woman widow friend

Navigating death in our age of distraction



This post is brought to you by the letter, D

Recently I tried to think of how many people I’ve ‘spoken’ to since Michael died. In person and by phone maybe 500 or 600? Including emails, messenger chats, whats apps and all the rest, it’s probably closer to a thousand.

If I put aside my own emotions, when I talk to people for the first time since he died it has been a fascinating insight into how people express their condolences to the newly bereaved. And how people choose to talk about Death. It’s not an easy thing for any of us.

What’s been most surprising is how many of us struggle to talk about the fact that someone is actually Dead. I’ve noticed that as the time between the death and seeing/speaking to the bereaved person increases, it can be harder to know what to say. And people seem to feel more awkward expressing themselves.

The most overused phrase I hear is, of course, the inevitable, “how are you?”

Three simple words. So many ways to say it. And how on earth to answer it without upsetting the enquirer?

“Yeah, not bad thanks. I have bills and paperwork coming out of my ears, I can’t get through a yoga class without crying at least twice, I don’t know what to do with all his socks or how to begin his tax return. The sight of a vial of my blood at the GP this morning sent me into an enormous meltdown. Most days I’m dying for a glass of wine by about 3pm, just so that I can feel less. Otherwise, I’m good! How are you?”

The most awkward condolences to date came after seeing someone for the first time, 8 months after Michael’s Death. With much shoe-shuffling and limited eye contact, a pat on the shoulder, they managed to say, “Well, what a year it’s been.”

Seriously, when did we all get so scared of talking about Death? Or talking about our emotions full stop? Of course we don’t wish to upset anyone. But the less we talk openly about this stuff, I really believe, the more difficult and more awkward it becomes.

I was lucky to have some time out a few months ago and visit relatives and friends in Europe. One lifelong friend asked me how I was going and what the grief was like, having had her own grief journey losing her father a few years ago. I told her, “You know, it’s a bit like when I was really, really ill with Depression. Except now, everyone knows what’s wrong and why you look like crap. So you get a lot more hugs.”

I have experienced Depression my whole adult life. It came and went like relentless, intense, low-pressure weather systems throughout my twenties in London. Cold, grey, oppressive, sometimes howling wind, sometimes pouring rain, sometimes all at once. Friends, partners and jobs were all casualties. I have more control over it in my thirties thanks to a much healthier self-awareness and a big toolbox of self-help techniques. The products of a lot of talking therapy, a life-saving psychiatrist and hard work.

But it was always the one thing people couldn’t talk about. Obviously I wouldn’t offer it up in job interviews or meeting new friends in the pub. But in the late 90s and 2000s, it was definitely taboo. Only close friends could handle the D-word and talk openly, bravely supporting me through crippling periods that left me unable to work, socialise, look after myself properly or hold a conversation for months at a time. I really wasn’t a fun person be around when I was at my worst! So who would want to hear an honest answer to, “how are you?”

The stress of hiding it was like a heavy, foggy blanket on my shoulders. I never wanted to end my life, but sometimes I wanted to get hit by that bus in the street. Just so I could have a broken leg or arm and have a cast on my body. Then it would be ok to answer those three words more truthfullly. To admit that actually, I was in pain, I wasn’t “ok”  and yes, I could do with a little help.

I was guilty of not talking about Depression too with some people, especially at work. I was scared. I felt like a freak. I had so much to be grateful for in my life but still felt like I couldn’t get my shit together. As I recovered I felt more confident to talk about it openly and was pleasantly surprised by the response of most people.

In October I was in Italy for a few weeks and in Milan for a few days. Of the many stunning cathedrals and chapels in Milan, one was particularly memorable. A small 12th century chapel near a building that was formerly used as a hospital for the very poor. The entire interior of the chapel was decorated using bones and skulls that had been exhumed from a nearby mass grave. I found it very, very uncomfortable to stand among these jumbled remnants of life. Tiny skulls and femurs. Confronting me with Death, yet erected as a place of hope and worship. A place to pray for miracles and give thanks for lives saved.

Why was I so upset? Perhaps yes, Michael’s death was still so fresh. But I can’t deny how far removed from Death we are in modern, western culture. It’s something that is hidden away, hushed up, handled quietly. We don’t talk about it and I’m discovering, we often don’t prepare for it.

Michael and I both had wills. We had talked about what we did and didn’t want when it came to life support, organ donation, burials/cremation and what we wanted done with our ashes. These are tough things to discuss with our loved ones, but I’m so grateful that we had. 

Have you?

Death. Depression. Discuss…

How to help a griever

Talking to people about grief recently, the two most common statements I hear from friends, acquaintances or colleagues are;

“I just didn’t know what to say to you,” and,

“I wanted to do something but I didn’t know what to do!”

We’ve all felt like this at some point in the past. I know I have.

That painful awkwardness. The heartfelt empathy towards your friend who’s hurting so much! Combined with a wincing, shrinking knowledge that there is NOTHING you say or do could possibly comfort them right now. Plus the fear that you’ll say something silly or ‘wrong’.

