How To Cope With A Death In The Family

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia
Updated October 9, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

While death is a natural part of life, losing someone you love or watching someone die can produce complicated, hard-to-process emotions that are unlike what you might watch in a movie. It can be challenging to know how to grieve healthily or move forward in life after a family member passes away. 

If you've experienced loss, it can be hard to imagine a fate worse than what you are feeling. If you are wondering how to cope with bereavement, there are a few ways to move forward and find guidance in your grieving process. You're not alone, and acceptance and healing can be possible.

It’s important to understand that complicated grief takes time to move through and friends and family members will handle the difficult time in their own unique ways.

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You Don't Have To Grieve The Loss Of A Loved One Alone

Addressing A Death In The Family

Grieving the loss of a loved one can be painful, often causing individuals to adopt maladaptive behaviors or experience unwanted emotions in response. 

Some people have difficulty accepting death, distracting themselves with work, declining to discuss the deceased relative, or otherwise preoccupying themselves. Other people repress their emotions or find potentially unhealthy ways to express or manage them, such as through substance use or risky behavior. However, difficulty processing your feelings regarding the passing of a relative can prompt emotional, mental, and physical health concerns.

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

Although complications often present during bereavement, navigating the grieving process healthily can be possible. If you're experiencing difficult emotions arising from the death of a family member—like anger, guilt, despair, shock, disbelief, and confusion—you may benefit from knowing what others go through and what helps many people deal with grief.

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Coping With A Family Death By Understanding The Five Stages Of Grief 

Individuals who experience the death of a loved one, whether they witness their dying words or hear about it from afar, may go through the five stages of grief, including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Often, each person can experience the preceding stages at their own pace. You may also experience these stages out of order, skip some altogether, or cycle through certain stages multiple times before reaching the acceptance stage. While you may never "get over" the loss of a family member or other loved ones, acceptance can help you manage your grief and emotions. 

Note that the "five stages of grief" model by Kubler-Ross is a theory and not a proven psychological fact. Some grieving individuals might find this model helpful as they pass through grief, while others may not relate to it, find it incomplete, or feel it is not factual. Take the information that resonates with you, and note that there are other theories about grief to explore and learn about. Reaching out to a grief center in your area may connect you with local resources and options. 

Denial

Often experienced as the initial stage of grief, denial is a common defense mechanism. After a passing, an individual may know logically that their relative has passed, but denying the death can help them avoid confronting potentially complex emotions. Denial can be problematic when it prevents an individual from expressing their emotions and acknowledging the reality of the situation or if it lasts long-term. For people in the denial phase, seeing evidence of their loved one’s passing, such as the death certificate, can be particularly challenging. However, this symptom can be addressed with therapy, support groups, and grief-processing activities. 

Anger

Anger after losing a relative can come in many forms and may be directed toward various individuals, or at finding justice or some sort of revenge for your loved one’s passing. An individual may become angry at medical staff, other family, friends, or relative who passed. 

Although anger is often a natural part of dealing with a death in the family, constructively managing this emotion can be valuable to your mental health. Anger can be problematic when it prompts unhealthy behaviors. If you're struggling to cope with angry feelings, consider exercising, spending time in nature, practicing self-care, or engaging in relaxing activities. A grief center in your area may also offer outlets for anger expression and emotional control. 

Bargaining

In many cases, bargaining takes the form of a truce or plea with a higher power, other people, or oneself. Bargaining is often a way of trying to take a measure of control over the situation. People may go through "what ifs" during the bargaining stage, asking themselves, for example, "What if I'd been there?" 

If you're struggling to process this stage of grief, consider reframing these unwanted thoughts. Using the above example, instead of asking, "What if I'd been there?" you can remind yourself that you did not cause this occurrence to happen. Talking to a therapist can help you reach this point if you struggle to believe it.

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You Don't Have To Grieve The Loss Of A Loved One Alone

Depression

Losing a relative, especially if the person was the “rock” of the family, can prompt a feeling of emptiness, sadness, and physical pain. While symptoms of depression could signal the presence of a depressive disorder, it may not always be the case. Even if symptoms do not meet the criteria for a mental health diagnosis, they can be challenging to experience. When experiencing sadness after grief, it can be beneficial for individuals to have social support, such as family who can bring food, take care of household chores, and offer emotional support.  

Talking with others who can empathize is often helpful, although some people find it best to be alone and work through their feelings at their own pace. While taking time for oneself is fine, withdrawing from other people for an extended period can exacerbate symptoms of depression. If you're experiencing depression, consider contacting a mental health professional. A licensed therapist can help you navigate the symptoms of depression and provide you with a healthy outlet for your feelings.

Acceptance

Acceptance is often considered the final stage of grief, which may occur when one comes to terms with the loss. Many people mistake acceptance for the completion of the grieving process. However, accepting the death of a loved one does not mean you won't experience other symptoms or concerns afterward. Even if you move on with your life, you may continue to experience complex emotions. Although these feelings can be challenging to experience, they can also remind you how important your loved one was to you.

Moving On After The Loss Of A Loved One

People have differing ideas of what it means to move on with life after they've lost a relative. For some, it means being able to continue daily activities or job duties. For others, moving on involves focusing on self-care, reaching out to friends and other family, or speaking with a therapist. 

Additionally, a support group can be a healthy outlet and a way to gain perspective from people who have experienced a similar loss, whether the person who died was close to you, or an acquaintance. You may be able to find support groups for bereaved families in your area or online. For further guidance and care, consider pursuing therapy. Seeking the support of a mental health professional can be a constructive and healthy way for people to work through grief and move on with their lives. A therapist can provide you with insights into your situation that you hadn't considered and advice on coping mechanisms. 

Counseling Options 

Know that you have options if you consider reaching out to a therapist for support when a loved one dies. For example, an increasing amount of research suggests that online therapy can offer support to those experiencing grief or trauma after the death of a loved one. 

In one comprehensive review in Frontiers in Psychiatry, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for bereavement was examined. Researchers found significant positive effects for symptoms of grief, which were sustained over the long term. The study noted that online therapy allows participants to circumvent common barriers to mental health care by providing more flexibility than in-person treatment. 

Online therapy can be a helpful treatment method when confronting difficult-to-process emotions related to losing a family or a similar concern. Online therapy can be more discreet if you are not ready to discuss grief or tell your story in person. Through a platform like BetterHelp, you can participate in therapy from the comfort of your home without going to an office or discussing your treatment with anyone but your therapist.

Takeaway

Experiencing a death in the family can be a traumatic, distressing, and confusing experience. If you are struggling to address your grief after a loss and maintain your mental health, consider contacting a therapist. Mental health providers are trained in the complexity of bereavement and can offer exercises, activities, self-help advice, and validation as you experience your emotions. You are not alone, and grief can become manageable with support.

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