Helping someone bereaved: Do’s and Don’ts

I was very moved by the responses to my last post about bereavement, and anniversaries thereof, so I’ve decided to follow it up with some practical advice for helping someone after a bereavement.

  • Ask if there’s anything you can do. Ideally suggest something specific rather than a general offering. A bereavement can make even simple tasks into a mission to Mars, and loathed tasks a major source of anxiety. If there’s something they hate/aren’t good at doing which you’re a whizz at, offer to help them do it. This doesn’t have to be “achieving peace in the Middle East“, it’s usually something very straightforward: cooking a meal, going for a walk, having the kids for the afternoon and things in that vein. Bereavement can mean taking comfort in the smallest things. On the day I heard the news, mum took me for a walk in the countryside. She bought me a Cornetto and with a completely earnest unknowing face exclaimed: “No. No. Lick it, don’t bite it!” I creased up giggling, knowing he’d have found it funny too.
  • …But don’t do anything too whacky By ‘whacky’ I mean huge, spontaneous, unannounced gestures, like catching the train from the other end of the country to come and see them without telling them first, and anything that might disrupt their routine. Bereavement is disruptive enough as it is.
  • Don’t say anything whacky. Or judgemental Like “He’s in a better place”, “You shouldn’t think like that, it’s selfish” and (according to one 35-year-old widow) “I know how you feel, my rabbit died recently.” The same goes for putting any kind of timescale on grief. Don’t say, as someone did to me the day of the inquest: “There’s no reason to be upset. Nothing’s changed.” This is particularly important in cases of suicide or illness.
  • Saying “It’s what s/he would’ve wanted” about them achieving/doing something, or to persuade them to do/not do something Be aware this can sound a bit presumptuous to some people, even if you mean well. “S/he’d be proud of you” is better.
  • Remember that any kind of rejection, loss or disappointment in the future can be worse for someone who’s been through a bereavement. These things often trigger the rawest feelings connected to the loss. Also, a bereavement itself can evoke memories of other losses/rejections from the past.
  • If it was a sudden bereavement, be prepared for bouts of paranoia Whether it’s thinking you’re dead/have been hurt if you don’t answer a tweet, or thinking people are avoiding them.
  • The absolute worst thing you can say is nothing I never entirely understood this until it concerned me, but the worst feeling in the world is people avoiding you or simply getting on with things while you are weighed down. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get on with things, of course, but sometimes on bad days just a line of acknowledgement makes so much difference. On a Sunday morning when I was sitting down to write a speech for the funeral and Twitter was full of people tweeting about their domestic lives I wanted to scream.
  • Don’t feel it’s “not your place” because you don’t know someone all that well Some of the most moving messages of support/empathy I’ve received are from people I haven’t seen for years or haven’t even met in person at all, from as far afield as Australia.

AN EXTRA GUIDE TO “NOT BEING A TWAT ABOUT THIS” IF YOU’RE A PARTNER OR HAVE SLEPT WITH THE BEREAVED

  • If the two of you “have form” don’t suddenly avoid them out of fear of “what might happen” Newsflash: They feel guilty and punished enough without being punished for having had sex as well. Perfectly easy guide to showing kindness and concern whilst sensibly preventing anything you might regret later: Meet during the day in a public place which isn’t near a bed, and give a time in advance when you need to leave by. Let them drink if they want to but stay sober yourself. 
  • Having said that, if you really couldn’t give a monkeys about someone beyond what’s in their pants, be honest with yourself about it and stay away. Grief isn’t an open-season for your genitals. And another thing: Yes, grief can give people the horn, but the “bereaved person rutting loads of anonymous randoms in toilet cubicles” trope happens a hell of a lot more in TV dramas than in real life.
  • Ditto if you don’t have the decency to finish with someone in person. I know. You would hope this wouldn’t need saying but it’s happened to me. I’m not going to give you a lecture telling you that you’re an effing grownup and that part of being an effing growup is having the courtesy and courage to be direct with someone when you want to end whatever’s gone on between you. I’ll just say this: If you finish with people by not returning calls or messages, don’t even go near someone who’s been through a sudden bereavement. Especially not if it was a suicide, especially not in the first two years, and preferably not ever. Honestly, nothing in the world will cause a bereaved person more pain than vanishing without an explanation.
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