What to say when someone dies – how to support someone who is grieving
Talking about death and grief has become something of a modern taboo. Most of us would rather avoid the subject altogether because it makes us feel anxious or awkward. When Annie Broadbent’s mum died, one of the hardest parts of her experience was seeing her friends and extended family paralysed by their fear of saying or doing the wrong thing.
Speaking of Death by Annie Broadbent is a collection of real life experiences of grief, combined with expert advice that will help you build your own relationship with death and provide support for friends and loved ones who are grieving. In this extract from the book, Annie describes the support she found helpful after her mother died.
My friends established a rota through email, so they knew that someone was always with me for the night in the days and weeks after Mum died. Bar a few moments when I chose to go for a walk, I wasn’t alone for a second for the first three weeks and it was amazing. My bathroom was filled with various friends’ toothbrushes and different people’s pyjamas were strewn about my bedroom. Each day the friend ‘on duty’ would bring a new batch of DVDs and a supply of scented candles (I became very sensitive to smell). All I had to do was open the door, return to the sofa and leave them to it. They cooked delicious meals and they’d chat away to me and to each other, even if I was lying comatose in the other room. In fact, my most comforting moments were when I was lying on the sofa on my own, listening to the hubbub in the kitchen as my friends talked among themselves. I just loved that they were looking after themselves, seemingly unworried about me – although, of course, I knew they were.
This level of busyness and company might not be for everyone, but for me it was perfect. So most importantly, I think, don’t assume the person wants to be alone or that they have enough people around them. Ask them, or wait for them to tell you to bugger off.
Staying in touch is important too. I distinctly remember taking enormous comfort in every text I received in the days that followed mum’s death. Of course, this might not apply to everyone, particularly those of an older generation, but nevertheless it is a simple way to express your care. My phone never left my hand and every text felt like a new blanket of support being wrapped around me – with every acknowledgement, my wounds were licked a little more. I was almost disappointed when there was no one left to tell because I wouldn’t receive any more texts. Knowing that people knew was the first step in feeling supported. So I would say that regardless of how well you know the person who’s left behind, always acknowledge it – it can’t do any harm, and although it may be hard to believe, it might do an awful lot of good. I still remember hearing from people I barely knew and really cherishing the messages they sent; it meant that even if for only a few seconds, they had thought about my mum and the loss of her life. And one thing is certain – the ones who stay silent stand out. As Martin Luther King put it: ‘We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’
In simply acknowledging the death, you enter into the bereaved person’s world. I found it astonishing the number of people that just ignored the catastrophe that had recently occurred in my life. The problem with not acknowledging it, especially so early on, is that it puts the bereaved person on mute. They no longer have the opportunity or permission to be sad if they need to be, or talk about it, because the people around them haven’t opened up a space for it. And in those early days, it’s incredibly hard to carve out that space yourself.
It’s important to be constant, and not disappear over time. When the weeks turn to months, and for friends, life really does go back to normal, people start to slip away. But the person left behind needs the support just as much then, if not more than before. This is when texts come in really handy. One friend texted me pretty much every day for the first four months after Mum died. I didn’t see her particularly often, but she was much more present in my experience of grief than those friends I heard from infrequently, but who would then want to take me out for dinner and ask what it had been like for the last few weeks. If you’re not there from the beginning, you’ll miss the boat, and when it next comes around, it’ll be unrecognisable.
Also, make sure you remember the important milestones – the first month, the first time your friend comes home from holiday, the first new experience they have that they can’t share with their lost loved one. There will be countless firsts and all of them significant, even if it’s over a year later.