Thursday, 7 November 2013

What (not) to say when someone dies

It came home to me strongly last week - and for the nth time - that people who haven't  been bereaved often have no idea what to say.

It would have been my first husband's birthday, and a kind relative of his, who has been  unfailingly supportive, phoned to say he was thinking of us. "But I suppose you've got over it  now," he said, adding "99.9%", just in case. I was appalled, and I'm afraid my response was not as polite as I would have liked (it was one of those speak first, think afterwards, moments).

Because you never, ever, "get over" something like that. All those birthdays, wedding anniversaries, the graduations of children, the births of grandchildren, watching my son lead his sister down the aisle on her wedding day, because she had no father to do it...the list is endless. He never lived long enough to see his children established in their careers; our youngest was only just eleven.

But this kind of thing is well meant. Maybe you just have to go through it yourself to understand. There is so much I have learnt since it happened to me. Some of those things are:

When you hear the news, write. Briefly. Preferably a proper letter.  And only about the bereavement/the dead person. Don't - as one person I  know did - add your own holiday plans at the end of the letter. This isn't about you!

Phone if you want to. This is scary. You don't know what state the recipient of your phone fall will be in. One friend of mine phoned me and just sobbed down the phone. I can't tell you how helpful that was.

Don't say "let me know if there's anything I can do". This is well-meant, and kind, but the bereaved person won't take you up on it, especially if you live hundreds of miles away. If you want to help, take a meal round, send flowers, offer to fetch the kids from school, do the ironing. If you're too far away, never mind. At least you've written.

If  you do speak, don't mention yourself or your own experiences. One of my own worst memories is of the parish vicar coming round on what I suppose he would call a "bereavement visit". I hardly knew the man. He spent the entire time talking about (a) his own wonderfully happy marriage and (b) his own heart attack. It was terrible.

Stay in touch. for as long as it takes. Don't tail away after a couple of months. If you're a friend, the bereaved person will go on needing you for  much longer than you think.

Remember the anniversary. I suppose this isn't strctly necessary, but as that first year comes round, the bereaved person will be going through all those memories all over again, and suffering.

I have learnt so much over the last 21 years. Would I have followed this advice before that? I shall never know. I hope so, but I shall never be sure. And if anyone (probably many) who reads this post knows all this, and doesn't need reminding, I apologise.

31 comments:

  1. Thanks for posting this, Fran. I'm in the lucky position of never having lost anyone really close to me and I have no idea how to respond to other people's grief. As a culture we have no real traditions, I think, whereas some cultures do (for example the Jewish culture is very specific that everyone has to go round, take food, sit with the person.)

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    1. Claire, one of my best friends is Jewish, and she and her husband came round that day with enough food to last us for weeks. I shall never forget that kindness.

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  2. A valuable post, Frances, having seen my mother, sister and two sisters-in-law go through fairly early bereavement.

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  3. The Jewish religion has a code for death; what the mourners should do, what friends of the mourners should do etc. However, it doesn't stop some ignorant people crossing the road rather than speak to someone who has lost a loved one. This is their problem.

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    1. I think people cross the road because they really are hideously embarrassed. The Jews are brillilant at all this, and we could learn a lot from them.

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  4. When my step dad died not so long ago I saw how awkward people felt speaking to my mum. I don't think she really took in much of what people said - what mattered more was that they made contact with her.

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    1. I agree, Patsy. Contact is so important.

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  5. Thank you for posting this, Frances. I think sometimes people just say something because they feel they ought to and the wrong thing comes out. Much better I think to write a few lines as you say. I think the most touching thing when my mum died was my friend sending me flowers with a note that simply said "Your mum is at peace now." Ten years ago and I've never forgotten that x

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  6. My father died when I was in my early twenties and I don't remember anything being said to me, my brother and my sister - only to my mum, It's important to remember that other family embers are bereaved and grieving as well,

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    1. That's such a good point, Wendy. Thank you.

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  7. I just walk up and give them a hug. It's happened too many times to me. (Not death, I'm still alive). People used to avoid me. Like a close friend or relative dying meant I carried the devil on my shoulder. Load of rubbish everyone dies. Hard as it is we have to get used to it and our lives go on.

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    1. Adrian, you are so right, and I can't believe I forgot to mention hugs. Hugs are the best of all!

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  8. This is a very thoughtful post on a difficult subject. You're right....until you've lost someone that close, you have no idea what it's like or what to say. I do think a simple note, hand written, can mean the world.

    Thank you for the suggestion of a meal, an errand, picking up the mail, etc. not just an empy "anything I can do?"

    We never get over it, and it's never easy.

