Emotions

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. Explaining how you are feeling can help family and friends be more understanding of your behaviour at this time.

Learn more about these emotions that you may experience during the grieving process:

Also, you can find out about some tips for coping with your emotions.


Numbness

When someone dies, you may feel nothing at first. This may be because you can’t believe it’s true. 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.

The sense of numbness 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.


Sadness

Sometimes you might feel like you will never stop crying. You may long to see the person so much you don’t know what to do with yourself and find that the tears are simply beyond your control, 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. Both reactions are common.

Often the sadness is ongoing, and it can be hard to work out if this is simply the natural course of your grief, or a sign of more complex grief or depression.


Anger

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 reason at all.

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.


Relief

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.

We often are expected to idolise or ‘put someone up on a pedestal’ when they have died – but a cancer journey will inevitably show all sides of the people involved in it. The person who died was human, with good traits and bad ones, and you are too.

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.

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.

When someone dies, we lose the opportunity to change things. Try to remember that no-one is perfect. Often, talking it over 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.

Emphasising light-hearted or joyful moments can help to counter the lack of control that grief can bring.


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, or you may 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 anxious even if you can’t put your finger on any particular worry. Shock and stress can release chemicals such as adrenaline that make it hard to switch off anxiety.

Even day-to-day activities such as leaving the house to go for walk or doing the shopping can fill some people with fear. If anxiety or fear is making it hard for you to cope with daily life, talk to your GP or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.


Depression and despair

When the reality of the loss sinks in, you may find your sadness overwhelming and even feel like your life has lost its meaning.

A loss of enjoyment in life and a lack of direction or purpose are common, especially for people who take a long time to come to terms with the loss. However, if these feelings persist for what you consider an extended period of time, it may be a sign of depression

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 help. Lifeline provides 24-hour crisis support on 13 11 14. The services listed here also offer support.


Tips for coping with your emotions

  • Accept that your feelings are normal and natural given the loss you have experienced. You might sense pressure from yourself or others to feel a certain way, but everyone has their own style of coping.
  • Be patient with grief. You may feel that after a certain time you should be coping differently to how you are, but your adjustment to the loss is likely to be gradual and may take longer than you expect. Read about when to seek professional help.
  • Remember that it’s normal to feel angry. Find safe ways to show emotions such as anger – play vigorous sport, scream in your car with the windows up, paint or draw, or hit a pillow. You may feel silly, but action often helps.
  • Try reflecting on your caring role – you may feel you are stronger than you realised and proud of how you have supported someone as they were dying.
  • Forgive yourself for the things you didn’t say or do. Some people find it helps to write a letter to the person and then burn it.
  • Read a book, play a round of cards with a friend or watch a movie that may take your mind off your grief for a little while.
  • Consider whether you would like to try complementary therapies, such as meditation or art therapy, to help you manage any feelings of anxiety or depression.
  • Try to develop a sense of your personal coping style (the things that work best for you). Remembering how you have coped in difficult situations in the past may help you feel more able to cope now.

This information was last reviewed in April 2017
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Support services

Caring for someone with cancer
Speak to a health professional or to someone who has been there, or find a support group or forum

Cancer Council Online Community
A community forum – a safe place to share stories, get tips and connect with people who understand

Cancer information

Emotions and cancer
People who are affected by cancer in some way can experience a range of emotions, that can be very challenging to deal with at times. Learn more.

End of life 
This information may help you better cope with end of life, or support someone who may be dying with cancer

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