What kind of bereavement support helps best and is there more that we could do to extend the support outside the bereaved themselves?
I’ve been to many different types of bereavement groups in the last two years since my daughter was killed, the aim being to get to the end of the day or start a new week. There have been online ones – from those specifically focused on a child dying to people who have been killed in a road accident; in-person ones, again child-focused ones, and a monthly grief cafe at the burial park where anyone can turn up; and a short online trauma course.
In fact I have found the ones on road deaths more helpful than the child-centred ones, maybe because of the specific nature of a road death – the suddenness, the violence, the unreality of it all [given in many cases immediate family did not witness the death], the randomness [a few seconds could have made the difference between life and death], the fact that many involve often prolonged entanglement with some aspects of the justice system, the fact that as a society they are almost accepted in a way other violent deaths aren’t and so forth. The trauma course was very helpful in particular because it delved into aspects that I had not properly spoken about to anyone else, including my grief counsellor. I think I spent most of my time with my grief counsellor worrying about how everyone else in the family was doing as they were also, of course, coping with homeschooling and exams on top of grief.
At the grief cafe meeting almost everyone had lost a partner, some to Covid, but mainly to other illnesses. I can only imagine what losing a partner who you have lived with day in and day out for decades is like. I spoke to one man who goes daily to the burial ground and who can barely make it to the end of every day. He is retired and his partner’s death was due to lack of monitoring during the Covid period. There are likely to be many thousands in a similar position. My neighbour is another.
At the child death online group most parents had also lost a child to illness. At a recent in-person one there were two parents who had found their children after they overdosed. Each death is horrendous. Each type of death has its own complications. Watching someone you love die over several months or years must be horrific – having to say goodbye. I cannot bring myself to do that even now. Yet not being able to say anything to the person because you are not with them when they die is also dreadful. Finding your child, trying to resuscitate them and seeing them put in a body bag is an ever-repeating trauma.
The people who are retired, unemployed or have no immediate family around to care for seem to find it harder. They have nothing to distract them, even momentarily from the waves of shock and pain that rip through you. For those working several have said that remote or hybrid working has helped them if their job permits it, but some have mentioned recently that they are being asked to go back to the office, often for no good reason, and that their employer just doesn’t understand how much it helps them.
While there are big differences in the particular bereavement groups, often a result of the mix of people present and the host, what they all share is that the people there understand what it is like. I’ve heard this said so many times and it is true.
Finally, you feel that people get it, that you don’t have to pretend that it is ‘getting better’, that it will ever get better; you can actually admit that you are having a really bad week without someone feeling they need to fix things for you because there are some things you can’t fix.
I’ve certainly found that people either avoid you, avoid talking about what has happened or feel they have to ask how you are, but don’t really want to hear the answer. Sometimes if you mention something negative, they try to be incredibly upbeat to jolly you out of it, which results in you feeling guilty that you should have got over it by now.
It’s not their fault. They just don’t know what it’s like. How can they know? I didn’t know before. But it’s more than that. It’s about how we as a society deal with – or don’t deal with – death. Grief is a part of life and we all need to learn how to live with it. That is what bereaved people do every day – learn how to live with it.
Maybe we can help change things, although sometimes I admit that I do get angry at the idea that it is up to the grieving people to educate those yet to grieve. Surely it is just a question of checking in on people regularly, asking them how they are and listening to the answer? How hard is that?
But then I chide myself that I am being too judgmental. That they do not know how hurtful it is, for instance, to talk about how they might like to have had three children [like me], when I had four children. I ALWAYS have four children. I will never not be my daughter’s mum. She will never not have existed. She is with me every second of every day.
At one recent meeting it was mentioned that we could write a leaflet to help the people around us understand what might help us feel less alone in our grief.
I definitely think more talking about grief generally would help and handing a friend or family member a leaflet might be a good way to begin the process. It would then be up to them if they want to read it.