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    1. Yvonne, I think the best descripton I've heard is that, over time, it turns from a wound into a scar. Still there, but perhaps not so raw.

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  9. This is such a helpful and true post, Frances.

    My Mum was also told by a colleague, "I expect you're over it now," within a year of my father's death, aged sixty-three. "Absolutely not," she said. "I shall never get over it." And when told she must be "getting used to living alone," she replied that of course she would never would.

    I'm sure she saw these comments as extremely well-intentioned and realised that people simply wanted to say something that sounded positive. Unfortunately their words came across as an attempt to diminish her suffering.

    I know my mother preferred honesty. She had suffered the worst blow of her life and didn't want her sorrow brushed aside in order to make other people feel more comfortable.

    Letters full of lovely memories of the deceased and lots of practical help are definitely the best options. x

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    1. Joanna, I think people say these "positive" things because they can't bear to face the pain the family are facing, so they have to look for something good. At first, there just isn't anything. Your poor mum. I feel for her.

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  10. How hard it must have been to lose your spouse and to have to carry on with a young family. I am that person who calls and can barely get a word out past the tears of empathy. I always send a card as well, with a good memory of the person who has died.

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    1. ER, what you do sounds perfect. And there aren't really any words.

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  11. Frances, I've been on about this subject a few times on my blog, too, but have never quite put it together in such useful manner as you did.

    The fourth anniversary of my husband's sudden death was this past Tuesday, and while it did feel like any other day to me this time, one can never quite predict one's own reaction. Like in your life, there are so many places, moments, occasions, things in my life that remind me of Steve. Sometimes the sadness triggered by them takes me completely by surprise, something you are probably familiar with, too, while other things don't affect me as much as I expected them to.

    What I like particularly about your advice here is that people who want to help a grieving friend should stay in touch for longer than just the first few days and weeks. That is usually when the bereaved has so much to do, to organize and to decide that grief can hardly be dealt with.

    How much more important is a kind letter, phonecall or visit months later, or even years. Because one thing is for sure: the bereaved won't have "forgotten" their grief, even though for everyone else things look as if they have gone back to perfectly normal.

    During the first week after Steve's death I received around 200 emails, and piles of cards and letters. I appreciated each and everyone of them, even though some were obviously written with the author not quite knowing what to write. It wasn't the words on the paper (or the computer screen) that mattered to me. It was the fact that these people were in touch with me, and I was immensely grateful for the network of friends and family (and still am).

    You are also right about not writing (or talking) about one's own holiday plans, or heart attacks, or anything of the kind. One neighour that came over for a visit two days or so after Steve's death did nothing but reminisce about her own experience when her mother had died some years before. She meant well, of course, but I was so NOT interested in her dealings with the hospital and her father etc.

    Oops, that comment is already way too long. But you know that this is a subject close to my heart, and therefore I will not apologize for babbling on.

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    1. Thank you for your thoughtful reply, Meike, and please don't apologise. I thought of you as I was writing this post. Strange, isn't it, how being interested in anyone or anything else seems to get put on hold in the aftermath of bereavement. I found - as I'm sure you did - that at the time, all my efforts had to go into simple survival.

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  12. When our elder son died he was in his early 30s and what struck me most was the refreshingly honest and direct approach most of his peers had. I suspect all grieved for his death but all unfailingly celebrated his life.

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    1. GB, I'm SO sorry about your son. And I think you're right. The young are more fresh and honest than many of the rest of us.

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  13. I loved it when someone just said " so sorry to hear about your mum". It can be as simple as that, can't it. If I can I like to look out and send my best photos of the friend who has died. Jean

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    1. Some of my husband's friends did that after his death, they sent me pictures from when they were all in their teens, and I so appreciated that.

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  14. It is best to keep sympathies simple, unless the person is willing himself/herself to talk. My cousin's husband passed away in June, and only last week she felt up to having a long conversation.
    Personally, I found it very hurtful when people I knew crossed the street rather than speak to me after having a close death in the family. Some took quite a while to speak again, although "Sorry for your loss" would have been enough at the time.

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    1. I agree, Fanny. The crossing the street thing is awful. As tho you've done something wrong.

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  15. I remember when I was about 14 and a former teacher's husband had died, and I saw her in the street and had an awful impulse to pretend I hadn't seen her. I didn't, I went and said how sorry I was - thank goodness, I wasn't the most sensitive or brave child.
    The assumption that the death of a very old parent doesn't matter much is an unfortunate one. A friend in his 70s cried when his 102-year-old mother died, to his surprise. And the words 'merciful release' should be banned from the language.

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