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Expert advice on what to say to a friend or colleague who is recently bereaved

There are a number of things that we can do that can make a difference, writes Breffni McGuinness from the Irish Hospice Foundation.

Breffni McGuinness Training manager in bereavement services

MANY OF US have experienced that awful awkward moment when we find out a friend or colleague has been bereaved and we wonder, what will I say?

Bereavement comes in many different forms – it can be the breakup of a relationship or marriage, the diagnosis of a terminal illness, a death which is expected, but nonetheless devastating, or the sudden death of a friend through a road traffic accident or a suicide.

No matter what the loss is, we can find ourselves struggling around how to support the person who is bereaved.

If we take a couple of examples; Jean is a manager in a large organisation – she has just found out that a colleague’s mother died unexpectedly over the weekend. What will she say to her colleague? Ciaran’s friend’s father has been diagnosed with terminal cancer – what does he say to his friend?

The good news is that there are a number of things that we can do that can make a difference. First of all, acknowledge what has happened.

When someone has experienced a loss that is significant for them, the first thing that really makes a difference is when those around them acknowledge what has happened and don’t avoid the topic. This can be done sensitively by saying something like in Jean’s case “I’m sorry to hear about your mother” or for Ciaran “I’m sorry to hear about your dad’s diagnosis”. It is normal to feel a bit uncomfortable or uneasy when we say this but don’t let that stop you from reaching out to the other person.

Listen to the person who is bereaved

This may sound strange but what really makes a difference to someone who is bereaved is being truly listened to. We never know what the impact of a loss is on a person. Jean and Ciaran don’t know how their colleague and friends are, but one thing that will really help is simply making time for the other person and being prepared to listen to them.

In Jean’s case she might say “I’m so sorry to hear about your mum, how are you doing?” Ciaran might say something like “That is really tough about your dad’s diagnosis – how are you?”

Be yourself – Be human

When people are bereaved their world has stopped – whether that is from hearing a diagnosis or realising that someone who was an important part of their life is no longer there. What they need from us is human compassion – not quick fixes or answers – because there are none. Grief is a slow process.

What really makes a difference is being shown compassion and humanity by others. Just be yourself and express your care and compassion.

For Jean this might be, “This must be very tough for you, let me know how I might help you”. For Ciaran it might be something like “I’m not sure what to do but I would really like to support you, perhaps you can tell me how I might do this.”

We will all experience bereavement at some point in our lives – it is part of being human. This does not mean it is easy or something to be ignored. In fact the opposite is true – grief tears your world apart and it takes us time to come to terms with what has happened.

What really makes this difficult journey more bearable is when those around us acknowledge what has happened, listen to us, and show us compassion and care.

Breffni McGuinness is the training manager in bereavement services with The Irish Hospice Foundation. The IHF has developed a number of resources and tools on loss and bereavement, including grief at work.

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About the author:

Breffni McGuinness  / Training manager in bereavement services

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