Common reactions to death

When someone you know dies, it can turn your life upside down. The way people grieve when someone dies can be very different; find out about common reactions to death and grieving and what you can do when you’re going through a difficult time.

Signs this might be a problem:

  • You’re in shock
  • Someone has died and you’re not sure how to respond
  • Life feels like it’s been turned upside down after someone has died
sad boy holding a bunch of flowers

Reasons people react differently to death

Dealing with death, particularly the death of people close to you, is one of the most stressful experiences that a person can go through. The death of someone close to you is devastating, and can turn your life completely upside down.

Everyone reacts differently to death and it’s normal if you feel like you’re riding on a rollercoaster of different emotion. How a person is likely to react to death can depend on a number of factors including:

  • The type of relationship they had with the person.
  • Other losses they have had may come back and be grieved again with the new loss.
  • Gender. Guys are sometimes more likely to feel restrained emotionally, and express their grief through physical activity. Girls are often more likely to want to share their feelings with others, talk about what’s happening or cry more openly.
  • Cultural background - Cultural groups deal with grief in different ways, including in how they express their grief through rituals and ceremonies, and different rules around what is considered respectful.
  • Age - Younger children may not understand that the person is not coming back. Older children, on the other hand, understand that the person is not coming back, but may not understand why.

Common reactions

The immediate reaction to hearing of the death of someone close to you, is often one of shock. Shock can last anywhere from a few days to a number of weeks, and when people are experiencing it, they can feel:

  • Sick
  • Dizzy
  • Nauseous
  • Dazed
  • Numb
  • Empty

They can also:

  • Be in complete disbelief about what has happened.
  • Feel nothing – This is a completely normal reaction. It may take you a few weeks, but eventually you will start to feel other emotions.
  • React strangely. For example, some people can’t stop themselves from laughing.

You shouldn’t feel guilty if you experience any of these reactions as a result of shock. It’s completely normal to react in ways you can’t control, and none of them are wrong.

Grieving

When the shock of a death wears off somewhat, you’re likely to start grieving. Grief can impact in the following ways:

  • Physically e.g. Headaches, feeling tired, achy muscles and nausea.
  • Emotionally e.g. Sadness, anger, disbelief, despair, guilt, loneliness.
  • Mentally e.g. Forgetfulness, lack of concentration, confusion, and poor memory.
  • Through behaviour e.g. changes to sleeping patterns, dreams or nightmares, your appetite. You might or might not want to go out or be around too many people, experience unusual emotional reactions or cry.
  • Socially, e.g. Some friends may avoid you because they do not know what to say or how to help you.  You might also feel pressure to be strong for family or friends, or you may not feel like seeing anyone.
  • Spiritually e.g. Your beliefs may be challenged and you may struggle to have faith in the things that you used to believe in.

Whatever your experience, don’t stress about how you’re handling it. Everybody should be able to grieve in their own way and time.

What to do about it

It’s really important to look after yourself when someone has died, as the stress it causes can really impact on your physical health, and your wellbeing. Make sure you take some time out to relax, and find out about some things you can do to help you cope.

If you feel like things are building up, it can help to talk to someone you trust. If you can’t turn to your friends and family, it’s a great idea to visit your GP or a counsellor. They’ll be able to suggest some strategies to help you through the grieving process. You don’t have to go through this alone.

What can I do now?

Last reviewed: 21 October, 2015
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