Saturday 2 December marked the first day of National Grief Awareness Week (2–8 December), following on from Children’s Grief Awareness Week (16–22 November). Both weeks are designed to raise awareness of the impact of bereavement and highlight the support available to the bereaved.
Of course, those of us who are grieving are more than aware of the impact, every single day. Sometimes almost every minute of every hour of every day. And night. The vast emptiness of grief. But we may not always be aware of the support available to us, so if you are affected by grief, I would encourage you to reach out. We all need a helping hand. I certainly do.
And for those so very fortunate not to be in this unenviable position, please do what you can to help support those of us who are. You may think you already know how to do that – heartfelt condolences and kind, encouraging words – but my recent experience has shown me that, sadly, very few of us really do know how to support the bereaved. I realise now that I certainly didn’t, up until recently anyway.
You see, I lost my husband in August.
No, correction – I didn’t ‘lose’ him, he died. That’s a more accurate term. He didn’t ‘pass away’, ‘slip away’ or ‘move on’.
He died. From cancer.
And for me, he’s not ‘at rest’ or ‘resting in peace’ or ‘gone to a better place’. He’s dead.
Typing it and saying it out loud hurts and it’s uncomfortable for others to hear it, I know. But that’s the reality.
Language and acknowledgement
The language people use around the bereaved often tries to soften the edges, presumably in a bid to try to shield them from any further pain. But there are no soft edges with grief, particularly if it involves the death of one of the most important people in your life. Grief is hard, raw, difficult. There is no hiding from it. It cuts right through you like a knife, every day. As I write this today, I know that an old friend is suffering through the third anniversary of her 17 year old son’s death. The agony she and her family are in is clear and heartbreaking. That kind of loss is unthinkable.
Other people using euphemistic language to describe death does nothing but fill me with frustration. Avoiding using my husband’s name does the same, as does the term “your late husband” – he’s not late for anything, he was never late. A good friend whose partner died last year told me about a very dear friend of hers who didn’t mention the death at all when they first spoke after it happened. Other friends crossed the road to avoid having to speak to her. Often people don’t know what to say, I realise that.
As Virginia Ironside, in her exceptional book on grief, You’ll Get Over It, aptly puts it, “they think that if they mention the death you will get upset and, as they don’t wish to upset you, they keep quiet. But what they don’t realize is that the bereaved person is just dying to talk”. Ironside goes on to say “people who are simply so terrified of the feelings that bereavement brings up in themselves ….. would prefer you go away”.
Top tip though – say something, anything! Actually, no, not just anything, be aware of what you say and how you say it. Those of us who are grieving are incredibly sensitive and even the most minor, unintentional slip of the tongue can twist that grief knife. As Ironside says “to the vulnerable bereaved, most people can appear to be ‘clodhopperingly’ insensitive. Like children trying to help you cook a meal, their attempts to help may be touching, but in the end they may only make the whole thing worse.”
Think about the language you use first of all. Of course, everyone has individual preferences on this. Some who have suffered a loss may find that softer language more comforting, easier to say out loud. Goodness knows, by the time I’d had to call up 20 different banks, utility companies and various other call centres to tell them he was dead, even I was tempted to soften things somewhat, to try to help hold back the floods of tears each time I said it out loud and made it real all over again.
Of course, I can’t speak for everyone who has been bereaved, perhaps softer language helps some. If you want to support someone who is grieving, be guided by the language they use themselves – if they say ‘lost’, ‘passed away’ etc, say that too. If they use their loved one’s name, say it too. Keeping their name alive is often all they have left for comfort.
What not to say….
In the first few weeks after a death, some people around you get in touch immediately with offers of practical help and support (cooking, cleaning, driving etc); some send condolences and flowers; others, sadly, put both feet straight in it by saying the wrong thing. Surely there is no wrong thing to say though? People try their best and offer their love and kindness. But sometimes the words they think are showing kindness and empathy, really have the opposite effect.
If I hear or read insensitive phrases like ‘hope you’re getting back to your old life now/building a new life’, ‘you’re so strong’, ‘you’re young’ [I’m 48], ‘you’ll be fine/other people have had to deal with worse situations than this’ one more time, I think I’ll scream. These are probably the worst things you can say to someone in the depths of grief.
I know most people are ill-equipped to deal with supporting someone who has just lost their life partner, particularly if they’re also grieving that loss themselves, but far better to say nothing and just offer to listen, than to say something so crass that it worsens the pain of the person so deep in grief that they can barely function. Someone fighting the darkness every day just to keep going. Particularly if it’s just via the odd text message once a month or so.
