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Bereavement and loss


It is important to remember that bereavement and loss affect people in a wide range of different ways, thus resulting in a wide range of symptoms. There isn’t really a set amount of symptoms related to bereavement, grief and loss, and there’s no right or wrong way to feel.

Loss can also refer to the end of a relationship or the loss of your job or house.

Symptoms of bereavement and loss can be both physical and mental. According to the NHS (2019), some of the most common symptoms are:

  • Shock and numbness
    This is usually the first reaction to loss - people often mention “being in a daze”

  • Overwhelming sadness
    This can often be paired with lots of crying

  • Tiredness or exhaustion

  • Anger
    Towards the person you’ve lost, or towards the reason for your loss

  • Guilt
    E.g. guilt about feeling angry, about things you said or didn’t say, or not being able to stop a loved one from passing away.

Stages of bereavement or grief

It is generally accepted by experts that there are four stages of bereavement or grief. These are:

  1. Accepting that your loss is real
  2. Experiencing the pain of grief
  3. Adjusting to life without the person or thing you have lost
  4. Putting less emotional energy into grieving and putting it into something new

Most people go through all these stages, but you will not necessarily move smoothly from one to the next.

Your grief might feel chaotic and out of control, but these feelings will eventually become less intense over time.

NHS (2019)

Effects of bereavement and loss

The effect on the nervous system

Lethargy and tiredness are common physical symptoms of bereavement. The loss of a loved one sets off a powerful stress response in the body, with release of high levels of natural steroids and a heightened state of awareness in the nervous system, especially the autonomic nervous system (the ‘fight or flight’ system) which controls the body’s readiness for action.

The heart responds to this greater nervous drive with an increase in pulse and blood pressure. Even if the person seems slow and down on the outside, inside they can be in turmoil.

There are, however, many resources out there that can help you manage and deal with said turmoil. Counselling is one of these resources, and can be significantly effective. Combining this with talking and opening up to a friend or family member can also help.

Decreased immunity

The stress response also affects the immune system. Bereavement causes a fall in activity of the T-lymphocytes, cells that are very important in fighting infection. So colds and other minor infections are common.

Pre-existing painful problems such as arthritis may get worse and other chronic health conditions often flare up too. It’s common for conditions that need careful control such as diabetes and high blood pressure to go awry.

This partly explains why people who experience personal loss are at higher risk of dying during the first year. Men are at greater risk than women, perhaps because they have fewer support systems among family and friends, as well as the harmful societal expectation of men to show less emotion and carry on.

The effect on children

Children are just as likely to show physical effects during bereavement, particularly complaining of stomach aches, headaches, bed-wetting and insomnia.

They may also show behavioural problems, becoming wild and unruly or withdrawn and sulky because of difficulties expressing their grief while at the same time coping with all the normal struggles of growing up.

What grieving children and adults need most of all is quiet support and understanding, a chance to share feelings and worries as well as time to work through their emotions.

Appropriate treatment for physical symptoms is important, so do seek medical advice. But while this may mean medication, many symptoms, such as sleep and appetite problems, get better with simple therapies or even on their own as the person works through the stages of bereavement.


NHS, 2019. Grief after bereavement or loss. [online] Available at: