Finding balance in bereavement, woman with her hands clasped in front of her mouth.

Finding balance in bereavement

Following the death of a loved one, is it better to keep busy or take some time out? Andy Langford, clinical director at Cruse Bereavement Care, tells us that the most important thing is to find a balance.

Everyone’s experience of grief is different

‘I see a lot of articles saying that grieving can be broken into a series of stages which you progress through in a linear fashion – but there’s no evidence for that,’ says Andy. Having worked with bereaved people for 17 years, he’s seen how expecting to move from one stage to another isn’t always helpful. ‘We shouldn’t be putting pressure on ourselves to experience a certain sensation – like anger or acceptance – at a certain time. Instead, we should be giving ourselves time and space.’

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, Andy says, and not only is grieving different for everyone, it’s different for people each time they experience it. ‘We need to be aware of the context: there are always going to be internal and external factors that will impact the way we grieve at any given point in our life. Perhaps that’s a recent relationship breakdown, money worries, or a pre-existing mental health issue.’

The relationship we have with the person who has died is individual, and we continue to have a relationship with them after they’ve died. ‘Just think about the way in which a parent shapes who we are,’ Andy says. ‘And yet, when they die, we are expected to move on. At Cruse, we talk about grief being timeless, because it’s not about getting through a particular set of experiences or travelling along a particular timescale – it doesn’t work like that. There are too many variables, and things will happen that remind us of the person who’s died, which will bring a range of emotions to the fore.’

Finding a balance is key

Following a death, people may recommend that we keep busy – and it can be a useful piece of advice. But we also need to take the time to look after our emotional, and physical, wellbeing as best we can.

Being occupied – whether that’s sorting through a loved one's belongings or going back to work – can help us feel we are getting on with life, but there will still be times when we are immersed in grief. ‘One day, you just want to sit and look at a photo of the person who’s died and be in tears for hours remembering them,’ Andy says. ‘But then the following day you might feel like you need to get on. You leave the house, you go shopping, you sort through those photos and share them with friends and family. Suddenly, you find you are busy again.’

It’s not unusual for people to switch back and forth between these two states. There are times, however, when being busy isn’t always a conscious choice. External factors, such as looking after young children, mean that while you might want to spend time focusing on your loss, you simply have to keep going. ‘It’s not anyone’s fault if they become stuck in ‘busy’ mode, but it can have the effect of contributing to the physical symptoms of grief,’ says Andy.

Find a routine that works for you

Getting the balance right between being busy as a distraction and taking the time to focus on your grief is key. Andy recommends establishing a routine that’s useful for you. It should incorporate some rest – maybe time to nap during the day if you are not sleeping at night; some activity that is nurturing for you, as this can reduce stress and increase endorphins; and a few practical things that will keep life ticking on. You should also make time to remember the person who’s died, and talk through memories with friends and family.

You may find it useful to speak to your employer about what’s going on, and continue to talk to the people around you. ‘When someone feels stuck – in being busy or being upset – they can end up inadvertently pushing away vital social support,’ Andy says, ‘but that contact is so important. Explain things are really hard for you, and say, "Sometimes I'm going to need to be with people but other times I won’t be able to face it and it’s nothing personal." Be as honest as you can be with the people you trust.’

As you focus on looking after yourself and practise self-care, remember that your GP will be able to offer advice on coping with bereavement, while support networks like Cruse are also available.

Cruse supports people after the death of someone close. Contact their helpline on 0808 808 1677 or visit cruse.org.uk for more information.