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Dealing with the different stages of grief

Wise and practical advice for those who find themselves struggling to find their way following a bereavement.

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How do you cope with grief when a partner dies?

When a partner dies, there is often plenty of sympathy and support on offer to begin with and the pain can feel even worse when that gradually decreases and people get back to running their own lives.

You may feel that you can’t carry on – even that you’re going mad – yet what you are going through is entirely natural and normal.

The initial loss

Initially the pain of your loss was masked by the activity and the ensuing outpouring of emotion and support, but now you are left with your grief, a very natural reaction to your loss. The pain in the death of a partner is multi-faceted, every facet reflecting the loss of the different roles the person filled.

I think it is important to recognise that you will not always feel as bad as you do now. Grief is a journey. The many who have travelled along its path will tell you that it is one that will change you forever; therefore it may help to give you some signposts. These pointers on the path of grief reassure us that we have not lost all sense of sanity.

The best known stages or signposts are those identified by Elizabeth Kübler Ross in the 1960s when working with people diagnosed with a terminal illness. Grief is a reaction to loss. Loss can also be the knowledge that you will lose your own life, the loss of a relationship, or the loss of a home. All loss potentially causes the symptoms of grief, the stages are the same, and only the degree of suffering is different.

The path of grief

Everyone grieves differently, there are no shortcuts, although some try to avoid or defer the process which makes it harder when it does hit. Others move through the stages quickly, or go back and forth, and some stay in one place and hardly seem to move at all.

It takes a while for reality to sink in. This is the first stage, denial, and it is the mind’s self-protection mechanism. If we were to immediately realise the full implication of the loss, we would be completely overwhelmed.

A feeling of anger

The next phase is often anger. Anger directed at anyone, including the person who died: 'how could you leave me?'; doctors for not doing enough, or even God. The possible targets for our anger are endless.

Trying to 'make a deal'

Bargaining is the next stage when we try to make deals with God to gain back what we have lost. I have also added guilt to this list. It is a stage many will recognise. We seem to be experts at blaming ourselves, even if the circumstances were out of our control. Guilt for not being present at the end, or not noticing there was something wrong, for not visiting, for not showing that we cared – rather like anger, the list of reasons to feel guilty is unlimited.

The journey through grief

As you progress through this journey, it is important that you do what you least feel like doing and that is to get out of your home. That is never more important than when the next and most dangerous stage occurs, which is depression. To avoid remaining in this painful place I am including a few ideas that may assist you to best move through it.

For example, volunteering is a positive move where everyone gains. If you are retired or have time on your hands, volunteering on a part-time basis, say in a charity shop, will pay dividends. Not only will you be contributing, which is a vital aspect of good mental health, but you will be interacting with other people and you may find some who will be able to empathise with your circumstances.

On a less practical level, if you have some experience of owning one, a pet can be a real lifeline. There are rescue pets of varying ages and sizes looking for a home, and their unconditional love will be never be more welcome than it is now. If you are mobile, a small dog will also force you to leave the solitude of your home to go 'walkies'. Any exercise is better than none and it is a proven antidote to depression. Pets have two empathetic ears that will never grow tired of listening.

The Samaritans

Talking about empathetic ears, the Samaritans are on the end of the phone at any time of the day or night. Being able to find a way to express grief is a key element of emotional good health. Men often seem to have more difficulty sharing their emotions so it is not surprising that more men than women use the Samaritans' service.

Don't act on impulse

People grieving should not make any important decisions about a change of lifestyle and life events - particularly with regard to moving home. The impulse often is to move, nearer relatives, and away from memories. It is not the right time to make that decision.

Dr Shirley Holton, once medical adviser to a local housing authority, says: "I used to get a lot of applications from the recently bereaved for a change of their local authority house. My advice always was 'if you feel the same in six months ask me again', and no one ever did. I monitored this carefully so I could count the rate of re-application".


The final stage is acceptance. Acceptance does not necessarily mean that you will no longer mourn, but that you will be able to begin the next journey, which is on the road that leads to the rest of your life.

Adapted from a chapter in End of Life: the essential guide to caring by Mary Jordan and Judy Carole Kauffmann (Hammersmith Press).


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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