You may feel a range of strong emotions, such as sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety and depression. Sometimes people are overwhelmed by the intensity of their feelings or find that their mood changes quickly and often. These are natural reactions to the experience of loss and may take some months to settle. Physical reactions to grief can also affect your emotions.
Try to develop a sense of your personal coping style (the things that work best for you). Remembering how you have coped with difficult situations in the past may help you feel more able to cope now with your emotions. Explaining how you are feeling to family and friends can help them understand your behaviour at this time.
Learn more about:
- Guilt and regret
- Fear and anxiety
- Depression and despair
- Tips for coping with your emotions
When someone dies, you may feel nothing at first. This may be because you can’t believe it’s true or you’ve had a shock. It may feel like the person who died will suddenly walk through the door again.
This numbness can be helpful during the first days and weeks after a loss, when you may be making practical arrangements, such as planning and attending the funeral. Don’t feel you have to push yourself past this emotional numbness. It will start to fade in a few days or weeks, although it may return from time to time. The reality of your loss will become clearer as time passes.
Sometimes you might feel like the sadness will never go away. You may long to see the person so much you don’t know what to do with yourself. You may find it hard to control the crying, with tears sometimes coming when you least expect them. This could mean you avoid going out because you can’t predict or control the crying. You might also feel unable to cry, even though you are terribly sad.
Many people feel very angry when they are grieving. You may feel angry with your god, the person who has died, the fact of death, yourself, those involved in caring for the person who died, even the person behind you in the supermarket queue, or for no obvious reason.
Anger that comes and goes is a natural part of grief. Some people find it helpful to express their anger in a safe environment, such as with a trusted friend or counsellor. Others find that physical activities such as gardening or exercise provide an outlet for their anger and help clear their mind.
|Not everything experienced after a death is negative. While grief can certainly be painful and disruptive, there are often small joys and connections with others. Many people experience positive growth and discover that they have a natural resilience or develop greater compassion for others.|
You may feel relief that the person has died, especially if they have been unwell for a long time. Sometimes it’s a relief that it has happened at last, that the death you have been worrying about for months is finally a reality you can deal with. You may also feel glad that their suffering is over.
If your relationship with the person was challenging or complicated, you may experience a mix of emotions at their loss. Along with sadness, you may feel relief that you are free of the stress. It’s hard not to feel guilty about this. When a person dies, we are often expected to focus on their good points and not criticise them – but a cancer journey is bound to show all sides of people. The person who died was human, with good traits and bad ones, and you are too.
Guilt and regret
You may feel guilty about the things you did or didn’t do. You may wish you had behaved differently towards the person in the recent or distant past or made different decisions about their care, or you might feel that there are things you left unsaid. Try to remember that no-one is perfect. Often, talking about your feelings with someone else helps.
Sometimes people feel guilty when they find themselves joking and laughing, feeling happy at times, or getting on with life. But it is normal to experience a range of emotions as you learn to live with the loss – it doesn’t mean that you didn’t care about the person or that your grief is not genuine. Light-hearted or joyful moments can help to counter the lack of control that grief can bring and help you release some of the physical tension that often comes with grief.
Fear and anxiety
People often become very fearful when they have a major loss in their life. You may be afraid of what the future holds and how you will cope, feel terribly worried about other people you love, or fear for your own health.
Little things that were no trouble to you before can unsettle you, and you may feel very worried even if you can’t put your finger on any particular worry. Even day-to-day activities such as leaving the house to go for a walk, doing the shopping or going back to work can fill some people with fear.
Depression and despair
When the reality of the loss sinks in, you may find your sadness overwhelming or feel like your life has lost meaning. A loss of enjoyment in life and a lack of direction are common, especially for people who take a long time to come to terms with the loss.
Managing your emotions
If any of these feelings persist for what you consider an extended period of time, it may be a sign of depression.
If these feelings are making it hard for you to cope with daily life, talk to your general practitioner (GP), a grief counsellor or Cancer Council 13 11 20.
For some people, the grief feels so unbearable that they feel that they can’t go on. If this happens to you, it is important to seek professional help from a specialist grief counsellor. Lifeline provides 24-hour crisis support on 13 11 14. For more on this, see Seeking support
Kate Jurgens, Bereavement Coordinator, Southern Adelaide Palliative Services, SA; Gabrielle Asprey, Cancer Support Consultant, Cancer Council NSW; A/Prof Lauren Breen, Psychologist, Curtin University, WA; Rev David Dawes, Manager, Spiritual Care Department, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Rob Ferguson, Consumer; Karen Hall, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Joanna Mangan, Psychologist, Cancer Council Queensland; Kate Reed, Nurse Practitioner National Clinical Advisor, Palliative Care Australia; Maxine Rosenfield, Counsellor and Educator, NSW.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
Click below to download a PDF booklet on this topic.