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During the time of bereavement and throughout the grief process, a grieving person needs a lot of emotional support. You can read more in Grief and Bereavement. Finding support can be the key to a person’s recovery and acceptance of the loss. Family members, friends, support groups, community organizations, or mental health professionals (therapists or counselors) can all help.
The grieving person must travel through the grief process, and should be allowed to move through it at their own pace. For some people, the grieving process can go on for a long time. This happens more often when a person was very close to the deceased. Sometimes this leads to what is known as complicated grief.
If what's considered to be "normal grieving" does not occur, or if the grieving goes on for a long time without any progress, it’s called “complicated grief” or “unresolved grief.” Symptoms of complicated grief might include:
For some people who are taking care of a loved one with a long-term illness, complicated grief can actually start while their loved one is still alive. Caregivers under severe stress, especially if the outlook is bleak, may be at higher risk of having abnormal grief even before the death.
If you or anyone close to the deceased has any of the above symptoms of complicated grief, talk with a health care provider or mental health professional. Certain kinds of mental health treatment have been shown to help people with complicated grief. Treatment is important, since people with complicated grief are at risk of their emotional illness getting worse, and are at higher risk of committing suicide.
Ideally, a bereaved person will be able to work through the process of grieving. With time and support, they’ll accept and make sense of the loss, work through the pain, and adjust to a life without their loved one physically being present.
If you or someone you know has lost a loved one, the following tips may help you cope with the loss:
When a loved one dies, it affects all their family members and loved ones. Each family finds its own ways of coping with death. A family’s attitudes and reactions are shaped by cultural and spiritual values as well as by the relationships among family members. It takes time for a bereaved family to regain its balance.
It’s important that each family member be able to grieve with one another to help the family cope. Each person will experience the loss differently and have different needs. As hard as it may be, it’s important for family members to be open and honest when talking with each other. This is not the time for family members to hide their emotions to try and protect one another.
The loss of one person in a family means that roles in the family will change. Family members will need to talk about the effects of this change and work out the shift in responsibilities. This time of change is stressful for everyone. This is a time to be even more gentle and patient with each other.
Facing the death of a child may be the hardest thing a parent ever has to do. People who have lost a child have stronger grief reactions. They often have more anger, guilt, physical symptoms, greater depression, and a loss of meaning and purpose in life. A loss is tragic at any age, but the sense of unfairness of a life unfulfilled magnifies the anger and rage parents feel.
A longer and slower bereavement and recovery should be expected when someone loses a child. The grief may get worse with time as the parents see others going through the milestones they expected to pass with their child.
Bereaved parents especially may be helped by a grief support group. These groups may be available in the local community. You can ask your child’s cancer care team for referral to counseling or local groups.
Bereavement counseling is a special type of professional help. You may be able to find it through hospice services or a referral from a health care provider. This type of counseling has been shown to reduce the level of distress that mourners go through after the death of their loved one. It can help them move through the phases of grief. Bereavement counseling can also help them adjust to their new lives without the deceased.
It’s common to feel awkward when trying to comfort someone who is grieving. Many people don’t know what to say or do. Use the following tips as a guide.
If the grieving person begins to abuse alcohol or drugs, neglects personal hygiene, develops physical problems, or talks about suicide, it may be a sign of complicated grief or depression. Talk to them about getting professional help.
If you believe someone is thinking about suicide, don’t leave them alone. Try to get the person to get help from their doctor or the nearest hospital emergency room right away. If that’s not possible, call 911. If you can safely do so, remove firearms and other tools for suicide.
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Kubler-Ross E. On death and dying. New York, NY: Scribner; 1969.
Kubler-Ross E, Kessler D. On grief and grieving: Finding the meaning of grief through the five stages of loss. New York, NY: Scribner; 2014.
Kubler-Ross E, Byock I. On death and dying: What the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy, and their own families. New York, NY: Scribner; 2014.
Marrelli TM. Hospice and palliative care handbook. Indianapolis, IN: Sigma Theta Tau International; 2018.
Mental Health America (MHA). Coping with loss: Bereavement and grief. Accessed at https://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/coping-loss-bereavement-and-grief on April 2, 2019.
National Cancer Institute. Grief, bereavement, and coping with loss (PDQ®). Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/advanced-cancer/caregivers/planning/bereavement-pdq on April 2, 2019.
Shear MK. Grief and mourning gone awry: Pathway and course of complicated grief. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2012;14(2):119-128.
Tofthagen CS, Kip K, Witt A, McMillan SC. Complicated grief: Risk factors, interventions, and resources for oncology nurses. Clin J Oncol Nurs. 2017; 21(3):331-337.
Last Revised: May 10, 2019
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