraduate studies 13 years ago, Mavish has worked in various mental health settings within the charity, NHS and private sector. Mavish’s passion for learning and professional growth has led to a vastness of experience and accelerated growth in her career while delivering one-to-one therapy, group workshops, training and supervision for professionals and senior team management. Mavish is a keen writer and writes many of the articles on our website, as well of our self-help resources.

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