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Intensive care: Experiences of family & friends

Coping with bereavement

Everyone grieves and deals with bereavement in different ways and most people feel many different emotions at various times and stages, including anger, guilt, sadness and despair. Some people described how difficult they'd found it at the beginning, when their relative had first died, and how important it had been to have lots of support at a time when they'd felt shocked, numb or depressed. A few people explained how they'd sometimes felt guilty and wondered if there'd been anything they could have done differently.

 

Some days during the next few weeks she felt so depressed she didn't want to see anyone or leave...

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Some days during the next few weeks she felt so depressed she didn't want to see anyone or leave...

Age at interview: 40
Sex: Female
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At the beginning I was absolutely, I wanted to die, honestly, I really, really did. Obviously I couldn't because I have got responsibilities but I would have been happy to die. 

Yeah. And how was your health? Afterwards you felt really exhausted? 

Yes. I was really tired. 

Really down? 

Yes. 

How was your health? 

I developed eczema. I have never had eczema before in my life but it was all over me knees. My hair started coming out [laughs] and I went to the doctor and she gave me some antidepressants which I have stopped taking because I don't think I am depressed. I think I am actually grieving which is a different thing isn't it. And for about I don't know about four or five weeks I found it really, really hard going out. Really difficult going out of the door. I didn't want to speak to anybody. Everybody was ringing me up saying can we do this, come for tea, come for a drink, come out with us because you don't want to be in on your own. But all that I wanted was really to be on me own. That is it. I didn't want anybody else at all. 

One woman, who'd never been close to her sister-in-law, wished she'd known her better when she'd been alive. One man regretted that his young children wouldn't get to know his father, who'd died at the age of 83. His spiritual views had helped him accept what had happened, and to deal with critical illness and death on a regular basis in his job as an ICU consultant. 

Bereavement is a difficult time and some people said it had helped talking to friends and family or to people outside the family. A few people said that some of their relatives or partners had found it difficult to talk about the person's death and they'd hardly ever mentioned it. One woman said she'd benefited enormously from seeing a counsellor at the hospital, who she could talk to about her feelings and who could help her move on, even though she would never forget what had happened, or her husband. There are many organisations that help people cope with loss and bereavement. Some people recommended contacting these organisations or talking to others who'd been through something similar.

 

Counselling helped her accept what had happened and start moving forwards with her life again.

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Counselling helped her accept what had happened and start moving forwards with her life again.

Age at interview: 40
Sex: Female
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So after about, I don't know three or four weeks, I was finding it really, really difficult and I was, everything was all over, you know the funeral was over and I was just really, really struggling. So I phoned up and I was given a counsellor who is an absolute star and she asked me whether I would rather she visit me or I go there, to the hospital. Well my little boy has got a dentist appointment there in September so I thought well it is better that I go back before this or else I will be in a right state won't I on the day. So that is what I did and we visited Intensive Care. And it was really, really good actually. It was really therapeutic really to go back up into, and visit everybody, you know and to see everybody. It was nice. 

Yes. And what kind of things have you been able to discuss with the counsellor that's helpful for you? 

Everything, everything. And the advantage is that my counsellor used to be a sister on Intensive Care. So I mean you don't have to start explaining everything to her, you don't have to say well he was given this drug but I don't know what it was for or what it was called and he had this thing in his neck but I don't know what it was there for. She knows it all. And she has been there before many, many, many times. And, I don't know, I could just discuss, I don't know the fact that I felt guilty and would he have got better if I had done this, and would he have got better if he had gone to the doctors earlier. Well she has got a medical background obviously. And she had read his files and she looked at the scans and she can tell me things that make me feel better. 

And you found it really helpful. How have you changed since the sessions in terms of being able to go out and you know you wanted to be by yourself. Has that changed or is it still a very gradual thing? 

Well I am back at work. And there are days that are still really, really bad. You know there are days when I think I can't be bothered, you know just go away [laughs] but I don't know, she has given me back a bit of enthusiasm. And made me sort of understand that my husband was very outgoing and he was very enthusiastic about things and he would expect better of me. Do you know what I mean? He would expect me to embrace everything that I have got. So, that is what I am trying to do.

