Grief is something that we all face at one point or another in life, whether it be after the death of an adored pet, the natural passing of an elderly relative, or a sudden and unexpected event which shocks not only those close by, but in some cases entire communities and even the country as a whole.
In the last few weeks I have heard of no less than four sudden deaths within the families of friends or acquaintances. If I think through my own family and friends I recall numerous sudden and tragic deaths – my best friend had lost both her parents suddenly by the time she was 20, my aunty died suddenly in her late 40s, as did my husband’s mother, my uncle passed away within three weeks of his diagnosis of cancer, and of course there is my own dear brother. In addition to this, scrolling through my Facebook friends I can identify at least 20 friends who have lost siblings or parents or children out of the blue. Further afield, in the news recently we have heard Princes William and Harry talking about their experiences of losing their mother at such a young age. 2016 was a year when death seemed to be all around, as many popular public figures died suddenly – Prince, George Michael, Jo Cox, Pete Burns. Sudden, tragic and traumatic deaths are all around us, frequently. So this begs a question… if unexpected, shocking grief is so common, why are we so bad at knowing how to approach it? Why is it that we are all left feeling that we want to help those bereaved, but that we don’t know how to do it?
I am by no means an expert, but I do know what my own experiences of grief are, and the lessons that I learnt from the way people reacted to me and my family after the suicide of my brother. I, like everyone, have struggled with knowing what to say and do for newly bereaved friends and family members, even after my own experience of a traumatic, sudden and heavily stigmatised death. This blog is certainly not meant to read as a judgement from an authority on grief or a criticism of anyone who has struggled with knowing what to do in these situations. It is merely to provoke some thoughts.
Perhaps one of the reasons that it is hard to know how to respond to bereaved people is that, until it happens to us, we cannot imagine being in the position of experiencing a sudden death. We may think that we could imagine what it might be like, but the reality is often very different from the idea. Until we ourselves have been put through that situation it is impossible to really empathise with others who are living it. Perhaps this is because these events are life changing, and as an onlooker this can feel very uncomfortable and very difficult to imagine as it is so intangible and unpredictable. When your life changes in a split second, your path is reset totally. I know that I am a different person than I was before my brother died, and I will never, ever return to how I was before. Enough time has passed for me now to understand that there are positives as well as negatives to this, even though they are small comfort. For some friends and relatives this is too hard to acknowledge, to watch and to be a part of. They might not want anything to change, and they might not be willing or able to travel the journey with the bereaved person. They might simply want their old pal back and be unable to cope with or understand their own loss of that friend who has changed forever in their grief.
Secondly, death is a taboo. Whether it is our stupid British stiff upper lip or a human response to an event which feels so terrifying that it is difficult to acknowledge, we are rubbish at talking about death in a normal way; like the normal way we talk about other life events such as parenthood, retirement, employment and so on. My husband and I do not find it hard to approach the topic, having both experienced sudden deaths and the fallout from them. We have written our wills, we know where we would like our ashes to be scattered / intered, we have talked about the type of funeral service we would like and even the music at our send offs (obviously very important to my musician husband – imagine if I got that wrong!). I find this to be totally normal and OK , and I know that me having made and documented certain decisions will help my family should I die suddenly. We talk to our children about death in as normal a way as possible, frequently mentioning our loved ones who have died and giving as much information as is appropriate about them and how and why they died. On the flip side of this openness, I work in a nursing home and frequently support individuals and their families at the end of life. I would say it is widely accepted, albeit in an unspoken way, that once you enter a nursing home as a permanent resident, you are in the last stage of your life. Death will occur within the coming years, even if you are not acutely or chronically ill at that point. But it amazes me how common it is for people to be reluctant and in some cases completely unwilling to fill out any paperwork regarding their final wishes, even in their 70s, 80s and 90s. I understand that people don’t want to be morbid and focus on miserable things but really, let’s be practical. Death is a fact. We need to acknowledge it.
