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Dealing With the Loss of a Loved One

If you are reading this, you may have just lost someone close to you or are anticipating the death of someone close to you. We hope this resource gives you information to help you during this difficult time.

The Grieving Process

Grief is a normal response to loss. Each person grieves in a different way. Feeling shocked, stunned, or as if you are in a dream soon after the death of a loved one is common. There may be times when you feel sad, lonely, or empty. There may be times when you feel angry, guilty, or relieved. In this situation, there are no right or wrong feelings.

You may also have a range of physical symptoms, such as changes in your appetite or weight. You may have trouble sleeping or feel tired during the day. You may have headaches or stomachaches. You may find it difficult to concentrate or return to work. Attending social events may feel strange or overwhelming at first.

Your grief may feel most painful in the first few months after the death, but it will change as the months go by. Some people might tell you that it takes a year to grieve the loss of a loved one. In truth, there is no set amount of time for grief. Every loss is unique and we all deal with it in our own ways.

Coping With the Challenges of Losing a Loved One

This time of grief can include many different challenges. The suggestions below may help you feel more prepared to deal with them.

Honoring your loved one

Different cultures and faiths have rituals to honor someone after they have died. Sometimes, families create their own rituals like lighting candles or getting together for a special meal. Online memorials, purchasing a plaque to be named in the memory of your loved one, or planting a tree or garden are more public ways to honor your loved one. These efforts can help to create a sense of community and connection. You may want to talk with your clergy or friends and family about how you would like to honor your loved one.

Dealing with personal belongings

Your loved one's clothing and personal items may have special meaning for you. Some people feel a strong need to clean out closets and shelves shortly after the loss. Others want to wear a piece of clothing or read a book that belonged to the person who died. Some people decide to share these belongings among friends and family. Give yourself some time to figure out what feels most comfortable for you and your family.

Interacting with family and friends

Family and friends can be a great source of support during this time. However, they will have their own feelings and reactions to your loved one's death. They may be afraid to talk about your loss because they think it will make you feel sad and upset. Explain that while you are sad, it can be helpful for you to remember and talk about your loved one with them.

Making decisions

You may find it difficult to make decisions right now, such as moving, starting a new job, or major financial changes. It can be helpful to delay making any major decisions until many months or a year after your loss. When the time comes, talk to your friends and family to help you make choices that will best meet your needs.

Celebrating holidays and special days

Celebrating a special day like a holiday or birthday for the first time without your loved one can be hard. Planning ahead can make holidays a little easier to manage. You may want to celebrate differently this year; perhaps create a new ritual. You may want to spend time with other members of your family or close friends. You might even choose to do something nice by yourself. Whatever choices you make, remember that there are no right or wrong ways to respond to these special days. Try to do what feels most comfortable for you.

Helping your children cope with loss

Children of all ages will be affected by the death and loss of someone close to them. You may want to protect your child from the sadness and confusion that you are feeling. Still, it is important to speak honestly about what has happened.

The amount that children understand about death depends on their age and level of maturity. However, all children will feel the loss in their own way. Telling your children the truth helps them to know that someone will be there to care for them no matter what else happens. Spend some time answering their questions. If you are having trouble talking to your children, ask a family member, friend, or professional counselor to help you with this.

Caring for Yourself During the Grieving Process

Grief can cause physical and emotional stress. As a result, it is important to pay attention to your own needs. Taking care of yourself during this time may not be your first priority. You may be focused on caring for others in your family. You may feel guilty about tending to yourself during this period of loss. Self-care is necessary for you to heal. Although this might be difficult at first, you should make it a priority every day. The suggestions below may be helpful for you.

Take care of yourself

We all have different ways of caring for ourselves. For some, physical activities such as taking a walk or exercising are helpful. For others, being with people, sharing a meal, or just talking is helpful. Taking care of yourself also includes learning new skills that are unfamiliar, such as paying bills, cooking, or making social plans. It may also mean learning new ways to find comfort and pleasure. Learning to take care of yourself can take some time.

Create a support system

Grieving alone can be very difficult. Creating a support system can help you to cope during this time and beyond. Developing a support system can include:

  • Spending time with friends and family
  • Joining a support group
  • Seeking out professional counseling
  • Volunteering or participating in community events

Recognize when you need professional help

If your grief does not decrease or has gotten worse after 6 months or more, you should consider seeking professional help. Some signs that you need professional help are:

  • You are experiencing deep sadness and feelings that life holds no meaning.
  • You have lost interest or pleasure in things you used to enjoy.
  • You are withdrawing from social activities.
  • You are having difficulty making decisions or solving everyday problems.
  • You are not able to care for yourself, your children, or both.
  • You are having trouble sleeping, eating, or both.
  • You are experiencing a lot of guilt or anger.
  • You are engaging in harmful behaviors such as drinking or using drugs.
  • You have thoughts of suicide or of hurting yourself.

There are many types of counselors that can help you. These include social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, religious clergy, and art and music therapists. Talking with someone outside your circle of family or friends can be comforting. A counselor can help you and your family deal with how different your life feels now. He or she can also help you cope with caring for yourself, your family, and your daily affairs.

We can't avoid loss in our lives. However, with time, patience, and support, we can move through it. To learn more, or to join a support group, contact the Department of Social Work.


Memorial Sloan Kettering offers a range of resources for families, friends, and caregivers who have lost a loved one.

Chaplaincy Services

Chaplains are available to listen, help support family members, pray, contact community clergy or faith groups, or simply to be a comforting companion and a spiritual presence. Official religious affiliation is not necessary for persons to request spiritual support. In addition, the All Faith Mary French Rockefeller Chapel near the main lobby on the 1st floor of the hospital at 1275 York Avenue is open at all times for meditation and prayer. Please call (212) 639-5982 for more information.

Counseling Center

Psychiatrists and psychologists from this center run a bereavement clinic that provides counseling and support to individuals, couples, and families who are grieving. They can also help  with the management of psychiatric medications. Please call (646) 888-0200 for more information.

Department of Social Work

The Department of Social Work's bereavement program offers free telephone consultations, support groups, educational lectures, and referrals to community resources. Oncology social workers have expertise in the psychological, social, spiritual, and practical concerns that often arise for individuals, families, and friends who are grieving. Please call (646) 888-4889 for more information.

Integrative Medicine Service

The Integrative Medicine Service offers patients and caregivers many services to complement traditional medical care, including music therapy, mind/body therapies, dance and movement therapies, yoga, and touch therapy. Please call (646) 888-0800 for more information.