Bereavement is a terrible blow. Death and loss are an overwhelming and difficult experience for anyone. So, if someone close to you is going through this – what can you do? What can you say?
In the UK approximately 13,000 people a week die. Every one of those 13,000 deaths will put friends and relatives into a morass of loss and other painful emotions. It is a common enough event for us to think we should know what to do when it happens to someone close to us. And yet it is not something we ever really talk about so how can we know?
There are so many books on the topic that you could open a bookshop solely dedicated to bereavement, and grief. But there is no fixed or prescribed way for a person to get through this. Not everyone will experience a particular number of stages, and there is no set amount of time to get over a loss. The idea that there is a series of emotions they should be experiencing, can make the grieving person feel that they are doing it wrong, or that they should be over it by now and are a burden to you.
Grief is overwhelming and everyone has to find their own way through it, so the most valuable thing you can do is to be with them and not shy away from the fact of this death or the pain left in its wake. So, rather than trying to think of “the right thing” to say, ask your friend or loved one how they are. Let them know you are really listening to their answer, and that you are prepared to just be with them through this. Listening is the single most important thing you can do for a bereaved person, even if they are not saying anything and you are silent together.
Nine years after the death of his father by suicide, the rapper Professor Green wrote a song called Photographs about the way that people wish that they’d had more time with the person they lost. He started a hashtag: #wishthatitookmorephotographsofus which has become a forum for grieving people to share photos and stories of their loved ones. Scrolling through it is a very moving testimony of how isolating grief can be and how many people just want the world to bear witness.
People want you to see and understand what has been lost without necessarily offering advice or saying anything. Of course you want to make things feel better for them but perhaps you can’t and perhaps they don’t want you to.
Your instinct to cheer people up, help or fix is very understandable but it doesn’t actually work. There is a Robert Frost poem in which he says, “The only way out is through”. And it sounds counterintuitive, but it is true that the only way you can really help a person in pain is to let them be in pain. Don’t try to stop it, but acknowledge it and let them go through it. This won’t fix them or make everything all right but they want to be witnessed. And that genuinely can make things feel better.
What not to say when someone is grieving:
- I know how you feel
- He/she had a good innings, it was their time
- She/he is in a better place
- There is a reason for everything
- You’ll get over it
- You are very brave/strong/stoic
- Be brave/strong
- It’s been xx months/years, time heals, aren’t you feeling better yet?
- You could meet someone else/have another child/you still have your siblings/mother
- What really helped me was…
What you might say when someone is grieving:
- I am so sorry this has happened
- I don’t think I have the right words, but just want you to know I am thinking of you and I care
- I am here to help in any way I can
- What were they like?
- I remember him/her, my favourite memory is…
- Nothing, just be with them
The idea is to show that you know something very sad and difficult has happened and no one really knows what to say in the face of such dreadful sadness, but you are there for them.
If you would like some support or need a safe space in which to open up about your feelings in response to loss, therapy could be an option for you. We have a team of bereavement counsellors who are specialists in bereavement and loss and can provide empathetic support. Just call 020 8673 4545 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for a confidential appointment.