I think it’s totally natural to feel those emotions and have that self-doubt! What’s important, if we really want to help a grieving friend, is how we choose to react to them.

Two very powerful aspects of our physiology and psychology as humans are our ability to feel empathy (well, most of us) and our capability to intentionally focus our attention. i.e. unlike  animals whose attention is captured in response to stimuli.

We are ‘rational agents’. What this means is that we can choose to take action in response to our situation and emotions. (Did you know that on average, there is a five-second window of opportunity for humans to take action following an organic thought or idea?)

When I was a teenager, a friend of mine lost her father suddenly to an aggressive illness. I had absolutely no idea what to do or what to say and turned to my mum for advice. Promptly I was dispatched to said friend’s house, with a few of my mates and a huge bunch of flowers.

“It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what to say exactly,” my mum advised. “Right now it’s important to just show up and give her a big hug and let her know that you are there for her.”

Mum was right, of course (aren’t they always?) and my friends and I stumbled and shuffled our way into the hallway and hugged our friend and stayed a little while.

It was awkward. I felt terribly uncomfortable with the emotions that I was experiencing. We all did. Our friend was even sadder than we could have imagined. But that was the reality of the situation. And we had a choice to either show up and demonstrate our love and care for our friend, or not.

As an adult, this scene has repeated itself many times for us all. And it never gets easier. But, this is life. And death.

So, getting back to those two conundrums that I started with.

What do you SAY to a griever? There are two pieces of  advice I would give here:

  1. Trust your instincts and say something. It’s way better to say something when you next see them than not to and let it hang in the air between you. Try not to let the painful awkwardness of the situation prevent you from taking action.
  2. Keep it simple. A heartfelt, “I’m so sorry,” and a genuine hug is perfectly acceptable. Even saying, “I don’t know what else to say,” is ok too! In the circumstances there is usually nothing else you can say that will or could ever actually help that person. And they’ll know that. Trust me.

That’s certainly how I felt. The situation is horrid. It’s so very, very painful and disorienting. But your friend will likely feel supported by you, simply by you expressing your sympathy to them, whether in person or over the phone. You can always write more detailed words of condolence later in a card or a letter once you’ve had time to digest everything a little.

What can you DO for a griever? Well, that depends a lot on the person. All you can try to do is take a few deep breaths and think about what they might need or want from you right now.

  • Are they the type of person who would want to only be with their family at a time like this?
  • Are they the type of person who needs company, or to be alone?
  • Will they need practical support in terms of groceries, help with childcare, borrowing a car or being driven to appointments, help making the many phone calls that need to be made, manning their email inbox or phone?

There are lots of things you can do to help.  So I reckon, just put it out there and offer something, anything!  The practicalities of the situation just felt so overwhelming for me when Michael died. And that feeling has lurked around for a surprisingly long time.

I remember being incredibly grateful to Michael’s uncle, who put food in front of me and our close family for three days after we had left the hospital. I had no idea what time it was, what I was wearing or what I should do next, other than keep looking at my list of people to call and things to do. It was a complete blur. I know that if he’d asked me what I would like to eat, I wouldn’t have known or cared. But Paul just got on with it and put food in front of us. And thank heavens for that!

I remember the week I got back to our home from Brisbane after Michael’s accident. The most precious things my girlfriends did for me was to put some food in the fridge and work out a roster of who was going to be at the flat with me. They knew I’d be mortified at not having tea or a biscuit to offer to people who called in (yeah I know, silly right?) And they knew it would be too exhausting to be making endless cups of tea for all the callers and do dishes and talk to them and remember to shower and make something to eat and answer my phone and address emails and manage my family’s travel plans and remember to drink water and open the 10 new cards that came in the mail and remember to go to the toilet (yes, really) and put the three new bunches of flowers that arrived in a vase…

You see, grief can be exhausting. You don’t realise how tired you are until the 4th visitor of the day has left and someone reminds you that you were awake from 3am. I was lost and really overwhelmed for weeks, maybe months. Some days I still am.

So maybe, rather than asking your friend, “Is there anything I can do?” which might be met with a confused frown and a, “I don’t think so.”

Try offering them something specific and practical if you can. “Would you like me to ….

  • man the phones for an hour so you can have a shower / nap
  • take some laundry home to do for you
  • collect family from the airport/train station
  • take the kids out for a play at the park
  • come to the bank/doctors/an appointment with you?”

These types of things were all really helpful as the everyday tasks that I would usually have done without a second thought, became actions that required monumental amounts of physical and mental energy.

Perhaps another way to look at these statements is, what NOT to say or do? In this regard I’d like to defer to an excellent online resource I found called, What’s Your Grief? A site full of great articles and advice.

This one is a particular favourite of mine… an illustrated article about what not to say to a griever. (It’s so funny) Or if you’re more of a words than pictures kinda person, try this version.

And if you’d like to read more about what to do for a friend who’s grieving,  try supporting a friend after a death. It has lots of good suggestions.

Here’s one final suggestion from me; just don’t be that person who turns up at their place unannounced and and stays for three hours.

Please, keep being kind to each other.

Kate x

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