By Robin Fiorelli, VITAS
Robin Fiorelli, MSW (Photo: VITAS)

Robin Fiorelli, MSW (Photo: VITAS)

People grieve because they have loved. It’s that simple. What’s more, it is our ability to love that allows us to heal from the despair of grief. Grief, unique to each person, can entail hard work over a period of months or years.

Protective Disbelief
The feeling of disbelief that follows the death of a loved one is an adaptive response – one that protects from the pain of loss and also allows the bereaved to manage the details involved in making final arrangements immediately following the death.

The disbelief is usually temporary. Embracing the painful reality does not happen quickly or easily, and it can be an exhausting process. When the loss sinks in, it is typical to feel profound sadness. It is difficult to imagine life without this loved one, and there are doubts about ever feeling OK again.

Death can shake confidence in surviving family members. Death forces the spouse to establish an identity as a single person again, to take on tasks that the spouse used to perform.

Tears and Irritability
Some bereaved people have difficulty being with others. Small talk seems trivial. Many cry unexpectedly or are irritable. Some feel embarrassed about the emotions they have, and sometimes feel like they “should be feeling better by now.”

Guilt is another common emotion after the death of a loved one. Some bereaved question whether they could have done more to prevent death or suffering. They may feel guilty at their relief, that they survived or that they feel no sorrow. They may feel guilty about things that did or did not happen in the relationship.

In addition, almost all bereaved people feel angry at some point during their grief process. They may feel angry at themselves, at their family and friends, and even at God for letting their loved one die.

Couple SeriousOver time, however, there is a growing acceptance and a reawakening. Energy and hope begin to return. Many are able to define what is meaningful to them and find confidence in acquiring skills to accomplish tasks previously performed by their loved ones. Old relationships are restored; new ones are formed.

All these feelings are a part of the grieving process and are normal. Even though they are painful to experience, they need to be expressed in order to move forward in life. The grieving process allows people to grow in ways they could not imagine at the beginning of the process.

If you want to help:

  • Do listen – it’s the most important way to help. But be comfortable with silence, too.
  • Do allow the bereaved to feel the way he/she feels; don’t think you have to cheer up someone who is feeling sad.
  • Do call and visit the mourner, even if it seems hard. The bereaved rely on unconditional support from family and friends.
  • Do say, “I’m so sorry that (name of loved one) died.” “I’ve been thinking about you so much.” “How are you feeling?”
  • Do offer specific help: “Can I take your kids to the park on Wednesday?” “Would you like me to help you go through (name of loved one’s) belongings?”
  • Do offer a hug, if appropriate.
  • Do be willing to talk about memories of the loved one.
  • Do expect ups and downs over time.


  • Don’t give advice. Mourners need time to come to their own conclusions.
  • Don’t say, “You’re doing so well.” “You’re so strong.” Mourners need permission to do poorly.
  • Don’t say, “I know how you feel.” The mourner may think that you do not understand how he or she feels.
  • Don’t say, “It was God’s will.” This rarely comforts anyone.
  • Don’t try to hurry the mourner through his/her grief.
  • Don’t say, “Call me if you need anything.” A vague offer sounds insincere; the mourner is not likely to call you.
  • Don’t tell someone who is grieving not to cry. Crying is an important part of the grief process.
  • Don’t be judgmental. There is no one right way to grieve.


Provided by VITAS Innovative Hospice Care® of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Robin Fiorelli, MSW, is Senior National Director of Bereavement and Volunteer Services for VITAS Innovative Hospice Care®. For more information call 1.800.337.2058 or go to

Posted: February 2013


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