One often hears it said that death is the last taboo. While this isn’t generally true in all cultures, it probably is in mine (I am British – even now, we don’t much like to talk about our feelings). But it wasn’t always this way. In Victorian Britain, much was made of death, probably because then it was a more familiar concept. Child mortality rates were high, even among the better-off, and in those pre-antibiotic times infectious disease could carry off anyone with little or no warning. But in my lifetime, at least, it has become a matter discussed in hushed tones and euphemisms – passed on, gone over, no longer with us – and largely left to the professionals to handle.
The result of this has been, in my experience, a lack of understanding and occasionally, disbelief when death actually looms or arrives suddenly in a family, as, inevitably, it will. Faith that medical science will come to the rescue, although shaken in more recent times, has too often been blind to the point of fanatical. But if, like me, you have experienced the death of a loved one at a young age, you are all too aware of the fragility of human life. That doesn’t mean to say I haven’t fallen prey to the temptation to believe in the immortality of those I love; my older brother, who struggled with serious heart problems for many years, had survived so much and for so long I had begun to think he might outlive me…
But this general shying away from speaking openly about death and how it affects those around it has led to a general ignorance about how to talk about it, how to speak to the bereaved and the dying, and this can be painful and in some cases, harmful for those concerned. People can appear callous or just avoid conversation altogether, for fear of saying ‘the wrong thing’. Joining ‘the club’ at a young age taught me that in general, people are not comfortable talking about death, especially to those closely involved. So I hope to offer some assistance here. I do not intend to give a set of instructions, because I don’t think there are rules about such things, but I will try to start a discussion, or at least give you some things to think about, the next time you find yourself facing a bereaved friend, or if you you are unlucky enough to be on the other side of the conversation. Now of course, every death is individual, each person will react differently and all situations have their own characteristics and requirements; the following suggestions are just that and no more.
Often, the first impulse of the kind-hearted is to offer practical help, especially if they are not particularly close to the person. This is a very positive reaction, but please, don’t say “Let me know if you need anything,” because they won’t. In those first terrible few days and weeks, just getting through the day is hard enough, so you will not be getting any calls for help. Instead, offer something specific, such as walking the dog, taking the kids to the cinema or a football match (a friend of my Dad’s took me to Portman Road and it started an obsession that lasted for years), or cook a meal, or take mother-in-law to her appointments… Whatever practical thing can ease the burden. Random acts of kindness like that mean so much, remind the grieving person that they are not alone, and those things will be remembered. I’ll never forget that a group of my school friends clubbed together to send me flowers after Mum died. It was so touching and thoughtful.
If you are a close friend, then your support can be vital at a time of loss. As for what to say, well, the best thing is not to say much at all, but to listen. Or just sit with them and hold their hand while they cry, if that’s what they need. Ask what they want or need. They may say they don’t know; that’s fine. Don’t force the issue, but keep asking. And be aware that the listening will probably be hard, possibly painful for you. It will be distressing for you to see your friend so upset. You may have your own grief to deal with, or an old one that is being revived in this situation, but swallow it if you can, because your friend needs you now. And encourage them to talk, if they can; the more we talk about these things, the better; storing them up only makes them fester. Believe me, this I know. And be prepared for a mixture of emotions to be on parade, because grief is quite the chameleon. This type of listening requires that you accept the other person’s feelings without judgement. They may say things to you that hurt. When we are in the midst of such churning emotions all kinds of things come out. You may find your feelings are hurt: try not to react, because at this moment IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU.
If you know a neighbour or acquaintance has lost a loved one, you may not be sure what is the best thing to do. It’s hard, I know, especially if you are not a close friend, but don’t cross the road. Don’t avoid talking to the bereaved. It can be a terribly lonely time as it is, and a few kind words of sympathy can mean a lot. And the other important thing is to talk about the person who has died. Say their name, use it. Don’t start writing them out of history or shoving them off to one side. You might think that hearing their name will hurt, but the reverse is far worse. Only about fifteen months after my Mum died, I was at my brother’s house for Christmas and being a bit quiet. My then sister-in-law, not the most empathetic human, looked at me and said, “What is it, parents..?” and when I nodded, she walked out of the room and left me on my own. But I also remember fondly all the people who stopped my Mum to speak warmly about Dad after he died, former students of his, some of their parents, and I treasure the letters that we received at home. And the difference is, I recall the former in perfect clarity, because it hurt so much.
Now, what I have said above is general advice and may not be appropriate for the situation in which you find yourself, but I think the general principles will apply generally… Basically, offer practical help where appropriate by suggesting options, not waiting to be asked, and be a literal shoulder to cry on, if that is what is needed. If you do one or both of those two things for someone who has been bereaved then you will indeed be a friend in need.
A few words if you are recently bereaved. If this is your first major loss, you may feel as if you are drowning. That’s normal. Or you may feel that you are coping too well; that is also normal. We all grieve in our own way, and at our own pace. If you can, talk to someone. But please, please, PLEASE, do not let anyone else tell you how to do it. Try not to push your feelings down for the sake of others. That doesn’t work, it only stores up trouble for later on. There are resources you can call on*, speak to friends, family, your dog… whoever you can. If you can get it, I am told therapy is especially helpful for those of us who lost parents in childhood. The important thing to remember is that you are not alone.
* The links below may be useful