Some people confirmed that time was indeed a great healer, describing how their emotions had changed from grief, depression or disbelief to acceptance over the months and years.

 

She advised people to accept their feelings, not to burden other people with their grief but try...

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She advised people to accept their feelings, not to burden other people with their grief but try...

Age at interview: 59
Sex: Female
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There are days when there is this black cloud. But it might be a song that comes on the radio. It was actually three days ago, I went into my son's bedroom and I hadn't actually noticed but his helmet from his bike was on the floor. And I just picked it up and I just went into complete, I was almost inconsolable. I was sobbing, holding this helmet and I thought, 'what am I crying for? Am I crying because he's gone? Am I crying that he should be here?' I really don't know but it was, it happened. It was good. I put the helmet down, I sat in his room for a while and I came out and I wiped my tears away. And I got on and I don't remember what I did but I didn't have any more to relate to that incident, and that is fine. Whatever you do don't ever hide it. If you feel that you have gotta let that out and you wanna, you have got to just cry. It's all very, you can't be this brick all the time. You have to let it go.

I do feel to keep occupied, to have a purpose in life, you know, whatever it is. A hobby is very, very, it can be anything , you know, I mean it doesn't have to be golf or tennis or swimming, I don't mean to be anything like that, but just have an interest in life because it's not doing anybody, yourself, or the person that you've lost any good by just sitting down and crying. And also you have to be careful when you're talking to other people that you make the same mistake by keep bringing the subject up because in the end you can lose friends by keep repeating yourself all the time about the person you love. They know that you've lost somebody. They know how close you were. They know that. You don't want to be in this situation but you are, so to keep permanently reminding that person all the time that, you know, 'I've lost somebody and what am I gonna do? And how am I gonna get through this? And how am I gonna cope?' Is just no good, they don't wanna hear this, the average person. And I do truly believe you'll get on in life better, you'll meet more people if you can be more positive because, even though you do meet different people through your life that don't know your tragedy, if you can just sort of skirt it and just tell them that's what's happened, they have a picture in their mind that you've had this person, you've loved them, you've lost them and by making another conversation with them you'll have a better relationship with the people.
 

Some of the people who had been bereaved described their feelings about having to decide what to do with the deceased person's belongings. This can be another difficult time, with painful decisions to make, and several said they hadn't reached that stage yet. One woman explained how she'd had to take care of her sister-in-laws belongings after she died.

 

She had to clear out and sell her sister-in-law's flat and contents, which was very difficult at...

She had to clear out and sell her sister-in-law's flat and contents, which was very difficult at...

Age at interview: 70
Sex: Female
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I gradually got used to going to her flat. It was actually really difficult deciding what to do with her stuff. To actually get rid of someone's life seems dreadful. And I think I've still got it, but she was, I think she was writing a biography of her parents and I think there were several copies of it and I think I have them. But towards the end, when I knew that it was the last moment for clearing out her flat, I became a bit ruthless and started taking home great masses of stuff and then taking them to the dump. And her clothes for instance, I didn't try to do anything other than, I mean I think a charity picked them up. But there was, for instance she had a whole lot of books that were prizes that were given to her mother's brother, who was a very, clearly took every prize in his school. And again this is about kind of how much you hang on to the past. And these books weren't books that anyone needed, they were rather kind of pretentiously covered, leather-covered books. And I took away three of them that were volumes of Proust. But the rest of them, I just got sick of carrying things and I didn't bring them back. There were some kind of Jewish things, candlesticks and things that somebody took. And there were the things that she used in her Chavorah. She had some cymbals and I think I've still got them, but I have promised to give them to her friends. But that is, part of you wants to be shot of the whole business and part of you, you can't bear to say their life counted for so little. 

With time, many people said they were able to focus more on the positive times they'd shared with the deceased person. Thinking about how he or she would have wanted them to live and be happy had helped them start getting on with life again. For most people, however, the anniversary of the deceased person's death or special days, such as birthdays and Christmas, were often very difficult and emotional.

 

Certain times of the year are especially difficult, including Christmas, New Year, Mother's Day...

