Understanding bereavement: why society needs to learn about grief

In 2019, Prince William surprised well-wishers outside Kensington Palace on what would have been his mother’s birthday, and it sparked a discussion on social media about the “right” way to grieve. “Shouldn’t people be “over it” by now?” 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

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.

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

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

Before COVID, I was literally travelling the country meeting bereaved people as part of a project funded by the Red Cross and Co-op. This provided workshops all over the U.K – from Belfast, Edinburgh, London, Cardiff and many places in between – to members of the public who wanted to learn about navigating loss through peer support.

Guests 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. As I write 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.

Our Collective ‘Society’

In writing this, I’m keen to emphasise that my comments aren’t aimed at any one person, or a particular community, culture or tradition. Instead, it recognises that our collective ‘society’ – an amorphous entity – has strong opinions and a very loud voice which influences how we navigate – and talk about – grief.

As a result, society imposes expectations and judges people – especially when they’re grieving – by telling them what they ‘should do’, how long they ‘should’ grieve, and how they ‘must’ feel. If someone doesn’t cry at the funeral, or if someone does cry but for ‘too long’, society assumes there’s something wrong with them.

Friends and colleagues will tell you they “know exactly how you feel” (except they really don’t) although it’s fair to say it’s with good intentions, in an effort to help you feel better (even if what they say is completely inappropriate). That society doesn’t usually set out to be harmful, we just don’t know any other way to talk about death and dying.

The outcome of all this, is that we don’t give people long enough to grieve; this is demonstrated, for example, by the amount of compassionate leave employers provide. We get worried – or even impatient, with the bereaved – if as a society we think they’re taking too long. Inevitably a well-meaning person ends up saying the wrong thing, and the one who’s grieving feels they can’t talk, or doesn’t feel understood.

So, society 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 some infographics will tell you, 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 essentially saying they should forget their loved one. It’s also implying to a grieving person that they’re acting in a disappointing way by not meeting society’s expectations of what it has decreed as a socially acceptable period of time to grieve (see the next point below).

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

To be clear, none of this helps a grieving person, but because society doesn’t want to hear about pain, it shuts the conversation down. Feelings and more specifically demonstrations of feelings (like crying) make people uncomfortable. Emotions get pushed down (de-pressed) and go underground.

When grief goes underground and people are silenced, they 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, and not usually because of the loss itself. It’s often because society assumes you’re “over it” and so people stop asking how you are. When people should be honouring the anniversaries that matter to you, they make assumptions that you’ve “moved on”, as if you’ve forgotten. 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).

Let people talk; let people remember. 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 you’re thinking of them – especially if it would have been the birthday or Mother’s Day, or any other anniversary including when their loved one died. A bereaved person never forgets the death and, if anything, knowing you’ve remembered an anniversary might be a big help to them.

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. He explained that he understood why they did – probably 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’ grief. Telling people they should be grateful for the time they had with their loved one, or they should be ‘happy’ 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, the thought of a silver lining or suggesting there’s a ‘reason’ or ‘lesson to be learned’ can cause a bereaved person to feel like they’re being punished.

A person is less likely to open up when they don’t feel understood, and the last thing we want is to push people away when they’re reaching out for help. Megan Devine describes beautifully how to help a grieving friend in the video below.

Here are some things NOT to say to a grieving person:

  • You’ll get over it
  • 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 NOT to do to a grieving person:

  • Don’t go into fixing mode, at least without asking them what they need
  • Don’t ignore them, or avoid the topic, or pretend it hasn’t happened
  • Don’t make assumptions about how they feel

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 society could do instead:

  • Invite round for a cuppa and chat (or virtual cuppa if face to face is not possible)
  • 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
  • Offer telephone numbers like the Cruse National Helpline on 0808 808 1677 or Samaritans on 116 123

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 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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