A further issue is that individuals’ experiences of a loved ones death will differ. Some people will not want to talk, some may be able to talk of nothing else. Some people may want to rush straight back to a normal routine; work, childcare, eating regularly, continuing with hobbies and commitments, whereas others may need to have a lot of time out to adjust to the normality of their new situation. Some will cry and sob and wail, others may show very little emotion. Much will depend on the specific circumstances of the death and the relationship that each individual had with the person who has died. With sudden deaths there may be guilt, unresolved differences and a lack of closure for those left behind which is hard to reconcile. With so much potential variation in a person’s response, how are we supposed to know how best to help them? It feels such a hyper-sensitive minefield that could explode at any point, and we are desperate not to be the detenator.
So, we’ve identified some reasons why it is hard to support bereaved loved ones, but this is not even half the battle. The important part is knowing what on earth we can do about it. To ignore it does not work for anyone in the long run, and is searingly painful for the bereaved. But how do we bite that bullet and stand, comfortably, shoulder to shoulder with grieving loved ones? There is plenty we can do.
We can just be present.
Whether that is by text, email, phone or face to face, we can just stay in touch. A simple but regular ‘how has your week been?’ or ‘I’ve been thinking of you today’ makes a difference, especially when the funeral has taken place, and for the weeks and months and even years after. If you don’t know what to say or how to say it, tell the person this. You are allowed to admit that you don’t know what to say. They probably don’t know what to say either. They won’t be looking to you for answers, solutions or pearls of wisdom. Many people do not want to say anything which will cause upset, so they say nothing at all. This is far more upsetting than saying something awkward, or getting tongue tied, or bursting into tears when you try to speak. There is nothing that anyone can say which will make the situation significantly more painful than it already is.
We can be demonstrative.
If you want to help but don’t know how and you’re not sure what to say, there are practical ways you can assist without feeling you are intruding or that you will be out of your depth. Offer to take their dog for a walk. If you know them well enough and they have children, offer to look after them for an afternoon. Cook a meal and take it round, plus some extra for the freezer. Especially in the first days and weeks of shock, these things really help. I remember our dear friends brought round fresh pasta and homemade pesto, a bottle of wine and some cake on the day I went to help clear Ian’s flat. I was so grateful for their thoughts, and even more grateful for their actions. It certainly helped that neither my husband or I needed to think about cooking that night, and I would have chosen that gesture over a bunch of flowers any day.
In the months after my bereavement I recalled the hundreds of people who had said to me or my family “let me know if you need anything”, only to disappear off the planet. This is a phrase I never use now, because I have heard it used so emptily and tokenistically so many times. The bereaved person is very unlikely to take you up on that offer and ask you for help. At worse they might feel – as I did – that they need to find roles for all these people in order for them to feel that they have helped out. This phrase somehow makes us feel better because we have offered our help, but it has firmly placed the responsibility in asking for it with the bereaved person. Grief is completely exhausting and consuming, and the bereaved person may not have the energy or headspace to even think about how to pick up the phone and ask for help. However, if we offer specific support – ‘would you like me to have the kids for an afternoon? I can come and get them on Wednesday at 1pm and I’ll bring them back after tea ‘, or ‘would you like me to drive you to the undertakers?’ it is far easier for someone to only have to say ‘yes please’. It is very difficult to make even the most inconsequential decision when grieving, so one of the ways we can help is to make things simple and easy by offering specific help.
Finally, we can listen.
Not just with our ears, but with our eyes and with all our senses. If we really pay attention, we can pick up a lot of verbal and non verbal clues as to how our loved one wants to be supported. If we talk about their loved one we can look for reactions which might indicate that they do or do not want to talk at that point. If we hug someone and they feel weak or thin, this might be the time to offer some practical help. If we notice certain behaviours such as never answering the phone, we can send an email, a card or we can pop over to their house instead. There are many ways we can support even if the prospect of a big, long deep and meaningful is not our cup of tea. It may not be our bereaved friend’s cup of tea either. They might just prefer if we offered to wash up or iron a few shirts.
In conclusion, I am by no means an expert but these small things might help us to truly help those who are struggling with the agony of grief. We cannot change what has happened and we cannot make it any less painful. But we can help with the everyday stuff and we can resist the urge to run away and hide through fear of getting it wrong. It takes courage but it might – in some small ways – help to ease the day to day struggle of bereavement.
Till next time,