If a friend or family member has experienced a significant loss, it can be difficult to know the right thing to say or how best to offer support, Annie Broadbent walks us through the do’s and don’ts of dealing with grief…
DO offer to do something specific
Before you make contact or go to see the bereaved person, think about them and their personal circumstances, and how you can tailor any help to their particular needs. Do you live near them? Do you enjoy cooking? Do they have children/pets that need looking after? Then just go ahead and tell them you are going to be helping them with a certain task. If they tell you outright, ‘No thank you’, then that’s fine, and they will still appreciate that you thought about them; but if they offer the obligatory protest, ignore it and go ahead with your suggestion.
DO ask them questions about their loss
Again – discretion is required here, but it’s important to remember that questions about the pain, the dead person, the experience are not necessarily out of bounds. Perhaps check if it’s okay to ask a question about it and go from there. The bereaved often want to tell the story over and over again, so to have someone take an interest might well be an enormous comfort.
DO share memories of the dead person
This is a great thing to do, particularly in letters. Very often the bereaved feel more alone in their loss, so hearing that others are sad about it can very consoling. That’s not to say you should focus exclusively on your own pain and how hard it is going to be for you – just that you could express an awareness of how awful it is that they are dead and that you know you will miss certain things about them.
DO be honest
The best thing in any situation is to be honest, and this applies as much to supporting the bereaved as it does to anything else. So if you don’t know what to say, you’re not sure what to do or you don’t know what to write – just relax for a minute and then be truthful with yourself and the person who is in mourning.
DON’T make it about you and your experience of grief
Take this as a general rule of thumb. There will, of course, be times when the bereaved person wants to hear of your experience, but wait for them to ask you first.
DON’T send a commercial ‘sympathy’ card
Instead, why not write a letter? This might seem like a small point, but the effect can be considerable. Even if they don’t remember the contents of the letter an hour after opening it, the experience of receiving it, reading it and seeing the thought and kindness that have gone into it will bring someone far more comfort than a standard card.
DON’T try to stop someone crying
Never tell someone, ‘Oh don’t cry’. Crying is not only cathartic but can be incredibly healing in that it often brings the bereaved closer to their deceased loved one. Don’t make these opportunities unavailable just because of your own discomfort.
DON’T think that everything will be OK once the funeral is over
If you can, be prepared to get more involved after the first month. That’s when things often really start to crumble and when most people start to drift. So send another letter, suggest an activity, keep them occupied and surrounded. Equally, if you weren’t around at the time of death and several years have passes, get in touch. It is never too late to tell someone you are thinking of them. But perhaps don’t expect a reply.
About the author
Annie Broadbent is a clinical volunteer at St. Christopher’s Hospice. She has also trained as a volunteer for ‘The Candle Project’ – a child bereavement service run by the hospice, and has given talks on supporting the bereaved.
THIS COPY HAS BEEN ADAPTED FROM WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT GRIEF, £12.99, PIATKUS PUBLISHING