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Everything you wanted to know about grief but were too afraid to ask

An expert tells us what we can do to support bereaved people, how to talk to children about loss, and if there’s a good alternative to mass cards.

MOST OF US have probably been in a situation where we wanted to say something supportive to a person who has recently been bereaved.

Many of us will have also avoided a bereaved person for fear of not knowing what to say – or put our foot in it by saying the wrong thing.

There are many aspects of grief and bereavement that people feel uncomfortable with and shy away from.

Dr Susan Delaney is a clinical psychologist and the bereavement services manager with the Irish Hospice Foundation. She recently sat down with TheJournal.ie to discuss grief and give advice on topics such as what to say to a bereaved person, how to show them support, and how people can acknowledge significant dates such as anniversaries.

Here’s what we talked about:

Are the five stages of grief real?

Source: Video TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Susan says there’s “an appeal” to five stages that gives us a way “to get a handle on grief”, but there are no hard and fast rules.

It’s true that for many people there’s an initial shock and numbness, and people can get angry and sad and most people finally come to some resignation – that’s true. But I think we must be very cautious that we’re not prescribing a certain way to grieve and then people feeling they’re not doing it right or they haven’t ‘done’ anger yet.

She notes that there’s a “normal trajectory” for grief, but everyone is different.

Most people come to terms with the grief by about six months, but she added that people never “get over” significant grief.

What do you say to a friend or colleague who is recently bereaved?

Source: Video TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Susan thinks the old-fashioned ‘I’m sorry for your trouble’ is actually quite hard to improve on.

She says that the awkwardness people often feel when around someone who is recently bereaved “comes from a good place” because “we don’t want to make things worse for people”.

We’re afraid we’ll say the wrong thing, but unfortunately what we all do out of our fear of saying the wrong thing … we say nothing and it leaves bereaved people feeling unsupported – and they do notice when you hop into a shop door to avoid them, or cross the street. Those are the hurtful things that people in bereavement talk about.

Susan says people should keep it simple and acknowledge the grief as this will let the person know you care.

So what about the worst things people can say? Susan thinks anything that starts with the phrase ‘At least’ should be banned or anything along the lines of ‘I know a fella who had it much worse…’

She also gives some practical advice for how you can support people, and why you sometimes need to just ‘show up and shut up’.

What do you say to someone who has lost a loved one through suicide?

Source: Video TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Susan says that when people are in this type of situation they often try to put themselves in the shoes of the person who is bereaved.

She recalls that bereaved people have told her that people often ask inappropriate questions like: ‘Did you not notice that she was very low?’, ‘Did he leave a note?’

Susan says she understands where this line of questioning comes from but adds: “It’s not your business.”

What do I do if I missed the funeral or forgot a significant anniversary?

Source: Video TheJournal.ie/YouTube

People have told Susan that when they’re lying awake at night they often think about who did and didn’t attend a funeral, adding that friendships and relationships are often “made and broken over those things”. However, she notes that people sometimes have valid reasons for not being able to attend a funeral or memorial service.

Susan advises people to make a note of important anniversaries, but adds that it’s never too late to let someone know you’re thinking about them.

Is there a good alternative to mass cards?

Source: Video TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Susan says that while mass cards are wholly appropriate for a certain demographic, sometimes other tokens would be appreciated.

She advises people to ‘think outside the box’ in this regard.

Again, simplicity is key here with Susan favouring a blank card with a handwritten message.

What does a person mean when they say they’re ‘fine’? Should we keep asking?

Source: Video TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Susan has recently started to compare asking a person if they’re fine to asking someone if they want a cup of tea.

She notes that Irish people are usually pretty good at knowing whether or not ‘I’m fine’ means just that, or if we should ask someone again.

Susan says bereaved people will have days where they are sick of talking – or they might choose to open up to someone other than you.

“You know what, we’ll get it wrong and that’s okay,” she advises.

Should bereaved people get counselling?

Source: Video TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Susan notes that grieving ”isn’t an illness” as “it’s normal to be bereaved and it’s normal to be upset”.

She says most of the healing takes place in a bereaved person’s “natural network”.

However, this might not be available to some people. In certain cases, counselling or a support group could help the person. She states that grief can become disabling for about 10% of people, when professional intervention could help them get back on track.

Susan adds that it’s important to let the bereaved person lead the ‘dance’ of grief.

Good support means offering the other person what feels like support to them, not what we decide feels like help.

Sometimes they’ll want to talk, sometimes they won’t. Sometimes they’ll cry or shout or be cranky. Let them be how they need to be.

Do men and women grieve differently?

Source: Video TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Susan notes that there are masculine and feminine grieving styles, rather than male and female.

She thinks people should avoid giving others advice on how to grieve, asking: “What makes us think that we should know what someone else should do?”

Often, people need to take a step back and look at what a bereaved person actually needs, rather than what we think they need.

In some situations (usually where you know the person well), Susan thinks humour can help to a degree, but it’s not something she’d recommend.

How should you support bereaved children?

Source: Video TheJournal.ie/YouTube

“We can learn so much from children across the board, but particularly around bereavement,” Susan notes.

She says children will want information after a person dies and if they don’t get it from a parent or guardian, they will seek it elsewhere.

She thinks it’s not possible to “shield” children from death so we must include them in a way that’s age-appropriate.

Video: Órla Ryan/Aoife Barry

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For more information on dealing with bereavement, visit bereaved.ie.

The Irish Hospice Foundation has recently launched Never Forgotten – a Christmas appeal which asks people to remember a loved one and make a donation in support of the organisation’s end-of-life work. More information can be found here

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Read: ‘Then everyone died’: I lost four people I loved in 14 months

Read: Advice: What to say – and not say – to a friend who is recently bereaved

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