Dos and Don’ts of Being with the Bereaved

On Friday 11th April I gave a talk at Death Salon UK at St Barts Pathology Museum – a conference where individuals who work in the death industry, or have an interest in death/dying/grief, gather together to share their experience, with the shared goal of subverting death denial in society.

It was a great event to be a part of not least because I got to promote my book – which by the way – I have finished!

I struggled for a long time to think of what I could possibly say at the talk – I felt, what with the blog, and Psychologies and the book, that I had said all I needed to say about death and grief. But then I realised it was the perfect place to share some of the nuggets of gold I had acquired through my research for the book – those are the Dos and Don’ts of being with a bereaved person.

So I did just that to the large audience on Friday and it seemed to go down quite well. I thought it only fair to do the same here. So below I will take you through 3 Do’s and 3 Don’ts on how to be a friend to the bereaved. I know this will not apply to everyone – grief is unique to each person – but having interviewed many people who have been bereaved, I can say with confidence that there are some things best avoided, and others which tend to go down well. Use your own discretion.

1. DO make a joke about the awkwardness of the situation.

I know this might surprise some of you, but the thing is, death and dying can be funny, and it’s a great way to acknowledge the enormity of whats happened to your bereaved friend. Sadly, it seems that many people assume the bereaved lose their sense of humour. Personally I think I was at my funniest when mum died. This is probably the effect of shock and trauma, but a few giggles to ease the pain were greatly appreciated so I obviously liked it when this was mirrored back, rather than being responded to with sort of appalled foot shuffles.

2. DO share memories of the dead person . . . in letters and conversation.

Jokes shouldn’t come at the cost of sincerity and vulnerability. We need to work on being OK with these softer, scarier emotions…both feeling them ourselves and seeing them in others. All of the people I interviewed said the letters they still remember are the ones which talked specifically of the deceased – mentioning things they did or said, and acknowledging the relationship lost, as well as the person was also a successful recipe.

And sharing memories should continue. Very often the bereaved feel more alone in their loss later down the line, because most people seem to forget. Hearing that others are still thinking of your dead loved one can be incredibly consoling. For many people, death is only final when the person is forgotten by all those left living, so when others keep them alive through conversation and sharing memories, its a great reassurance.

3. DO offer to do something specific.

I would say about 90% of the people I interviewed said the first thing their friends said to them was “what can I do?”

Well, don’t. The problem is it puts the onus on your friend to come up with a job for you. And if they’re struggling to get dressed, eat, leave the house, do even the most mundane daily activities, it’s not likely they’ll be thinking clearly enough to give you a list of jobs.

Most people I interviewed said the most memorable things people did were unasked. Simple things like collecting them from some destination or other, inviting them over, cooking delicious food.

So, assess your friends circumstances, and then offer something specific.

Now for some no no’s

 1. DON’T hug as a default action

Hugs are tricky. They often come as quickly as the ‘what can I do’ question, but in just the same way, its frequently more for the supporter’s benefit than it is for the bereaved. I often felt like I was being muzzled when people launched into a hug, especially if they were people I didn’t know very well.

Its best to take a moment to try and read the body language of the person – often when someone is reaching out for human contact, you can see it…if you can’t, then its likely they just need space.

2. DON’T try to stop someone crying.

For some reason, tears frequently arouse awkwardness, even though crying is such a human manifestation of emotion. And because of this awkwardness, some people I interviewed told me they were often met with a cooing of “ssshhhh, don’t cry.”

I think this is the worst thing anyone could do. What they probably don’t realise is that its normally ONLY when you’re crying that you feel close to the person who’s dead – that’s why you’re crying – because you remember them and the fact they’re gone forever – so yes its painful, and yes its ugly and snotty – but its GOOD!

The best thing you can do is tell them to keep breathing. At least that gives you something to say, a way of making your presence known.

3. DON’T pretend you don’t know

Or rather, always acknowledge the death, even if you don’t know that person very well. In simply acknowledging the death, you enter into the bereaved person’s world. The problem with not acknowledging it, especially so early on, is that it puts the bereaved person on mute. They no longer have the opportunity or permission to be sad if they need to be, or talk about it, because the people around them haven’t opened up a space for it. And in those early days, it’s incredibly hard to carve out that space yourself.

If someone simply says, ‘I’m so sorry’, or even gives a knowing look and squeeze of the arm, its not likely to send people crumbling to the floor in tears, but they will still want the facts of their life in that moment to be recognised.

So there you have it – a snippet from whats to come in the book. Feel free to disagree/agree – tell me your experiences/thoughts/ask questions.




5 thoughts on “Dos and Don’ts of Being with the Bereaved

  1. I totally hear you Annie.

    Do #1 When my Muma died 00.10 on 1st January 2009, I asked for the window to be opened and told my Muma to dodge the fireworks on her way.

    Do #2 Anyone who thinks they might sadly remind you of your lost loved one by mentioning them should know that losing your loved one is – defining. I feel that everything I do is another thing done without my Muma. If anything, you feel more heard and understood when someone talks about the person you have lost.

    Do #3 I also agree that it’s best for the friend to just do. I was unable to make effective to-do lists before losing Mum. When you have just lost someone who is beyond deeply special to you, you feel totally out of this world – probably because a huge part of you has just left. Nothing matters apart from the fact that you are totally lost and hurting. Basic everyday routines are very confusing and therefore the friend is most helpful in just making decisions for the bereaved.

    Don’t #1 Especially when you are crying and you are struggling to breathe – probably best not to squash the bereaved further with a tight embrace. I can understand why friends want to hold us. However if you feel touch is appropriate you could just echo how to breathe by rubbing our hand in a calmer rythym. My friend Rosie used to move her hand up and down in front of me to guide me to try and breathe slower. Or at least I think she did. Everything was very fuzzy. Best words from my Alice – ‘let the cry out’.

    Don’t #3 Absolutely. This is my ‘favourite’ don’t? When someone tries to stop you crying you feel even worse. Like, they just don’t understand how you are feeling at all. I am more inclined to calm a bit if I feel heard. We want our stab-like pains to be appreciated. Amidst a death attack (moment of extreme pain due to loss of life) we cannot just switch off the deep hurt.

    Don’t #3 Very wise words Annie. Yes.

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