Helping the bereaved

Helping the bereaved

How do you comfort someone who has lost someone they love? The grieving person will probably be feeling lost and alone. But if you choose the right words and offer the right help you can make a real difference as they begin to rebuild their lives.

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Bereavement help

Someone who is mourning the death of a loved one will be thinking of little other than the person they have lost.

If you want to offer support and comfort with their bereavement, you can begin by showing an interest in the person who has died.

Offering comfort

Marilyn Relf is the Bereavement Care Lead at Sobell House hospice in Oxford and has worked in this field for over 30 years.

She says: “Bereaved people want to talk about the person who’s died. Asking people about the relationship that they’ve lost, who’ve they’ve lost, their life together, the legacy that person has left and the meaning of their life can be enormously helpful.”

She goes on: “And of course, we have to remember that people cope differently. Some days people want to talk, some days they don’t. Some people are at ease in expressing their emotions. Other people prefer to keep their emotions under control.

“There is no right way to help other people, but all the bereaved people I’ve ever met want people to acknowledge their loss and be willing to understand them.”

Practical actions that carers might consider

  • Moving beyond expressions of sympathy to ask questions about who is supporting the bereaved person – offering / signposting to specific support if appropriate.
  • Encouraging bereaved people to draw on their inner reserves by asking how they have coped with difficult situations in the past;
  • Avoiding platitudes such as “time is a healer”, “keep your chin up”, ‘count your blessings’ etc.
  • Helping bereaved people to reflect on the whole life of the person they have lost, not just the difficult period at the end.
  • Using visual tools such as The Blob Tree to help people who are struggling to articulate their feelings.

The power of prayer

Praying for a loved one who has died can be very consoling as you grieve for them. You may find it is a way of keeping alive your love for that person.

Prayer is a reminder of Christ’s promise of eternal life and the hope that you will meet again in heaven. Catholic churches pray regularly for the dead at Mass and at evening prayer. You can ask a priest to offer a particular Mass for someone who has died.

The month of November is dedicated to praying for the dead and bereaved with commemorations beginning on 2 November, the Feast of All Souls. Your local church will usually invite you to add the name of your loved one to a book of remembrance and there may be special services where you can pray for the dead and light candles.

Processing grief in the long-term

Research into how people process grief in the long-term has shown that mourning involves a set of tasks that it can helpful to undertake. One is to accept the reality of the loss. Another is to process the pain of losing the loved one. A third task is to adjust to a world without the person who has died.

The final task is to embark on a new life while still maintaining a positive connection with the loved one. Each of these tasks are hard work in themselves, and don’t generally happen in a neat order.

The work that bereaved people have to do to complete these tasks will vary according to the individual. You may, for example, find that counselling helps you to take in the reality of your loss or to process its pain.

If you have lost a life partner you may find yourself having to learn new household skills as you adjust to life without your loved one. You may find that installing a memorial seat for your loved one in a local park helps you to maintain a positive connection with him or her.

Complicated grief

Many bereaved people are able to build a new future either by themselves, or with light support. Others are not so lucky. Some struggle to make any progress by themselves.

Craig White, author of Living with Complicated Grief (Sheldon Press (ISBN: 9781847091505), explains: “Because grief is so individual, it can be difficult to identify complicated grief. One major clue is grief that appears to be stuck or frozen – that is, with no change at all in the grief.

“The grief process goes at its own pace, and may be slow and repetitive or entail more sudden change – but a particular indicator of complicated grief is the inability to move on at all, in any sense. Even after months or years, it’s as if the loss has just happened. Time has stopped at the moment of bereavement; and the person remains stuck in his or her grief.”

Bereavement counselling

He strongly advises bereavement counselling in these cases, which may include practical exercises such as writing therapies, memory exercises and arranging memorials (such as a bench, or a book of remembrance).

A trained counsellor can work with a bereaved person who appears to be “stuck”, to help identify the sticking points, monitor and manage the impact of grief and address problematic thoughts.

Forgotten grievers

Finally, Father Neil McNicholas, author of A Catholic Approach to Dying, reminds us that they may be other people who may need support, other than the one closest to the person who has died:

“There are also the needs of the “forgotten grievers” to consider – those not as immediately involved as, for example, a spouse or a parent, a son or a daughter, might be. This might typically include siblings and grandparents.”

He reflects: “The focus of everyone’s concern and support is understandably on the person closest to the one who has died, and others who may feel the loss almost as acutely can be inadvertently excluded from that effort. As a result, they have to handle their grief largely on their own and possibly without others realising their needs.”

Read more about coping with bereavement and grief.

The story in John’s gospel of Jesus losing his beloved friend Lazarus speaks to various issues around bereavement (John 11:1-43).

The whole community had gathered around Martha and Mary to comfort them in their loss of their brother. Some people asked whether an earlier arrival by Jesus might have kept Lazarus from dying. And even Jesus himself was “greatly distressed” and wept. (John 11:1-44)

The Art of Dying Well