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Grief: what do you say when someone has passed away.

As a bereavement counsellor I am comfortable speaking with people who have recently experienced a death in their family. "Comfortable" does not mean I find it easy, far from it. Clients project their sorrow onto me whilst needing me to stay calm and together whilst they explore their loss and vocalise their pain. It is my job to listen and empathise with their sadness. I work at a hospice within the family support team, I am told it is a huge relief to talk to a bereavement counsellor who is not connected to the family or death of their loved one. My clients don't need to be brave in front of me, they can let their guard down without worrying about judgement and "keeping it together".

Do you know someone who has recently experienced a loss or bereavement? It needs a different type of conversation, an understanding that requires us to go against our gut instinct to shield against pain.

There is no rule book when facing any type of loss. People are unique individuals and what might help one person may irritate another, therefore it is important to be lead by the bereaved person, you will know quite quickly if they need you to: cook, clean or sit in silence/talk with them. Having sat with and supported many people who have lost their loved ones at a hospice similar thoughts and topics come up regularly in therapy; here are some things to keep in mind when speaking with someone who has recently experienced a loss which might help them be open with their grief.

  • Where do you start? "How are you feeling?" is often too big a question to ask someone who is recently bereaved, giving context to the question is more helpful, for example, "How are you feeling today?".

  • It is understandable to feel worried that you might say the "wrong" thing and upset a friend who has recently been bereaved BUT if you understand and assume that the person is going to feel upset and feels upset for a lot of the day, you talking about their loss isn't going to make it worse for them, in fact it might give them the opportunity to share how they are feeling with you.
  • If your friend cries when they talk to you don't feel guilty, you haven't upset them, they are just upset; crying is a great release to a person grieving, it can be very helpful and lets them release a little bit of their sorrow. Crying is positive not negative and shouldn't be feared.
  • Don't avoid talking about the person who has died. Say the person's name out loud in conversations, it often provides the grieving person comfort to hear their loved one's name and reinforces that they have not been forgotten.
  • Allow the bereaved person space to grieve, try not to jolly them out of their sadness but allow them to feel it for a little while and then recover. It is important that a person should feel the hurt rather than supress or deny their feelings.
  • There is no timeline or "normal" timetable for grieving. I have had many clients ask me through tears if it is normal to still feel so upset after "x" months, my answer is always a resounding "yes". There is no normal. People cope with death very differently; some process their feelings practically, others emotionally, some face their feelings whereas others busy themselves from their grief. It takes as long as it takes, and often doesn't have a definite ending point but becomes more manageable to live with over time.
  • The bereaved person knows intellectually that, in time, they will feel joy again, but often struggle to connect to the feeling - it can take some people a while to allow themselves genuine happiness after experiencing a loss; feelings of guilt can accompany feelings of happiness: guilt that they are able to experience life whilst their loved one can't.
  • Grief can hit a person out of the blue; they might be having a good day and all of a sudden feel a pang of grief and become completely floored. If this happens give your friend space to recover and share their feelings, listen with empathy and understanding as they might feel embarrassed by their sudden change of mood. You cannot take your friend's pain away, but you are able to listen to them and let them share theirs.

It is important to note that grief does not only show itself as sadness. Kubler-Ross (1969) studied grief and noticed 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. So, when spending time with a friend who is recently bereaved listen out for those stages and give them time and space to talk, walk with them in their pain whilst they rebuild their inner strength and come to terms with their life without their loved one.

If you are suffering from a recent loss or bereavement and feel that you need emotional support whilst grieving, please get in touch

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