Understanding bereavement and why society needs to change its views on grief

The news that Prince William surprised well-wishers outside Kensington Palace on what would have been his mother’s birthday, has sparked a discussion on social media about the “right” way to grieve. ITV’s Loose Women joined in the conversation asking their followers how they mark the anniversary of the death of a loved one.

Let me start by asserting that there is no ‘right‘ way to grieve.

Grief is a normal reaction to the loss of a loved one

Everyone is different. The way a person grieves will depend on any number of factors such as the connection they shared with the person who died and the support network they have available.

Grief is a normal reaction to the loss of a loved one. How we manage grief can influence how we navigate our way through it. If not acknowledged and managed healthily over time, grief can impact on a person’s mental health. It’s fair to say that when people are struggling with managing emotional pain, they may turn to coping strategies which can do more harm than good. But often the pressure society puts on bereaved people to “get over it” can be just as damaging.

I know this because of what people have told me.

I started my therapeutic career nearly 20 years ago, working with people mainly bereaved by murder and suicide.

In the last 18 months in particular, I have been travelling the country meeting bereaved people as part of a project funded by the Red Cross and Co-op. This provided workshops in Belfast, Edinburgh, London, Cardiff and many places in between, to members of the public who wanted to learn about the benefits of peer support. Attendees wanted to explore how they could share their experiences of grief with like-minded people, so that they could offer informal but much needed bereavement support in their communities.

This project and my career over nearly two decades has emphasised many things, and today (sparked by the comments on social media), it encouraged me to write this blog.

I obviously haven’t given specific details about clients in this article, to protect their confidentiality. But in writing this, I want to acknowledge and thank every one of them who shared their thoughts with me in their darkest moments. Their courage in our work together enabled them to find their way through their grief – despite the fact that society tried to impose its opinion on how they should do that.

And on that subject – a note about “society”.

This article isn’t aimed at any one person, or a particular community, culture or tradition. Instead, it recognises that although society is completely faceless, it has strong opinions and a very loud voice.

Society imposes its expectations on humanity and judges people – especially when they’re grieving – by telling them what ‘should do’, how long they ‘should’ grieve, and how they ‘must’ feel. If people don’t cry at the funeral, or if someone does cry but it’s beyond what it sees as an acceptable mourning period, society assumes there’s something wrong with them. Society doesn’t give people long to grieve, and this is demonstrated by the amount of compassionate leave employers provide.

Society will tell you it “knows exactly how you feel” (except it really doesn’t) although, this is normally in an effort to help you feel better, even if unknowingly it’s completely inappropriate. Society doesn’t usually want to be harmful, it just doesn’t know any other way. Hence me writing this: so society can learn why it needs to change its views on grief.

Grief is more like a roller coaster than a flight of stairs

Here are just some of the things I would say bereaved people want society to know:

Grief is not a task, it’s a process which means it takes as long as it takes. It’s not linear, and despite what society thinks it knows there are no “stages”; grief is more like a roller coaster than a flight of stairs.

Telling someone its time to “move on” or they should be “over it” is basically telling them to forget their loved one. It’s also letting a grieving person know they’re acting in a disappointing way by not meeting society’s expectations of a socially acceptable period of time to grieve (see the next point below). To be clear, none of these expectations help a grieving person, but then society generally doesn’t want to hear about pain. Feelings and more specifically demonstrations of feelings (like crying) make people uncomfortable.

We don’t ‘move on’ from grief – we move forward.

When this happens, grief goes (as I call it) underground and when that happens, people stop talking about how they feel – that’s not good for anyone. As Nora McInerney says in her brilliant TED talk below (a shorter version on Facebook here), we don’t ‘move on’ from grief – we move forward.

The second year is often harder than the first, sometimes for the very reason that society assumes you’re “over it”. It means people stop asking how you are or showing up on anniversaries to see if you need anything. The idea that it takes a year and a day (which I’ve genuinely heard ‘society’ say) is a complete myth.

Employers in particular need to recognise that anniversaries can be upsetting even years later. You’ll know yourself, even just hearing a special song on the radio, that reminds you of someone you cared about, can be like time travel in your mind that can bring feelings of fondness or pain (or both).

Don’t be afraid to talk about it. Compassionately mentioning the death of a loved one is not going to upset someone anymore than they already are. It won’t “make things worse” by sending them a text to let them know they’re being thought about (especially if it would have been the birthday or Mother’s Day, or any other anniversary like when their loved one died). A bereaved person never forgets the death and so, if anything, remembering an anniversary might even help validate their feelings.

If you don’t know what to say, say hello

Don’t cross the street, or try to ignore what’s happened. In the documentary “A Year or British Murder” the father of Quamari Barnes, a young teenager stabbed to death, said this was one of the things he found most hurtful when people did it. He explained that he understood why they did – probably because they were worried they’d make things worse (see point above) – or just because they didn’t know what to say. But then he made the point that something is better than nothing. He said “if you don’t know what to say, say hello“. There is a short video voiced by Brené Brown on empathy below, which gives some more insight on this.

Don’t try to ‘fix’ people. Telling people they should be grateful for the time they had with their loved one, or that they should be glad their deceased relative had a long and happy life, only works if that’s how they feel in that moment. Saying things like “at least you’re still young, you can always try for another child” – or “at least they had a good innings” is often crushingly dismissive. As Brené Brown says in the video above: “rarely does empathy ever start with the words “at least”. It is pretty much impossible to talk a bereaved person out of their pain – and nor should we try. Despite what society might think, there is rarely a silver lining to the loss of a loved one, and attempting to cheer someone up when they’re grieving can make them feel misunderstood. A person is less likely to open up in those circumstances, and the last thing we want to do is push people away when they’re reaching out for help. Megan Devin describes beautifully how to help a grieving friend in the video below.

So in summary, some things NOT to say to a grieving person:

  • You’ll get over it
  • Have you tried exercise?
  • You need to take up a hobby
  • Time is a great healer
  • I know exactly how you feel / what you need
  • You must be feeling…< enter assumption here >
  • or any statement that starts “at least…”
  • Things society could say instead:
    • How do you feel today?
      Would it help to talk about it?
      I’ll keep checking in on you – when’s good for you?
      (If feeling strongly that a suggestion might help ) “Have you thought about… ” (eg. counselling)?
  • Things NOT to do to a grieving person:
    • Go into fixing mode, at least without asking them what they need
      Ignore them, avoid the topic, pretend it hasn’t happened
      Make assumptions about how they feel

    Things society could do instead:

      Invite round for a cuppa and chat
      Keep promises, especially if saying will check in on them
      Send messages letting them know they’re being thought about, especially around anniversaries
      Offer practical support if it would be helpful like offering to cook a meal or walk the dog

    These are just some of the things I would say bereaved people want society to know, and I hope reassures anyone in mourning that there is no ‘right‘ way to grieve. It takes as long as it takes. If you agree, feel free to share this article.

    If you are worried you’re not coping, talk to your doctor and reach out to people who can support you compassionately. .For useful links of organisations providing free support following bereavement, click here

    For more information about bereavement covered by this website, click here

    ©️ Delphi Ellis 2019

    About Delphi Ellis

    Qualified Counsellor, Mental Health and Well-Being Trainer, and Mindfulness Practitioner. Creator of Monday Mojo™. Talks 'Lady Business', raising awareness of factors which predominantly affect Women's Mental Health like pregnancy and domestic abuse. Helping to improve the global conversation, and bring an end to stigma and shaming. Dream Explorer as seen on the telly. Avid tea drinker.

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