Helping People With Bereavement

Grief has been called the “sorrow of the soul.” Grief over death or separation is a fundamental human experience, yet the pain experienced in bereavement excludes no one.

Helping Children

Children seldom have the support and love from sources outside the family. Therefore, a breakup in the family unit, a loss of a loved one or a pet, may be more traumatic than for an adult. When a child is young and cannot understand the loss, their grief work is slightly different from an adult. They experience an initial period of protest, then become quiet, withdrawn and less sociable. They may also revert to behavior of earlier years and “act like a baby” again. When breaking bad or sad news to children, consider these steps:

  • Tell the truth. Children can handle it better than adults realize.
  • Offer love and reassurance that you will be there with them and to help them.
  • The sooner you explain things, the better.
  • Reassure children that they are not the cause of the loss, nor responsible for taking care of anybody but themselves. When adults will not level with children, they are faced to draw their own conclusions—which are always much worse than the facts. Children are flexible and resilient and can deal with reality.

Fear of Death

In understanding our feelings about a terminated relationship, perhaps we will learn more about what we want from life. Death is the most critical loss and has greater fear associated with it. Fears most often associated with death are:

  1. Fear of interruption of life goals—death may keep you or your family from achieving all they hope to achieve.
  2. Fear of impact on survivors—a fear of what happens financially and emotionally on the people left behind.
  3. Fear of physical suffering—the thought of a lingering, painful death is upsetting, especially to very active people.
  4. Fear of “not being”—worrying about the finality of death; of not being around to enjoy people; seeing their kids grow up; of the loss of meaning of their life.
  5. Fear of punishment—worrying about not having their spiritual life in order and having to “pay” for unacceptable behavior.
  6. Fear of death of others—young people particularly fear the death of others and living without the care and comfort of the one who died.

Tomorrow Is Yesterday’s Today

Grief is a basic part of life and we cannot totally separate ourselves from it. We can prepare for it by understanding the emotion of grief and the process of bereavement. The stages of grief and bereavement are in no way separate; they intertwine and overlap. Some may last only a few minutes and flashbacks are common in the grieving process. Months or years later certain phases of grief will recur. The causes may be obvious—Christmas, birthdays, a sudden meeting of mutual friends, anniversaries. Less obvious causes are hidden in the complexity of grief—it may mean that one phase of grieving has not been complete.

As one widow said, “Acceptance finally comes, and with it peace. Today I am more independent, more understanding, and have more sympathy. I have a quiet love for Martin. I have passionate, poignant memories. He will always be a part of me, but Martin is dead. I am a different woman, and the next time I love, if ever I do, it will be a different man, a different love.”


These activities are designed to help you see your life more clearly and to raise specific issues about the quality of life.

  1. Lifeline—Make a time-line of important events in your life, beginning with birth and ending with your death. Write down your age, the event and persons involved. Look at your lifeline to understand how these events have affected your life and the identity of the people involved.
  2. Obituary—Write your own obituary using the suggested format below. The purpose is to help you see your life more clearly and to reinforce the fact that we still have a life ahead of us to do whatever we want to with it.
    • Name:
    • Age:
    • Died yesterday from:
    • He/She is survived by:
    • He/She will be remembered for:
    • He/She was working on becoming:
    • He/She always wanted, but never got to:
    • The world will experience the loss because:


When grief closes in on you, remember these guidelines:

  • With the death of a loved one, do not hide your emotions. Share your sadness with others. Don’t deny yourself moments of intense grief. Recognizing the loss signals the beginning of the bereavement process.
  • Don’t isolate yourself or try to lose yourself in your job. Take time to reflect on your sorrow and confront the resulting problems. Don’t deny reality.
  • Encourage your friends and family to talk to you about your loss. If they don’t do it, keep pressing them. Hiding from reality only prolongs the eventual resolution of grief.
  • If possible, try to talk to the departing person. If there are things unsaid, say them now! Spend some time with him or her to say a last goodbye. Realize the final separation has come.
  • Attend the funeral or the divorce hearing. The finality of the loss may not sink in until you do, and closure will begin.
  • Don’t build a shrine! It will prolong the grief process and intensify your grief. Rearrange the furniture! Play his or her favorite music! Touch objects that will bring out emotions.
  • Rebuild your life. Find new friends, new acquaintances, and get involved in new activities. Don’t rebuild your life on the memory of something that once was, but on the courage and strength gained through the bereavement process.

Not everyone who grieves will experience all stages of grief. And, not all people work through their grief the same way. Working through grief takes time. In ancient India, a grieving peasant asked the Yogi, “How long will I grieve?” Instead of an answer, the Yogi gave him an instruction: “Go today from home to home and ask for one-half cup of rice from those who have not experienced grief.” The peasant did as he was told. At the end of the day, he had no rice, but he had met many happy people. He found his answer.

©Copyright FamilyCare America, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Reprinted from “Understanding Grief and Loss” by Herbert G. Lingren, File HEG223, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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