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.