The Initial Shock Of Losing Someone You Love - How To Cope

Posted at 03:02am on 15th October 2008

“Life,” said Lewis Grizzard, the original grumpy old man, “is a sexually transmitted terminal disease.”

It took me a moment or two to take it in when I read that statement. When the penny dropped, I laughed aloud. It’s just such a clever line!

And on a physical level, it says it all. Life – mine and yours – began with a sexual act, and without a shadow of doubt, it will end in death. In the Western world, that thought is something we shy away from. But even if we prefer not to dwell on our own demise, chances are that we’ll be called upon, at some time or other, to be supportive to someone going through the various stages of grief and loss.

Which is why, last week, I began a series on Bereavement: Dealing With The Death Of A Loved One.


In the first part of the series, I identified twelve stages of grief, some of them emotional, others practical or physical. Today, we’re going to look at the first of those points: the initial shock that occurs when we’re faced with the loss of a loved one, and the ways in which we need to look after ourselves.

The loss of someone close to us can happen in two ways:

  • stealthily, over a long period, due to illness or old age
  • or suddenly, shockingly, perhaps violently and suspiciously

The grieving process, in terms of the emotions experienced, is similar. The difference comes in that mourning the loss of someone who is ill, or otherwise infirm, is done – for the most part – prior to death.


When we’re confronted with a situation which cannot be immediately assimilated because it’s so totally outside of normal experience, a sense of numbness descends. We call this shock. The body and mind go into an automatic response, shutting down all emotion. This is a normal coping mechanism. But it is important to realize that all human beings are unique, and we do not, therefore, all follow the same route when dealing with the loss of a loved one.

This sense of inner emptiness is designed to give us time to come to terms with what has happened. But it is, in itself, an unpleasant experience. The emotional numbness may be accompanied by physical changes: difficulty in breathing; shortness of breath; shaking and trembling; nausea, and dry mouth which make it difficult to speak; giddiness and a sense of muscle weakness.

Perhaps the easiest way to show this is in an excerpt from my book, A Painful Post Mortem. Inspired by my own experience, it is the story of a family coping in the aftermath of a sudden death. In this passage, Rosie, a young mother, is trying to recall the moment she learned of her sister’s death. She’d been attending a routine appointment at the surgery the previous week, and was told that the doctor had been called away. Asked to wait alone in a cold, empty Clinic, she found a sense of unease descending upon her.


The Clinic – usually packed with the subdued chatter of ante- or post-natal women awaiting scans and other minor miracles of obstetric care; mothers, with pre-school infants mercifully unaware of the terrors of the needle ahead; or the elderly and disabled juggling exercises of body and mind – was, that morning, silent and foreboding. The emptiness, the shadowless ceiling lights, the grey walls, and red plastic seats rigid in their attempt at informality, felt cold and cheerless.
Rosie shivered.
When, at last, Dr Morris appeared at the door of the Clinic, she had no sense of how long she had waited. The doctor shook her hand, leaned over the baby in her chair and made the right noises, then seated himself at right angles to Rosie.
He was not Rosie’s GP and was known to her only by hearsay. Somehow, his appearance didn’t match the image Rosie had formed. She thought him unkempt, his eyes bleary, his jowls dark and unshaven. He leaned forward, his forearms on his thighs, the flesh on his face falling into crumpled folds.
‘I’m sorry to have kept you,’ he began. ‘I’m afraid I have some bad news.’
Rosie’s heart began to thump. It thumped so loud she thought it would leap from her chest. All she could hear as the doctor started to speak was an endless drumming in her ears.
Dr Morris had been called out by the police at four o’clock that morning, he told her.
‘I’m so sorry Mrs Timbline – Rosie, if I may? There’s no easy way of saying this. Your sister, Katya, was found dead in her home.’
The blood surged and pounded in Rosie’s ears. Strangely, Katya had been the last person on her mind when the doctor had warned her of bad news. Such was her state of confusion, that she’d thought, initially – was convinced, in fact – that Dr Morris was about to tell her of some disaster that had befallen her mother. A road traffic accident on the way down to the river for their celebratory pleasure cruise? A drowning? From a boat they had not yet boarded! How stupid was that?
‘Katya?’ she repeated. But her brain refused to give up its image of Mum.


