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What should I know about experiencing the death of family or friends?

Losing a friend or loved one is always difficult and may sometimes be traumatic. Whether your best friend or spouse passes away after a long illness or you lose a battle buddy in combat, these losses are painful. There is no “right” way to respond to losing a friend or relative. Grief is an extremely personal response that is unique to you and the nature of your loss.

Some Veterans experience traumatic grief following the sudden death of a family member or friend or after witnessing multiple casualties, as in a military combat situation, natural disaster, or accident. You may have lost a friend in your unit, and you keep thinking about what you could have done to prevent it. Or maybe you are filled with anger at others who you feel caused the death. Perhaps you have lost a parent, your spouse, or someone who has been part of your life for a long time.

“I felt like it was time for me to move on after losing my best friend, but there was such an empty hole in my life. I didn’t see how I’d ever feel happy again.”

Grieving is a natural reaction to the loss of a loved one or friend, and a wide range of responses is common. You may experience any of the following:

  • Feeling numb and being distracted
  • Yearning for the person you lost or your old way of life
  • Being angry and irritable
  • Feeling very tired or having trouble sleeping
  • Distancing yourself from certain people or becoming much closer to others
  • Becoming more quiet than usual
  • Feeling like you aren't the same person you were before your friend or loved one died
  • Questioning your faith or struggling with spiritual questions
  • Having conflicting emotions, such as feeling despair as well as relief
  • Wanting to end your life and join the person who died

What should I keep an eye out for after the loss of a friend or family member?

Grieving is a difficult time, but for most people life begins to improve again soon, maybe even after just a few weeks. However, some people experience grief that lasts for a very long time or in ways that make it difficult to carry on with normal life. If you can’t sleep for a long period of time or feel agitated, unsettled, or hopeless for more than a couple of weeks, you may want to reach out for help with the grieving process. If you have a chronic medical condition that has worsened because of the emotional and physical stress of grief, you should contact your doctor right away.

What can I do after losing a friend or family member?

Getting support from friends and family and making sure to eat right, get enough rest, and exercise are usually the best ways to take care of yourself for however long it takes to work through your grief.

“I didn’t leave the house for a week after my wife passed away. She’d been with me since I got back from combat and supported me through the worst of it. Talking to my pastor helped a lot, though. He reminded me that she wouldn’t have wanted me to come this far just to break down now.”

After the death of a family member or friend, try to remember to:

  • Take care of your health and eat well.
  • Let others help you.
  • Exercise to release stress.
  • Talk with friends, especially those who were close to the person or who understand the situation.
  • Speak with a spiritual or religious adviser or chaplain.
  • Focus on how the person lived, not how he or she passed away.
  • Express how you feel.
  • Rest and get enough sleep.
  • Avoid quick fixes that you may think will help you cope, like drinking alcohol, taking drugs, or smoking cigarettes.

You shouldn’t feel the need to set a timetable for getting over your loss — but if your grief is making it hard to function for more than a week or two, you may want to reach out for support. Talking to close friends and loved ones about your feelings and concerns or joining a grief support group may help you feel more connected with other people and less lonely.

Take the next step: Make the connection.

Every day, Veterans who served in the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard connect with proven resources, services, and support to address the issues impacting their lives. If the grief over loss of a friend or family member is interfering with your health and well-being or getting in the way of your relationships, your daily activities, or your ability to do your job, you may want to reach out for support. Consider connecting with:

  • A spiritual or religious adviser
  • A bereavement support group
  • Your doctor. Ask if your doctor has experience treating Veterans or can refer you to someone who does.
  • A mental health professional with experience in grief counseling
  • Your local VA Medical Center or Vet Center. VA specializes in the care and treatment of Veterans.

Explore these resources to learn more about coping with the death of a family member or friend.

Learn about what you can do if you are experiencing specific concerns related to grief, such as trouble sleeping, social withdrawal, alcohol and drug problems, posttraumatic stress, and depression.

Vet Center
If you are a combat Veteran, you can bring your DD214 to your local Vet Center and speak with a counselor or therapist — many of whom are Veterans themselves — for free, without an appointment, and regardless of your enrollment status with VA. In addition, any Veteran who was sexually traumatized while serving in the military is eligible to receive counseling regardless of gender or era of service.

VA Medical Center Facility Locator
VA provides world-class health care to eligible Veterans. Most Veterans qualify for cost-free health care services, although some Veterans must pay modest copays for health care or prescriptions. Explore your eligibility for health care using VA's Health Benefits Explorer tool and find out more about the treatment options available to you.