I have lost three people close to me in the past eighteen months; Adella, my mum and my brother in law. Obviously it would be extremely unusual and indeed, rather fortunate, for anyone to have got to my age (twenty one) without having lost anyone. And I do not in any way claim that my losses are any worse or more devastating than any of those which any of you may have suffered throughout any of your lives. However, I think we can all agree that on a personal level, losing three people in such a short space of time during a pandemic makes for a challenging time.
Instead of talking about how grief feels *spoiler alert* – horrendous – I thought that it might be helpful for those of you trying to support a person who is facing it full blast, if I gave my top hints and tips from my experience as a grieving person and someone who has tried to support people grieving.
1. Do or say something
Whatever you do, saying or doing nothing is not an option. Yes, I know we’re all British and stiff upper lip and all that, but I so much appreciated people letting me know that I was in their thoughts. I had a lovely card from a friend that said she didn’t know what to say but she was sending me her love. Not a long, waffling epistle. Not dramatic. No wailing and gnashing of teeth. Thoughtful messages, cards and flowers from friends and family to let me know that they were there. But don’t do nothing. That is the worst thing you can do.
2. Ask them anything other than how they are
Now I’ve said that doing nothing is not an option, when you do something, whatever you do, don’t ask them how they are. I don’t mean don’t acknowledge their loss. I mean specifically don’t ask: “how are you?” And I’m going to put my hands up here. I kept doing this to my sister. Man of the House pointed out to me that it was not the question to be asking. Don’t say this too loudly because I wouldn’t want him to hear, but *whispers* he was right. It was, is and remains, a stupid question. In pretty much every conversation I can think of, actually. Everyone will say that they’re fine when they are demonstrably not. Someone in hospital? They’re sufficiently unwell to require a stay in hospital. Nasty cold? Bad day at work? You know how they are. They’re shit. They feel shit. It is shit. And as far as loss of a loved one is concerned, it is going to be unutterably shit in some way or other, probably for the rest of their lives. Talk about the weather if you must, but please don’t ask people how they are.
3. Remember that none of us know how any of us really feel about anything
We each have individual relationships with each other, which is what makes them special. But none of us know how the other feels about the loss of a particular person or a particular relationship with that person because it was unique. If at any point you feel yourself about to utter the immortal line “I know how you feel” – stop yourself; you don’t.
4. Talk about normal stuff
You are allowed, encouraged even, to talk about normal crap. Jokes and piss-taking is also permitted. As are personal comments about the bereaved not looking quite their best, and suggestions of brushes needing to be run through hair and teeth. We have not undergone a personality change, but a loss. It helps for us to know that life goes on, even if we feel like we have stepped out for a while.
5. Talk about the person who has died
A work colleague died a few years ago and memories were being shared on social media (see below). I remembered that they once made a speech at the office Christmas party which included the line “I want to keep my speech like Natalie’s skirt – long enough to cover the important points but short enough to be interesting.” His family replied that it had made them howl with laughter. And when I think of him, I always remember that. People are only truly gone when you forget them. Don’t forget them.
6. But not the detail of how they died
What is expressly discouraged is trying to get the bereaved person “to talk about it”. And by ‘it’ I mean the detail leading up to and including a person’s death. I’m not suggesting that you, dear Reader, are such a person. But there is always one person (and I suspect that person in your life has popped immediately into your mind right now) who takes a perverse delight in wanting the gory details under the not-very convincing disguise of getting the bereaved person to unburden themselves for their own good. The bereaved do not need to unburden themselves out-loud over and over. And do you know why? Because they lived it. And if they do, it will certainly not be to the funerial equivalent of a rubbernecker. It is your job as someone who genuinely cared for the deceased to identify, intercept and distract this person should you encounter them. Talk about your iffy toe, your dodgy mole, your unpredictable bottom – anything, but keep them away from the bereaved.
7. Offer to help with something specific
When someone dies everyone connected to the deceased, pretty much without exception, asks if there is anything they can do. I have done this. And I meant it. But on reflection it was not helpful for me to make a nebulous offer of “help” to a person who cannot think straight in the shock of grief to consider what I might have been able to help with. If you are able, offer help with something specific. And if you feel confident enough, just do it. My friend offered help with lifts for my children. I could get my head round that. A specific task that I could consider whether or not I needed help with. I told my sister when her weekly shop would be arriving. Leave a lasagne on their doorstep. A cake. I came home from Adella’s funeral to a bottle of gin. Little acts of love wrapped up in everyday things.
8. Don’t make us go out
There will come a point when we have to re-engage with the world. We know that. Just don’t try to make us. After my mum died a friend took me round some gardens on a Sunday afternoon and poked tea and cake at me. That I could cope with. Anything more vigorous or exciting, I could not. You will have to judge the person you know for yourself. Of course, if it looks as if the bereaved retreating into their shell is likely to be a longer-term issue, then you may have to consider an intervention at some point. But I am telling you now, trying to persuade them out with the same tactics as one extracts a cat from it’s carrier at the vets is doomed to fail.
9. Self-flagellatory social media posts
I’m not even sure if that is a word but if not, it should be. Social media has its uses, many, many good uses. It can be a lovely way for people to share memories, exchange information, and so much money has been raised for charities in memory of loved ones (see above). In a similar vein to the cryptic poster there is the person who, usually exceedingly peripheral to the deceased, posts something about being “absolutely heartbroken”. I am sure that they are sad. I am sure that they are upset. We all are when someone dies, but for the love of god, and I can’t emphasise this enough, get over yourself. It’s not about you. Grief is not a competitive sport. It’s about the person who has died. I genuinely don’t know how to deal with these people other than ignore them. All suggestions gratefully received.
10. Don’t go away after the aftermath
There is always a lot of activity leading up to someone’s final send-off; people to be contacted, arrangements to be made…..there is a lot to sort out. People gather to show their respects. And then, for the most-part, they drift away. I get that. Life goes on as it absolutely must if for no other reason than to honour the life of the person no longer with us. I was chatting to a friend about something banal around six months after my mum died, and in the middle of it she said she just wanted to let me know that she didn’t want to keep asking me, but she hadn’t forgotten either. Be that person. We all need that person in our lives.
So there you go. Take from it what you will. You may find it utterly useless. I hope that one person finds some comfort in some of it, someday. You may have found yourself muttering in disgust as you read it and declaring it to be “all wrong”. If you are the latter, then you are unlikely to be the former. The world still turns.