How to start a conversation with someone who’s grieving

Tips on how to talk to a person who's bereaved

grief support

by Stephanie Anthony |

It’s hard to know what to say when someone’s grieving. Jane Murray has been a Bereavement Support Service Counsellor at the Marie Curie Hospice, West Midlands, for 17 years, after working there as a nurse for 12 years. She shares what she’s learned about helping people understand and deal with their grief.

How can you support people who are bereaved?

I would say no matter what you say, say something. The worst thing you can do is not say anything and avoid talking because you feel embarrassed, or you don't know what to say. Simply, verbally, you know, just saying I'm thinking of you. Even sending a text, reaching out in some way will go a long way.

As a society, we can't cope with emotions, we worry that we’ll upset other people or that it will become awkward. But actually, it's such a gift to give them just to be listening. You really don’t have to say too much to be the one that they feel they can rely on.

As for physical gestures there’s obviously things like sending a card or sending flowers, just to let them know they’re in your thoughts, but it can be very helpful in to do practical things. Sending round a meal, or tea bags and coffee, because they’ll likely have lots of visitors. Offering to take the dog for a walk.

I think that probably the worst thing you can say is, ‘let me know if you need anything’. Because that person who is emotionally vulnerable, they're not going to pick up the phone and say I need you to do this. So be more proactive and say, ‘I’ll come walk the dog on a Wednesday at 10 o'clock’, or ‘I'm going to go shopping in Sainsbury's, have your list ready and I’ll come pick it up’. Because as much as that person wants to talk to someone or just wants to be in company, but not necessarily talk, the hardest thing is to pick up that phone say remember, you said that I could reach out to you?

Tips for getting someone to open up about their loss

What they want to do is talk about the person who has died. They want to remember the happy times, actually, and they might even want to talk about the awful times. And that can be hard to listen to, particularly awful stuff. But to process grief, because grief is a process, they actually need to talk to someone. So if you're able to sit with someone and allow them and encourage them to talk, that is such a gift. I hear again, and again, ‘all I want to do is talk about them’. And perhaps they don’t want to bringdown the mood or be the party pooper so they keep it inside and don’t talk. So, if you have the courage, be the one to say ‘Oh, wouldn't Fred have loved this?’ Or ‘remember when we were all together last year?’ That just opens up the door to talking about them. It almost gives permission to everybody else. It's okay to talk. They'll follow your lead. It's one of the hardest and lonelinest thing for the person who's bereaved when they can't talk about that person, because they feel like they're not allowed to, which is why many people come and seek support from places like Marie Curie, because this is the only arena where we encourage them to talk about the person and remember them and talk about how they feel.

How to support people who are bereaved on anniversaries or important dates

That first year is the hardest for a great many people, because it is the first of everything without that person. We expect the first birthday, the first wedding anniversary, etc to be difficult, we almost anticipate it and we prepare for that. Family and friends around you will be usually be very supportive of you through those firsts. When it's the first anniversary, marking the occasion in some way is important. That could be as simple as lighting a candle.

Those weeks leading up to that first anniversary, if people have done really well through that year, and seem to be, you know, genuinely okay, coming up to that first anniversary, they can expect to go backwards, and start reliving everything and start being very emotional and intense. Again, that's very normal, grief is a process to be gone through.

What about at Christmas time?

With Christmas approaching I’m sure that will be on a lot of people’s minds, particularly if it’s the first Christmas without a loved one. Yes, it is going to be hard. But really, it's no harder than yesterday. Because for the person who's bereaved, every day is hard. It's a day on the calendar. Often they'll say, I don't want Christmas, but my family want me to have Christmas. So it's important that they maybe reach a compromise, do a little bit of what the family wants, and then it's very important that they have time for themselves, to remember to think, or to do nothing. If you're saying yes to that invitation to satisfy them rather than because it’s something you want to do, why don't you say ‘well, I'll come for an hour’. That way you're taking the pressure off yourself, they'll be pleased that you’re going to come, and actually when you get there, if you feel okay, you can stay longer. You can stay for the whole time, but you've taken pressure off yourself and there's no expectations from others that you're going to be there for the whole event.

I find that because people expect the first year to be to be difficult, with all those first anniversaries, what they don't expect is what it’s going to be like stepping into the second year. A great many people find the second year harder, and arguably this is when it’s even more important as a friend or family member to be there to listen.

Are there different types of grieving?

Certainly, there’s anticipatory grief which happens before the person dies, and I find that people don't really acknowledge this, that that grief process starts from the moment of diagnosis. You're anticipating what lies ahead, you're anticipating the death. Grief is all about relationships, it's about the relationship you had with the person, not necessarily about who the person was to you. So in a family, for instance, if the dad dies, you're not all going to grieve to the same extent or in the same way, because each person has a different relationship with the person.

Grief can be very complex. For a great many people, particularly through COVID, we knew that it would be year two and year three that would be the hardest, because everything that you associated with grief – the loneliness, the longing to see them, the not having anyone to talk to, has just been compounded by lockdown and the pandemic. People who are bereaved haven't been able to see people to actually talk in person way back in those first months, they weren't able to visit patients, they weren’t able to be with them when they died, weren't able to see them in the funeral home, you could only have six at a funeral. So, when you think of grief and loss, they've lost the normal way that you would grieve.

Grief and isolation

I find as much as you want people and you want someone to talk to your home becomes a sanctuary. You don't want to leave that comfort of your sanctuary, as much as these two feelings are contradictory. As much as you want people, you want to be by yourself, you don't want to leave the safety blanket that you've created for yourself.

So people being people, you know, we're fickle, so there's only so many times we'll invite you, and then when you don't come, we won’t invite you anymore. So your friendship circle can shrink. So that's another loss, and that's so very sad.

I find this happens so often with people. They’ll say if I knew that something like this was going to happen in my life, I would have known in my friendship circle or family, that I could rely on this person, that person, they'd always be there. But when it actually happens, what they find is it isn't those people, it’s often actually those on the periphery that come forward. You know, that's always a surprise to people, it wasn’t the best friend, it was the next door neighbor, they've been the consistent one. So you never truly know who is going to be there for you. And that in itself can be a major blow. And maybe you'll never get that back the way it was. But new friendships will arise.

For a great many people, it's only when you're grieving that you really truly understand the difference between loneliness and aloneness. But the longer you stay withdrawn, the harder it is then to venture out of it. Sometimes a lot of the work I do is about this, and saying ‘how will it be if you go out for a walk today, say 10 minutes, and then go home, the next day, do 20 minutes’. It’s about breaking it down.

And it’s not selfish to put yourself first. Putting yourself first is good self care. People still have got a life to live, as much as it can feel hard to go about living your life. But the person who's died, would want them to live and be happy, so go out, make new friends, do different things. Whatever responsibilities you have, make time somewhere in your day for something that is just for you, whether that's going for a short walk, or having a bubble bath.

Remember, saying ‘I’m thinking of you’ is a great place to start. And it’s okay if they don’t want to talk – you’ll be there for them either way. For more tips, call Marie Curie’s support line on 0800 090 2309 or visit mariecurie.org.uk/bereavement

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