Bereavement: Coping With The Initial Shock

Posted at 04:51am on 7th May 2020

"The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our separate ways, I to die, and you to live. Which of these two is better only God knows." Socrates

On this VE day, when we commemorate the courage of those who gave their lives in WW2 so that we might have freedom, we know that the one inevitability in life is that death will come to us all. In normal circumstances in the Western world, that certainty is something from which we tend to shy away. The reality now, in the midst of a global pandemic, is that this is something we may have no alternative but to face.

Which is why, last week, I began a series on Bereavement: Are You Having To Deal With The Death Of A Loved One?


The effects of grief are multiple. Some are emotional, others practical or physical. Today we're going to look at the initial shock and sense of denial that occurs when we're faced with the loss of a loved one. 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- for the most part - experienced prior to death.


When we're confronted with a situation which is so totally outside our normal experience, the brain can't take it in. A sense of numbness descends upon us. 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. We do not, therefore, all follow the same route when dealing with the loss of a loved one.

The sense of inner emptiness we may experience is designed to give us time to come to terms with what has happened. That's not to say it's comfortable, though! It is, in itself, an unpleasant feeling. 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 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 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. This, too, 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.

It may be that you have experienced the loss of a loved one in the past few weeks, and that this is how you've been feeling. If you'd like to share your thoughts, with the aim of helping others to cope, do leave a comment below. Next week, we'll be looking at Bereavement: How To Look After Yourself

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