Physical reactions and needs

Many people bereaved suddenly, or too soon, suffer physical reactions that can be distressing.

People may also struggle to look after basic, physical needs, such as getting enough sleep, food, staying hydrated, and getting gentle, daily exercise.

The advice in this section may seem obvious. However, at a time of bereavement, it can be much harder, and easy to forget, to look after ourselves in important ways.

Staying hydrated and eating

Staying hydrated (with soft drinks) and eating is important. Some people struggle to remember to drink and eat enough.

Try comforting drinks, for example tea, hot chocolate or your favourite fruit juice. Try small snacks that are nutritional, and you like. For example, cheese, biscuits, toast with your favourite spread, and fruit.

If you are cooking for yourself, or someone is cooking for you who doesn’t normally cook, try things that are nutritional but easy to prepare. For example, baked beans or scrambled eggs.

Ask neighbours for help. Many people love to cook for people in need. Tell people what you like to eat.

It may help to think what you would want to eat if you were ill. What are your favourite comfort foods? What is easy to swallow and digest?

Sleep, dreams and nightmares

It is common to have difficulty going to sleep, or have difficulty staying asleep.

Some people have vivid dreams or nightmares, due to their thoughts being in overdrive. This may be followed by distressing feelings when you wake up, particularly if you wake up with a jolt in the night.

Lack of sleep and nightmares can lead to physical exhaustion.

Avoid caffeinated drinks, particularly after lunchtime. Gentle exercise, if you are able, can also help sleep.

If you are awake in the night and in distress, breathing exercises can help.

You can talk to Samaritans, day or night, 116 123.

If you are getting hardly any, or no, sleep it can be very hard to function. Try to rest when you can, for example by resting in the afternoon on a sofa, or somewhere else you feel peaceful, with your eyes closed.

Your GP may be able to give you sleeping medication, if that is what you want, which may help you for a time.

I feel physically ill

A challenging bereavement can place intense and prolonged pressure on our bodies. It is normal to suffer one or more physical symptoms, occasionally or frequently.

  • Energy levels may vary enormously
  • Heart palpitations, feeling faint or dizzy, excessive sweating, tremors and choking sensations are common
  • Muscles may tense up, causing pains, such as headaches
  • Digestive problems may occur
  • Women may suffer extra pain during menstruation

Physical symptoms are painful and upsetting but should fade with time and then disappear altogether.

If you are worried about your health or a symptom persists, visit your GP.

Substance abuse

Some people find they want to turn to substances such as alcohol or cigarettes, or illegal drugs, to feel more able to cope. This can damage your health, cause long-lasting problems and is not a helpful way to manage reactions to a bereavement.

Alcohol, for example, is a depressant and can make you feel worse.

It is much harder to identify and address emotional and physical feelings if they are masked by the effects of substances.

Staying active

Getting outside for a short, gentle walk, even in bad weather, can help. Or you may prefer some other gentle exercise that suits you best.

If you normally exercise a lot, it is OK to not expect too much of yourself right now. You may want to take things more easily, for a while.


Some people find that they have a level of distress that causes them to panic, feel out of control, or struggle to breathe in a normal way.

If you are prone to panic attacks at this time, it is important to stay somewhere safe, and with people who understand and help you.

Breathing exercises can be calming.

  • Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose.
  • Hold your breath for a count of five.
  • Breathe out slowly and deeply through your mouth.
  • Hold your breath for a count of five.
  • Repeat for a few minutes.

Time for you

Take time for therapeutic, restful relaxation. This could be having a hot shower to ease the tension, spending time with family members or a pet, playing music or a computer game you love, or just resting your eyes for a while.

Do whatever is relaxing for you.

On some days you may have energy for a gentle hobby you enjoy – but remember you do not have to be busy all the time.

Simply sitting somewhere peaceful may help.

Take time for yourself, regularly.

Do things you find restful, frequently.

If you have responsibilities for others, such as children or other dependents, arrange some care for them, for some of the time, so you can look after your own needs.