Supporting people after sudden death including COVID-19

Coping with sudden death: Advice on coping during the first weeks

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In order to get through the first weeks of a sudden bereavement, it helps to know that the thoughts and reactions you are suffering are normal. Many other people have suffered these thoughts and reactions and gone on to lead full and happy lives.

There are however some simple steps that you can take to help yourself cope with these thoughts and reactions. These steps are listed below. It is also useful to read these steps if you are a friend or family member, or carer, of someone who has been suddenly bereaved.

Bear in mind that something that helps one person might not help another, and what helps on one day, might not help on another day. So try to be flexible regarding what techniques you use to get through each day. It is also normal for your ability to cope, and your energy levels, to vary from day to day. Take each day at a time.

  1. Crying may help – many people find it is better to express feelings and feel some release from this expression, than to hold back the tears. Sadness and grief is often best expressed through tears, and most comfortably in a secure, intimate environment such as your home or the home of a loved one or friend, or somewhere you feel at peace, such as a park.
  2. Friends and family can only help if they understand. So let them into your world. Ask if you can sit down with them and explain what you are suffering. Tell them what you need; you probably just need them to listen, be empathetic, or maybe give you a hug or hold your hand for a while, or even just call or text you every day. Tell them if they can help simply by doing some jobs for you. 
  3. If you feel emotions or reactions that you don't normally experience, remember this is circumstantial, and you will not always feel these emotions or reactions, or feel them this intensely. Think of these emotions as symptoms of an illness that have to be endured, but will pass.
  4. Remember that strong feelings place stress on your body. Be kind to yourself. Remember to eat and stay warm. Pander to any comfort cravings you have. For example, a hot water bottle, or sugary hot drinks or chocolate may be soothing for some people. Now is not the time to be on a diet.
  5. It is important to look after your nutritional needs as well as have comfort foods. Try to eat a little, and often. You may find it helps to stock your kitchen with foods that are tasty, good for you and comforting but take little time to prepare, such as fruit juice, pots of yoghurt, cheese, crackers and carrot sticks.
  6. Avoid placing yourself in stressful situations. For the first few weeks, it may help to stay in places where you feel safe and secure and among friends. It may not be helpful to go on long journeys, or to busy shopping centres, or to large parties, for example. On the other hand, it may be helpful to do gentle exercise such as walking somewhere peaceful.
  7. If you are having trouble getting to sleep, then follow the usual advice applicable to anyone who is struggling to get to sleep. This includes: have a pre-bed time routine that relaxes you, such as a hot drink, reading a book, watching TV, listening to relaxing music, or meditating or doing breathing exercises. Avoid caffeine entirely, or at least cut it out after lunchtime. Make sure your bed is as relaxing as it can be; maybe treat yourself to a new pillow or bed linen, or a hot water bottle. Small things like this may not sound like the cure you need, but they can add up to really helping. Sleeping tablets may be helpful if you cannot sleep at all, but may be addictive and not helpful long term.
  8. It is common not to want to sleep alone. If you don't want to sleep alone, is there someone you can sleep with who you trust and who may help you feel safe and comfortable? Even if only sometimes? In some cultures it is common to sleep with other people, and not normal to sleep on your own. Don't be afraid to ask a trusted family member of friend for a sleep-over if you think it will help.
  9. Nightmares are common and distressing, but it may help to remember that the worst has already happened, and nightmares are your mind's way of working through what has already happened. Make sure you have a glass of water by your bed so you can have a drink easily if you wake up in the night. Make sure you can easily reach a light switch. 
  10. If you are being forgetful, then start using memory aids more, such as the notes facility on a phone, or a calendar. It can also help to do less. If you have to work, spread your work over a longer period. Put off difficult tasks at home as well as at work.  Plan to do these jobs in the future when you are better able to cope. 
  11. Make time to do tasks associated with your grieving that are important to you. For example, collecting together photographs of the person who died, or a box of items that you associate with them, or going to a place that reminds you of them. If a person who has died had a smell you don't want to forget, putting an item of their clothing in a plastic zip lock bag can maintain that smell for longer. If you feel tasks like these are important to you, then they are important to your recovery and you are right to prioritise them.
  12. Forgive yourself for any strong emotions you display, such as anger against people who love you, or even against strangers. Your emotions and any outbursts you suffer are acceptable at this time.
  13. If any of your thoughts and reactions last, at an intense level, for more than one month, then it is appropriate to get an assessment of your care needs as you may be suffering from traumatic grief reactions or post-traumatic stress disorder. Read more about these conditions and how to seek help. 

Next page: Ongoing thoughts and reactions Previous page: The first few weeks: challenging thoughts and reactionsReturn to menu.