I was unexpectedly bereaved early January 2018. This is an amalgamation of notes I’ve written on my phone with added snark and maybe some helpful points. It will most likely be the first of several posts on this topic. Please bear in mind that the last month has been a haze of grief and my processing still isn’t 100%. AKA: don’t be a dickhead.
According to the great Master Yoda, death is a natural part of life. And so it is – but we all imagine that barring some horrific accident, we all slowly creep towards the great mincer of death in date order, oldest first. We expect to see our grandparents die first, and then when we are in our middle age, our parents. Finally it will be our turn to shed this mortal coil – and we take solace in the fact that people have had ‘a good innings’ and were ready to take their leave of life.
It is only when that proves to be incorrect and someone dies unexpectedly, before their time, without an obvious reason, that our sense of confidence in our span on this earth comes crashing down about our ears. When someone dies who shouldn’t be dead yet – our entire sense of the proper order is utterly fucked and shakes you to your core. All bets are off, anyone’s number can come up and at any time. Never has the phrase ‘life is too short’ been more painfully true.
I’ve seen my grandparents and grandparents-in-law die in old age, in varying levels of pain, ease, acceptance or indifference. Those were all painful to go through emotionally but those deaths were almost expected. Old folks die. My point here is: there’s grief for someone you expect to die at the ‘allotted’ time of life. Then there’s the whole other ball game when someone dies out of turn. The sudden, the unexpected, the illness, the accident, the young, the unexplained. A parent not even collecting their pension yet, or the sudden death of a partner or a loss of a child. Heartless as it may sound, these types of loss are fucking different. To me, anyway in my sample size of 1.
Before I go headlong into this tangent and actually write an entire different blog, I’ll bring it back. What I have discovered in the last month, is that people are pretty crap about dealing with death. Maybe it’s some of the British stiff upper lip making us uncomfortable with crying and a general human discomfort with the reality of our own mortality. People say stupid, thoughtless or downright obnoxious things, or people are supportive, kind and considerate. Needless to say there are friends who have been fucking amazing and supportive during this time, and friends who have been outstandingly shit. Not only have I learned a lot about who really fucking cares and who doesn’t, I have a much better idea now of how I should be when someone I know is bereaved. Another fucking growth opportunity and all that jazz.
Here’s a list of my very honest, unedited opinions on how to (and how not to) support someone in the second type of grief. It can probably apply for the first type too, just a little less in extremis and they may not need as much support.
- Don’t quiz the bereaved on what happened to their loved one. I get the human curiosity around death and the need to know it wasn’t ebola but really: hold your tongue. They’ll tell you if they want to, but please remember the cause of death is probably deeply upsetting, or may not even be known yet. The person is dead, and that’s what is the topic here. Related: don’t pepper them with update requests re death certificates, coroners, funeral stuff. They will let you know what you need to know at an appropriate time.
- Even though this is well-intentioned, don’t offer non-religious folk your prayers or your comments about where their loved one is now. Such comments are at best insensitive and at worst may result in you getting your head ripped off.
- Learn tact. Don’t do stupid things like asking ‘are you ok’. Of course they aren’t fucking ok, moron. Don’t get in their face and tell them how terrible it is. They know, it’s happening to them. Don’t make their grief your real life episode of Eastenders. You can ask how someone is without making their loss seem trivial.
- Be considerate of a person who is upset. Are they normally a hugger? Or are they a non-touchy person? Most people find it difficult to be around someone who is crying, but don’t make this about you. If you know what they need, do it, otherwise ask, or sit quietly and let them do what they need to do. For example, if you find me sobbing, pass me a tissue and a cup of tea and leave me the fuck alone. I’ll be ‘reet in a bit. Obviously intervene if the person is hysterical/hyperventilating/at risk – calm them and remind them to breathe. Don’t ask them what set them off, because that’s fucking stupid. Someone being dead did that, idiot.
- Check in with the bereaved and do so regularly. When I say regularly, I mean like clockwork. By all means let them know to tell you to fuck off if you’re messaging too much but knowing your friends are there, they care and they haven’t forgotten you is fucking invaluable when the world is crashing down about your ears. You don’t need to have a response, you just want to let them know you’re thinking of them, you’re there and you care.
- Related: keep it up. After a week or two you may have almost forgotten they are suffering a loss, but they will still probably still feel like their heart has been ripped out, blended into a smoothie and handed back to them. And will do for weeks, months, even years. Tapering down the contact is fine but still check in, especially if they have gone incommunicado on social media or private messages. At some point they will probably want or need to talk.
- It’s nice to send a card, note, or flowers or something if you can. Yes, getting cards and flowers made me cry my fucking guts out, but it was also a really sweet reminder that my friends cared, and cared enough to do more than send a text. Unless the person likes calls or says they want phone support – don’t call them. They will be on the phone having difficult conversations all day, and that is draining.
- If you’re local to them/close enough then doing things like bringing food/prepared meals, taking children out for a bit, dog-walking or general house chores can be a massive relief. Bear in mind that even the most houseproud person’s place can turn into a shithole really quickly in these circumstances, and they’d be mortified if you saw it. Don’t come in unless invited, drop stuff off or be quick if you do need to come in.
- Related: DO NOT SAY: ‘let me know if there’s anything I can do’. Well meaning as this might be, it’s fucking trite and useless. Don’t make bereaved people do emotional labour by having to consider who they can ask to do things – let them know what you are able and willing to do. Offer specifics if you have skills/resources ‘I can bring you a lasagne’ or ‘I can drive you to appointments if you need a lift’.
- Grief fucks all of your body processes and clocks. A bereaved person will have issues sleeping, eating, concentrating, processing and will most likely have some form of physical stress-related symptom (headaches, unsettled stomach etc). If you’re around them, especially as a partner or housemate – try and gently remind them to do basic self care (showering, teeth brushing, eating, hydrating, getting outside etc). Bringing small snacks and regular drinks is literally life saving, as is making sure they continue to take any medications they are on.
- Don’t expect them to travel. Ask if they want company but do not expect them to be ready or able to safely drive or face a crying spell in front of a train full of strangers. If you want to give them company, go to them and then drive/taxi/take a stroll unless they specifically say they want to get away for a change of scenery. Always plan escape routes in the event of unexpected emotional meltdowns.
- Do keep asking them if they want company, inviting them to stuff, even if they say they aren’t ready, aren’t sure or bail on things. It’s not personal, this shit is just overwhelming. Peopleing is especially draining. There’s nothing worse than feeling like your friends have forgotten you because you aren’t your usual self.
- Don’t expect them to remember shit. If they miss your birthday or can’t do stuff you normally do, it’s because processing loss takes up all of the brain space. If it’s not a bodily reflex, it’s taking up all their CPU space to make a cup of tea and form words, so try and keep things lighter than usual. Now is not the time for anything that requires lots of concentration or processing. Additionally they may be dealing with loads of difficult paperwork and meetings related to the funeral and managing the deceased’s estate.
- Don’t comment on why they are still wearing black/have their curtains shut/whatever ritual they have in their culture or community to signal mourning. It’s not up to you to decide when they don’t need that anymore.
- Finally and possibly the most important: be patient and be prepared to support (as far as you are able) in the long haul. Grief and loss takes time to recover from, the brain needs time to heal, and people need to adjust to the new life at their own pace. A real friend will be there, and be there all the way.
That’ll do for now. I’m nearly a month in and people keep doing and saying some amazing and stupid shit, so I expect to add more, especially after the funeral. FFS.