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Certain times of the year are especially difficult, including Christmas, New Year, Mother's Day...

Age at interview: 59
Sex: Female
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Because it happened just before Christmas it was a very, very, very difficult time, but for the rest of the family we tried to be as strong as we could. The worst possible time, and I would never hide that from anybody, was sitting at the table and having that empty space. That was really bad, it was a really, a really bad time. And I just don't know what to say to anybody to better that because it happened just before Christmas. We actually didn't do any cards, we didn't do any presents to one another, we just couldn't do it. It was a day that we knew we had to get through whereas it had always been a lovely time. We'd always had lots of friends over, Christmas Day was a big dinner time and listened to the Queen's speech but we didn't even do any of that. We tried to do so many different things. We actually didn't have the traditional Christmas Dinner. We all had our favourite food, which in a strange sort of way quite helped. So there was seven of us round the table and everybody had different food. And one of the things I must say about that was, instead of it being a traditional Christmas Dinner which is just one, probably the turkey and all the roast bits that go with it, because there was seven different meals, it's rather like being in a restaurant kitchen. So everybody's dinner was prepared and so you were busy, that's the way I thought would be good, so whereas my husband had a steak and I think I had a lamb chop, and so on through the family, it was cooked at different times, it was prepared at different times and actually we tried to make quite fun of it. We were trying to say, 'Oh this is what they do in the restaurant'. 

So Christmas came and went. New Year was a very hard time too, but the thing we did, we were with some very close friends and we actually didn't have the television on or the radio on. It was just another day, we didn't celebrate at midnight and I truly believe that's how we got through it, with these friends. It was a lovely evening but we didn't have the necessity, I felt only in my heart that I was leaving that year that I'd lost my son behind and I was going into a fresh year. I wanted it to be a continuation so that I still now feel that he hasn't gone in a different year, he's still with us somewhere. And that really helped my husband, it actually helped our friends who were very close to my son. They were the godparents, and they thought it was really nice so that's just a tip for somebody. 

Mothers Day and Fathers Day is another big hurdle and I think that will probably, will be with you. There's not a lot we can do about that. I'm not a very keen person on that I don't like, because it happens to be Mothers Day the whole world does it, why not have Mothers Day any day. Just because they say it out there and just because there's a lot of cards in the shop, I'm not very keen on that. So if you can try and get over that one, that's only how I dealt with that situation. Of course as yet I haven't had the anniversary so that's another hurdle to go but try and make it as a nice, remembering as rather than it being sad. Again try and take the selfishness out of it again. So there are hurdles, there are massive hurdles and there's no right or wrong from it at all. You have to just do whatever it, everybody again is different, but these are just some of the little tips that I could try and pass on to somebody.

And again, you know, we have Easter, everybody has Easter again, the Easter eggs, the cards, don't make a big thing about it. Just it's another day really, just another day, and if you can look on it like that and be thankful that you're just here for yet another day in your life.
 

Many people said that having someone die in, or after being in, ICU had been a profound, traumatic and, often, life-changing experience. As time went on, the earlier pain and emptiness had begun to fade and, very gradually, they'd been able to think about the future, while knowing they could never forget the deceased person. 

 

With the help of a counsellor, she is moving forwards, developing new interests and being able to...

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With the help of a counsellor, she is moving forwards, developing new interests and being able to...

Age at interview: 40
Sex: Female
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It is awful. And there isn't any escaping that. It is awful. And you think that you have got years and years and years of loneliness in front of you. So the advice that I would give would be to find things that you do enjoy and build on what you have got. And also to take it easy, you know, don't expect everything to feel better instantly because it just isn't going to happen. And even - well there is always I think, there is going to be days when you just feel absolutely grim, but as time does go on, those days aren't every day, you know. 

Do you think much about the future or is your main concern to kind of get through week by week? 

Straight after he died it was getting through day by day but now I am starting to think of the future. Yes. I want him to be proud of me, that is what I always think, would be proud of me. 

See our 'Resources' section for links to further support around bereavement.
 
Last reviewed August 2018.
Last updated November 2010.
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