This latching onto normality – analysing the doctor’s appearance, for example – is, again, a coping mechanism. Likewise, Rosie’s dissection at a later date of the stupidity of thinking that her mother had drowned – when she knew it wasn’t possible because the boating event hadn’t yet happened – is the brain’s way of distancing itself from a reality it isn’t yet ready to face. Even when Rosie is acquainted with the facts about her sister’s death, she is unable to assimilate them.

Little by little, his voice resonant with kindness and fatigue, the doctor relayed what he knew of the situation. Little by little, like arrows fired at ramparts and falling short, the blunt facts barely penetrated the thick layer of insulation that Rosie’s mind had erected around her intellect.

Later, Rosie has to relay the news of her sister’s death to her mother. Still in shock herself, she finds it no easy task. And later still, she chides herself, wondering if she could have chosen her words more carefully. Claire’s response is devastating.

Should she – could she, Rosie wondered – have broken it any better?
‘Mummy – I’m so sorry. Kat’s been found dead at home.’
There was no easy formula; no pat phrase; no acceptable tone of voice. Besides, she had been in shock, herself. It had been all she could do to force the words out past her teeth and lips. The cavity of her chest felt empty, as if her lungs had deflated; as if there was insufficient breath on which to convey the sound and meaning of her message. How did you tell any mother of the loss of her child? How could you cause such pain to your own? Her teeth chattered.
‘I’m so sorry, Mummy. I’m so sorry.’
Over and over, her guilt spilled out, inane, irrational, unstoppable: for being the harbinger of bad news; the cause of pain and anguish; for every hard thought she had ever harboured – against Kat, their mother, their father; for being hundreds of miles away from dispensing and receiving a hug; for feeling utterly, devastatingly, helpless.
And then – silence.
She’d imagined her mother sitting on the sofa in the lounge. Or perhaps on the edge of her bed. She tried to get her mind round what it would be like if someone were to tell her, Rosie – one day, in the far off future – that her precious Erin was no more.
Are you okay, Mummy? I understand how you must feel, Mummy.
The crumbs of comfort she had been about to offer were never uttered. Instead, an inhuman moan, which emanated from Claire, began to echo down the phone line. It grew to a crescendo, and became a wail that filled Rosie’s head.
Immutable, it had filled her head for the past ten days.


Rosie realised the merit of a hug: the need that human beings have to bring solace one to another. She lamented her inability to comfort her mother in this way. There is something very primitive in this need. We should never underestimate the power of physical touch.

There are other things that we can do for ourselves or, if we’re fortunate enough to have friends, have them do for us. The following strategies are taken, by permission, from a list posted on the Google grief support group in 2002 by Daniel when he suffered the loss of his Dad.

1. Eat. You may not be able to taste it, but the tissues do need
nutrients. Think simple. Think comfort.
2. Try to lie down for at least six hours a day. Do it in a series
of cat-naps if you want. You may not be able to sleep. When your
body needs sleep, your body will sleep. But being horizontal helps
even if you're not sleeping. Try not to *try* too hard to sleep.
3. Breathe all the way out occasionally. Breathe all the way in
occasionally too.
4. Relax your jaw muscles. Lower your shoulders. Lift your eyes to
the horizon. Un-clench your hands and toes. If you can do those
things, much of the rest of you might relax too.
5. Drink a little water or juice sometimes even if you aren't eating.
Stress (and crying!) is dehydrating. And being dehydrated adds to the

I remember when my daughter died, and the kindness of those who came to see me. The simple meal they prepared in my kitchen, the sweetened tea they urged upon me before I set off to travel hundreds of miles to my daughter’s home – are the acts of those who care. I hope that whatever our fear of death, this is something we can all offer one another. The sharing of grief is not unique to the human species. But we need to guard against dread or embarrassment in ourselves that can lead to sub-human isolation.

Later in the week, we’ll be looking at the next stage of grief in the series: Dealing with denial, grief and anger. See you then.

Your Comments:

Daniel in USA
16th October 2008
at 7:47am

Yes I put together the list of ways to take care of yourself for
the group at the usenet newsgroup The whole
thing can be found on by following this


Please do your best to take care of yourself.

16th October 2008
at 6:37pm

Thanks for the list and the link Daniel. I'm sure people
will find both helpful. Mel

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