Bereavement: What Is It?

Updated October 5, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

There are many words and phrases that we associate with the loss of a loved one. Words like "grief, "mourning," and "bereavement" are often used when describing this event and the emotions that come along with it.

But what does that word "bereavement" really mean? Is the meaning of bereavement the same as grief, or something entirely different?

Most sources define bereavement as the period following a deep loss. However, other types of losses can cause bereavement, such as the end of a significant relationship, a miscarraige, or change in health status. Some bereavement definitions are even wider, referring to the emotions we experience during this period. Losing a loved one shakes our world to its foundations, but there are many ways to spend bereavement time that can help us process the events and move on. It's difficult to separate the event from the overwhelming emotions that accompany it, luckily, bereavement counseling or a bereavement group can help.

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But the definition of bereavement is best understood as the period in which the most intense part of the grief process takes place. To define bereavement also means to assign it a specified amount of time, as with bereavement leave in the workplace. The grief definition differs, however, as there is no timeline on grief. You can even feel grief when a pet dies.

But the reality is that bereavement and grief are complicated and messy. In many ways, they resist definition. The experience of bereavement and the emotions of grief can endure for a lifetime. They are often complicated by other factors such as age, relationships, and the manner of the death.

Here are the most important things you need to know about bereavement and grief.

Stages Of Grief

The experience of losing a partner, child, parent, or close friend is so overwhelming that it takes a long time to process the emotions. The survivor must learn to handle the crippling sadness while adjusting to a new life which no longer includes their loved one.

Because grieving is such a big job, it has to be done a little at a time. Although somewhat unpredictable, there are typically five clear stages of grief and bereavement.

  1. Numbness and shock. In the initial stage, mourners may not fully believe that their loved one is gone. This is a helpful stage in many ways because it helps us get through many of the practical tasks that follow a death (planning the funeral, resolving financial issues, etc.) which would otherwise be too much. But problems can arise if we become "stuck" in the numbness and shock phase. In some cases, the bereaved person might go for years without fully accepting that a loved one is gone.
  2. Anger, guilt, and blame. After the shock has worn off, you may feel angry with anyone that you perceive could have prevented the loss. These feelings could be directed towards God, the medical staff, or even against yourself in the form of guilt. You might find yourself angry with the person who has died for abandoning you. These feelings may take you by surprise with their intensity. But this is all part of the process. It's nothing to be concerned about unless you find yourself stuck in the anger phase, and unable to move on.
  3. Bargaining. The bereaved person desperately yearns for their loved one to return, even though this is impossible. You may find yourself making "bargains" in the vain hope that you can change the circumstances (i.e., "If he were alive now, I'd tell him I love him every day," etc.).
  4. Depression. In this stage, the grieving person becomes withdrawn and sad. You will find yourself spending a lot of time thinking about your lost loved one. Often, extreme sadness will be triggered by unexpected things in daily life. You may isolate yourself from others.
  5. Acceptance. During this phase, the grieving person begins to adjust to a new life in which their loved one is absent. Although you still miss the person who has died, you have come to terms with the fact that your future no longer includes him or her. However, you will always feel that something is missing, and little reminders can pop up to rekindle your feelings of loss months or even years later.

It's important to remember that grief may not always fall neatly into stages. Your emotions may be unpredictable, and feelings of anger, sadness, guilt or depression can crop up at any time.

It is essential to distinguish between situational depression following a loss and clinical depression. However, some individuals do develop symptoms of clinical depression after losing a loved one. Due to the removal of the bereavement exclusion in the DSM-5, individuals can be diagnosed with a depressive disorder, even if in the context of grieving a significant loss.

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Bereavement And Children

With children, bereavement manifests itself very differently than it does with adults. Children cannot tolerate the intensity of grief all at once, so their period of bereavement may appear shorter than that of an adult. However, symptoms of grief appear sporadically throughout their lives, triggered by events such as birthday parties, summer vacations, or even something as simple as an argument with a friend. Each developmental milestone brings a new aspect of the grieving process for the child to wrestle with.

Also different from adults, children tend not to use verbal expressions of their grief. Rather, their grief shows up in behaviors.

Here are a few common behaviors which children may exhibit when grieving the death of a loved one.

  • Sleep problems (difficulty sleeping, bedwetting, nightmares)
  • Helplessness, clinginess, increased dependence on parents
  • Withdrawal, avoiding school, avoiding social situations
  • Changes in appetite and eating patterns
  • Acting out themes of death in their play
  • Physical symptoms, like headaches and stomachaches

Keep in mind that every child and every loss is different. Grieving behaviors look different based on age, gender, and personality of the child and his or her relationship with the person who died.

Grief Reactions By Age

Infants And Toddlers

Even infants are aware when a familiar person who used to care for them is no longer there. They respond negatively to disruptions in their normal routine. Babies may actively search for the missing person. They may become fussy and cry more. They may also become less active and experience weight loss.

Early Childhood (4-7)

At this age, children are not able to understand that death is permanent. 

Older Children (7-10)

At this age, children can understand that death is final. They become very concerned about the reactions of those around them. They may try to fill the role of the deceased person by taking on adult tasks or imitating the mannerisms of the deceased. They may express concern about the health and safety of those around them.

Adolescents And Teens (11 and older)

Teens and adolescents are preoccupied with what others think of them and are likely to cover up the intensity of their emotions to fit in better with their peer group. They may find it difficult to express their feelings and are at risk of turning to alcohol, drugs, or sexual intimacy to dull the pain of the loss.

Complicated 

Nothing about grief feels normal. But in time, the intensity fades, and most people can continue to function normally and healthily live their lives. This is known as uncomplicated bereavement.

In a few cases, though, the symptoms of grief can linger and become debilitating. We may find ourselves stuck at a particular stage, unable to move forward. Rather than healing, the grief becomes a persistent disorder. This problem is known as complicated bereavement.

Some of the symptoms of complicated bereavement are:

  • The inability to focus on anything else besides memories of your loved one
  • A preoccupation with sadness
  • A sense of meaninglessness and a lack of purpose
  • Difficulty carrying out normal daily routines
  • A belief that you caused the death or could have prevented it
  • Numbness, detachment
  • Intense longing for the deceased person

If you are suffering the symptoms of complicated bereavement, it's important to seek professional advice and support. Contact one of our online counselors at BetterHelp to get you through this tough time.

Coping Strategies

Whatever your unique situation may be, here are a few strategies to help you to cope and move towards healing during the bereavement process:

  • Be Patient With Yourself. There is no set time limit for grief. You may be feeling better for several weeks, and then suddenly have a setback. Allow yourself to experience all the difficult emotions that come with loss.
  • Take Good Care Of Yourself Physically. The work of grief is exhausting. Take care of your body by eating healthy foods, exercising, getting enough rest, engaging in self-care, and finding healthy outlets for managing stress.
  • Ask For Help. Seek out a supportive network of friends who can be a listening ear when needed. It will also be helpful to ask for help with practical chores like cooking, cleaning, or caring for children.
  • Get Professional Help If Needed. If friends don't seem able to provide enough support, it can be helpful to seek the advice of a trained professional or to join a support group.
  • Avoid Self-Medicating With Drugs Or Alcohol. While these may temporarily relieve the pain, they will create more problems for you in the long term.

Bereavement can feel like an insurmountable obstacle to peace and contentment. But with time and support, healing is possible.

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