Reflections on Death
Buddhist Hospices & HIV/AIDS

Caring for the Dying & Bereaved

Grief is for Sharing

A chance to heal and grow
What does the grieving person need to know – and have to be able to do – in order to successfully work through the pain and chaotic emotions that accompany the death of someone we love?

To begin with, we need to know grief is a normal and natural response to loss, it is part of the human experience. There is only one way a person could live without any grief in their lifetime and that would be to live a life without love or attachment. Grief represents our humanness as does our love.

The death of a loved one is a universal experience, and its occurrence initiates a painful journey that travels from grief to healing. It is an unstable process – a lonely journey characterised by self doubts and intense emotions.

The first few weeks

The first few weeks and months you may feel you are living your life in slow motion. You may feel numb, detached from life and unable to concentrate. Life is happening for others but you may not feel part of it. You have lost part of yourself. You feel disorganised and you may cry a lot. The sadness is overwhelming and we sigh frequently. Others may feel they have to be strong and fight back the tears. Some people feel if they start to cry they may never stop.

You may be very angry. Angry at God. How could God do this? There is no God. Angry at the world and those around you. Angry with yourself and even angry with the person who has died. How dare they die, leaving you so alone. Loneliness is one of the biggest problems of grief – one feels abandoned and powerless.

Irrational guilt can sweep over you. Some may even feel a personal responsibility for the death.

Many find their grief to be exhausting. You feel tired all the time. Sleep is difficult; either we don’t sleep, or sleep is disturbed by vivid dreams and nightmares. While they may be distressing and indeed on occasions terrifying, in most cases they will fade away in time.

You may find yourself talking to the dead person as if they were present. You come home from the supermarket and find you have bought a bottle of their usual shampoo or favourite fruit juice. You may think you hear the dead person coming in the door and call out, “I’m in the kitchen” and realise no-one is there – and they will never walk through the door again.

People are often very disturbed by apparent sights and sounds of the deceased person which can be very vivid, but like the dreams and nightmares, they too will fade away in time.

These responses and heightened suggestibility are natural. They are part of the grief process. Let it all happen. Feel the pain. Don’t be afraid to cry or to express your anger. It is important not to hold the hurt inside.

If you swallow your grief, that proverbial lump in the throat will only surface later in the physical symptoms of insomnia, diarrhoea and headaches, or gastro-intestinal problems.

Left alone

Some friends and even family may not come to visit after the funeral – they can often feel uncomfortable with your tears and intense emotions and perhaps they don’t know what to say. Others erroneously believe that their job is to distract you from your grief.

Talk about feelings

Most grieving people need to speak about their feelings of grief, the loneliness, sadness and depression and ‘tell their story’ to make living more tolerable. Talking about your loss in reality will help you to heal and work through the process of grief, so try to find people who will listen to you and help you feel understood and not so alone. (For friends and neighbours who would want to be supportive but feel they don’t know what to say, the Outstretched Hand Foundation’s leaflet “Tell me all about it” offers helpful advice.)

In discussing grief it is important for each of us to remember we accumulate our losses. Every loss we have ever encountered and suffered in our lives, if they have not been dealt with, are still with us, we are still carrying them. It was beautifully described to me by someone who said it was like having a row of bells across your chest, large bells, medium sized bells and small bells. Every time we suffer a loss in our life, one of these bells is going to ring.

Time does not heal in itself

It is what you do with it, and it is important to remember that the length of the course of grief is not a sign of weakness. Each person will be unique in their time of grieving.

Understanding your grief

The full sense of the loss of someone loved never occurs all at once. The birthdays, wedding anniversaries and the first anniversary of the death often makes you realise how much your life has been changed by the loss. You have every right to have feelings of emptiness, sadness, despair, even guilt and anger. You may be frightened by the depth of emotion felt at these times.

Unfortunately many people surrounding you may try to take these feelings away. Friends, even family, erroneously believe that their job is to distract you from your grief. Most grieving people need to speak about their feelings, the emptiness, sadness and depression and ‘tell their story’, to make living more tolerable. Talking about your loss in reality will help you to heal and work through the process of grief so try to find people who will listen to you and help you feel understood and not so alone.

Dealing with grief

Another point to remember in dealing with grief is to be gentle with yourself. The emotional energy expended just coping will probably leave you feeling fatigued, so respect what is being said by your mind and body.

