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Information for bereaved people: thoughts and reactions in the early weeks

In the first few weeks of a sudden bereavement, it is common to have intrusive, painful thoughts and strong physical reactions sometimes too. This page explains thoughts and reactions that many suddenly bereaved people suffer. Understanding that these thoughts and reactions are common can help you to accept them, in the same way you would accept symptoms of an illness. After reading these symptoms you can read our guidance How to cope during the early weeks.

If only...
It is common to keep mulling over the circumstances leading up to the death and wondering if anything could have been done to stop it happening. 'If only...' is a common and particularly painful thought. Suddenly bereaved people often wish they had told a person who has died how much they love them, or told them this more often. Thoughts like these sometimes, for some people, lead to strong feelings of guilt that can be hard to explain to others, but which are normal.

I feel angry
It is common to feel angry after a sudden death. There may be someone or something to blame. Or you may even feel angry towards the person who has died for leaving you. It is also common to get worked up over minor everyday things that normally you take in your stride, but now seem unbearable. For people who do not normally get angry, these feelings may be particularly distressing.

Nobody understands
You may feel that nobody understands what you are going through. Particularly if they say inappropriate, hurtful things to you such as 'these things happen', or 'you'll get over it'. They may talk about their own bereavements that happened in circumstances you consider less devastating and of no relevance to your situation. It is easy to feel upset when some people, who don't know how to help, behave as if nothing has happened.

I find it hard to focus on things and am being forgetful  
Because of the enormous stress you are suffering, it may be hard to retain information, or remember to do things, or do things as well as you would at other times. This can be particularly challenging if you are involved in procedures such as organising a funeral, understanding the findings of a postmortem examination, or the processing of someone's will. It can also be challenging if you have to work, or have domestic responsibilities such as caring for dependents.

Suddenly bereaved people are often scared they will forget things about the person who has died. They are scared they will forget their voice, things they said, or how they smelt.

I feel scared 
You may feel anxious and fearful. It is normal to worry more than usual that other people, or you, will die too. It is common to be scared to go out. It is common to suffer feelings of panic, anxiety and confusion if in a busy environment such as a crowded shopping centre or a train station. You may feel jumpy and nervous in such situations.

I have intrusive thoughts
Frequent and vivid thoughts about the death, or the person who has died, are common. They may occur at any time, including when you are trying to do, or think about, something else.  They can be very disruptive. Some people experience flashbacks. This is when an event actually feels like it is happening again. This can be frightening. 

I can't sleep and I have bad dreams
It is common to have bad dreams or nightmares. It is also common to find it very hard to go to sleep, and to not be able to stay asleep for very long. Lack of sleep affects people in all sorts of ways, making it harder to concentrate and cope when you are awake.

I feel ill
The shock of the bereavement and how you are feeling can place intense pressure on your body. Heart palpitations, feeling faint or dizzy, excessive sweating, tremors and choking sensations are common. Digestive problems may occur, such as diarrhoea, or you may struggle to eat well or often enough. Muscles may tense up. This may cause localised pains, such as headaches, stomach pains and backache or intensified menstruation pain. You may feel like you can't do anything, or even feel hyperactive. You may have difficulty speaking. Stuttering and jumbling your words is common.

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Copyright: Brake 2013