Coping With Change After a Loss

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 09/2019

The death of a loved one creates many changes for surviving family members. These range from changes in household routines to changes in priorities or future plans. Getting used to new life situations may take months or years.

Common changes

After the death of a family member or close friend, you may notice changes in several areas:

  • Relationships. You may notice differences in how you and your family and friends relate to each other after the death of a loved one. Some friends or family members may not know what to say or how to act around you. Or they may distance themselves from you. Others may become closer to you than ever. Changes in your interests, priorities, or goals after the death of a loved one may cause you to lose a connection to some friends and family members. But it also may lead to new relationships and new friendships.

  • Routines. If you have been taking care of a loved one with cancer, much of your daily routine may have involved hospital visits or caregiving tasks. When that person dies and this familiar routine ends, you may feel lost and miss your caregiving responsibilities. Over time, many people are able to develop a new routine that feels familiar and comfortable.

  • Responsibilities. When a partner or family member dies, you may have to take on the tasks he or she used to handle. Some of these tasks may be completely unfamiliar to you. And they can be stressful to learn. When you are no longer spending your time as a caregiver, you may also feel like you have too much free time. This feeling can release many emotions that you were previously able to keep hidden with the many tasks of caregiving.

  • Employment and finances. If your partner or family member was a main wage earner, you may need to work more hours, go back to work, or go to work for the first time. If you are a parent with young children, this may mean arranging for day care and having less time to spend at home. The death of a family member can also bring changes to your family’s finances. This may include fewer paychecks, a difference in social security benefits, or payments from a life insurance policy.

  • Faith and spirituality. After the death of someone you love, you may question your religious or spiritual beliefs or your understanding of the meaning of life. Or you may find that your faith becomes stronger and a source of comfort.

  • Priorities and goals. Your priorities may change to reflect what matters most to you now. Previous priorities such as work may be replaced by new priorities such as spending more time with family and friends or focusing on your own health. You may also need to change priorities for practical reasons. For instance, if you have just become the family's main wage earner, you may need to focus on finding a good job or building your career. As you adjust to a new lifestyle, you may also need to change your goals or delay taking steps to achieve them.

  • Activities and interests. You may no longer be interested in some activities you previously enjoyed. Or you may develop new interests. These could include becoming involved in activities that were important to your loved one or volunteering at a local hospital or a cancer advocacy organization. Learn more about what it means to be a cancer advocate.

Coping with change

The following strategies may help you better cope with the stressful changes that follow a loved one's death:

  • Take time when making major decisions. The year after the death of a loved one is very emotional. Mental health experts suggest waiting at least a year before making any major decisions, such as moving or changing jobs. Consider making a list of decisions and tasks, and figure out which ones must be completed immediately. Try to hold off on the important decisions that can wait.

  • Share new responsibilities. It takes time for you and your family to adjust to new responsibilities and settle into a new routine. As a family, discuss household chores and who will be responsible for which tasks. Also, talk about changes in the family routine. This is especially important for younger children who may be particularly upset.

  • Ask for and accept help. Friends and family will want to help you but might not know what you need or how to ask if you need help. Be specific about your needs, and have a list of tasks that others can do. If you are learning how to perform unfamiliar tasks, such as cooking, ask someone to show you what to do. Or consider taking a class.

  • Get help handling financial and legal matters. The many financial and legal tasks that follow a death often seem overwhelming. This is especially true if you are not used to handling your own financial and legal affairs. If possible, talk with a legal or financial expert, such as a lawyer, accountant, or financial advisor. These services can help you plan your legal and financial future and save money in the long run.

  • Get advice before returning to work. If you are returning to work after a long time or going to work for the first time, consider talking with a career counselor. A career counselor can help you write a resume and search for a job. He or she can also help you decide which career choices suit you best. Many state and county governments offer free job training and career counseling services.

  • Consider keeping a journal. Keeping a journal or a diary can help you make sense of the changes that you are experiencing. In addition to writing about your feelings and thoughts, you can use your journal to help organize your tasks, priorities, and plans. Looking back through your journal can help you see how your priorities and goals have changed and how your ability to cope has improved.

  • Consider joining a support group. Support groups offer you the chance to talk with others who share your feelings and experiences. Other people who have lost a loved one to cancer have likely experienced many of the same changes. And they can offer you emotional support and practical advice as you adjust.

  • Remember the positive. Shifting your priorities, developing new interests, and learning new skills can bring positive changes to your life. Allow yourself to feel proud of new accomplishments. And remember that it is not disloyal to your loved one to enjoy new activities or set new goals for the future.

Related Resources

Understanding Grief and Loss

Coping with Grief

Managing Stress

Grieving the Loss of a Sibling