Eliminate unnecessary stresses. You will already feel stressed so there is no point in over-extending or over-committing yourself. While you don’t want to isolate yourself, part of keeping your stress levels in check is to understand and respect your need to have time for yourself. Some people may try to ‘keep you busy’ in an effort to distract you from your grief. Experience suggests that ‘keeping busy’ really only increases stress and serves to postpone the need to talk out thoughts and feelings related to your grief.

Be with people you find comforting and supporting, who allow you to be yourself, not those who expect you to put on a happy face for their sake.

Try to see the good intention of those who came to you with the strong cliches such as ‘you must be strong for the children’ – or ‘God never gives you more than you can handle.’ Other instructions to ‘try and forget it’ or worse, ‘try to be happy’ can only minimise the profound loss you have experienced.

Talk about the person who has died. If people around you sense you are able to talk about your loss it may help them recognise your need to remember the joy of having loved this person who was an important part of your life.

Children and Grief

How do we help children deal with grief? Children suffer greatly, they go through the same process as adults but their grief is more intense and of a shorter period. Their actions and reactions are not always appropriate. They often tend to act out their grief and I think we have to be very tolerant if their reactions are not quite what we consider to be appropriate. Children need to be included in the family grief. Children know that something is wrong. They need to be held, to be loved, to be reassured, they need to participate. If further information is needed on this subject, please see ‘Talking to Children about Death’.

Forever changed

As people who have been blessed with the capacity to give and receive love, we are forever changed by the experience of grief in our lives. We, as human beings, do not ‘get over’ our grief but work to reconcile ourselves to living with it. We hope eventually to find some meaning for these sad happenings in our lives, to heal and to grow.

Life is not fair. Life is a series of tragic losses but we cannot lose something unless we have first had it so the magnitude of each loss becomes the measure of life’s gifts.

Memories made in love can never be taken away from you. If your memories bring laughter, let yourself smile, if memories bring sadness, let yourself cry. If your faith is important to you, express it, and remember to love yourself.

How to deal with your grief – a summary

These points highlight a few important matters to consider during bereavement. Each person is different, so beware of ready-made solutions. The following are suggestions to consider; they may or may not fit your situation.


– Everyone needs some help – don’t be afraid to accept it.
– While you may feel pressured to put on a brave front it is important to make your needs known by expressing your feelings to those you trust.
– Often numbness sees us through the first few days or weeks. Don’t be too surprised if a let-down comes later.
– Many people are more emotionally upset during bereavement than at any other time in their lives and are frightened by this. Be aware that severe upset is not unusual and, if you are alarmed, seek a professional opinion.
– Whether you feel you need to be alone or accompanied – make it known. Needing company is common and does not mean you will always be dependent on it.
– There is no set time limit for grieving. The period will vary from person to person.


– It is easy to neglect yourself because you don’t much care at a time of grief.
– You are under great stress and may be more susceptible to disease.
– It is especially important not to neglect your health. Try to eat reasonably even if there is no enjoyment in it.
– Although sleep may be disturbed, try to get adequate rest. And please, no grog or sedatives.
– If you have symptoms, get a doctor to check them out.
– If people urge you to see your doctor, do so, even if it doesn’t make sense to you at the time.


– Friends and family are often most available early in bereavement and less so later. It is important to be able to reach out to them when you need to. Don’t wait for them to guess your needs. They will often guess incorrectly and too late.
– During a period of grief it can be difficult to judge new relationships. Don’t be afraid of them, yet it is usually wise not to rush into them. It is hard to see new relationships objectively if you are still actively grieving, and this kind of solution may only lead to other problems.
– No-one will substitute for your loss. Try to enjoy people as they are. Do not avoid social contacts because of the imperfections in those you meet. Someone who is not close to you but who is willing to listen may be particularly helpful.


– Avoid hasty decisions. Try not to make major life decisions within the first year unless absolutely necessary.
– In general, most people find it best to remain settled in familiar surroundings until they can consider their future calmly.
– Don’t be afraid to seek good advice. Usually it is wise to get more than one opinion before making decisions.
– Don’t make any major financial decisions without talking them over with experts.
– Having a job or doing voluntary work in the community can be helpful when you are ready, but it is important not to over-extend yourself.
– Relationships with family and friends should not be sacrificed in an effort to keep busy.


– Personal faith is frequently a major source of comfort during bereavement.
– For some, however, maintaining faith may be difficult during this period of loss.
– Either reaction may occur and both are consistent with later spiritual growth.

I say unto you: a man must have chaos yet within him to be able to give birth to a dancing star.

F. Nietzsche