A close friend of my husband’s from his school days has texted me twice since the funeral, each time to ask if I was getting on with “building my future life”. The first message came just five days after the funeral, telling me that he really understood my despair but that my husband wouldn’t want me to be so sad and that we all “owe it to him to find some peace and try and move forward”. He talked about me finding a new job soon (I was my husband’s carer) and enjoying life again. Five days after the funeral. I was incredulous and so viscerally angry.
After the second message a month or so later, I politely asked him not to message me talking about the future as I found it too upsetting (he knew that I was barely functioning at that point and, at times, suicidal). But he persevered, insisting he knew what was best for me, failing to listen or understand what I was saying. Perhaps he “meant well”, but he couldn’t for a moment comprehend the pain he was causing me by endlessly pushing his “look to the future” advice. His mother-in-law, he told me, had lost her husband many years ago, but she had three young children to look after and she managed fine and built a new life in the end. The implication being I shouldn’t feel so sorry for myself…..
What the grieving hear….
Megan Devine, a psychotherapist, grief consultant and author of It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand lost her husband in a drowning accident, so knows about all this better than most. On her website, Refuge In Grief, and in her regular podcast, she discusses the idea of the “implied second half of the sentence”. What the bereaved person often ‘hears’ although it isn’t actually said. She outlines this in the following short video;
For example, “he wouldn’t want you to feel so sad”. Devine says that what the bereaved person hears, (the implied second half of the sentence), is “so stop feeling how you feel”. But that’s impossible. That simply tells us to stop sharing how we’re feeling, that it isn’t okay to keep feeling that way, you need to feel better. The intended words of comfort end up unintentionally dismissing or diminishing the bereaved person’s pain, minimising the extent of their grief. “Words of comfort that try to erase pain are not a comfort.”
Devine says that we naturally try to make bereaved people feel better, cheer them up, tell them to be strong and persevere, encourage them to ‘move on’. But it doesn’t actually work. It seems counterintuitive but, according to her, the way to help someone feel better is to let them be in pain. You can’t heal someone’s pain by trying to take it away from them. Acknowledge it and let the pain exist. Just be there and offer to listen. I agree with her. Just being heard helps so much.
Different types of support
Thankfully, not everyone is like my husband’s old school friend. Some are much more in tune with what grief really means, usually, sadly, because they have experienced it themselves. I draw huge strength from talking to a few friends and family members who have been down this same dreadful path. They listen and sometimes share their experience with me. They often tell me to not be hurried along by others, who are desperate for me to feel better, to not be in such pain. Their advice is to acknowledge the grief and deal with only one day at a time. They know because that’s what they had to do.
But it’s not just those who have suffered similar losses, some people just ‘get it’ and listen endlessly as the pain pours out. Others who don’t have those enhanced emotional support skills help in other ways – practical things, daily calls or messages, offers of long term help and support.
If you’ve been bereaved, my advice would be to assess who can provide you with various different types of support and don’t expect one single family member or friend to be able to help you with everything. If no one around you can be your emotional support, speak to your GP about counselling or contact one of the many charities who offer online and telephone support in various ways – a list can be found at the end of this article. Reach out for help.
‘Back to normal’
In the weeks and months that follow a death, most people seem to think the grief will ease and you can ‘start to get your life back to normal’. The trouble is there is no normal any more. There never will be. The old me has gone, destroyed. The current one is still desperate and confused, trying to pick up the scattered remnants of her life and piece them back together, one by one. But there are huge pieces missing. So the new me, whenever she appears, will be vastly different I suspect. Perhaps not superficially, not to most people, but deep inside, very different indeed. The fact I can even contemplate a ‘new me’ is real progress. A few weeks ago, that seemed impossible.
I’ve been so fortunate to have the unstinting support of my family and some close friends these last few months. I’m so grateful to them for helping me keep my head above water. I know I wouldn’t still be here without that close circle. The grief threatened to get the better of me many times. The Samaritans (116123) have been there in the middle of the night and I couldn’t be more grateful to them too.
Others, who I had presumed would be there for me, were not. And that has worsened my pain and loneliness considerably, making me feel even more isolated, bereft and cast adrift. They are grieving too, of course, I understand that. But it still hurts to be further abandoned just when you need help and support the most.
So I focus on those who did step forward, those who scooped me up off the floor, sometimes literally, encouraged me gently but without pressure or judgement. As they say, people show you who they are by their actions, particularly in the darkest of times.
If you need help and support with grief, please reach out and contact an agency who can help: