Philip Giddings and Elaine Sugden
Practical help relevant to all these situations
We need to offer specific help. It is best not to say ‘Let me know if I can help’ because this rarely happens. However, if you are the one with the difficult diagnosis or the one bereaved, please be prepared to ask for, or agree to, an offer of help. Your family and friends are likely to be desperate to share in some way in your suffering and you will be helping them as much as they are helping you.
There are many possibilities for help depending on your own particular gifts, experiences and abilities as well as the particular circumstances:
Invitations out, delivered meals (food in disposable containers helps) transport, washing and ironing, cleaning, gardening, help with correspondence, reading aloud, small household maintenance jobs, etc. Ask what would help and offer what you can do.
Leaving people alone is not usually the best thing to do unless they have requested this. Let them know you care and later on that you still care, however much time has gone by. Often friendship, help and understanding are needed for much longer than we think. Offer your own particular skills – and we must all learn to listen.
Short times are best, especially if the person does not know you well. Even those who were ‘get up and go’ people can experience inertia, and jobs get left undone – having someone to do them can be helpful. Offers might need to be specific: ‘Can I come around this week and do a few jobs for you?’ Or perhaps: ‘I am coming round, please find a job for me to do.’ Some jobs for the bereaved will be full of memories and help might not be welcome; try to be sensitive. But be flexible, the answer might be ‘not needed just now’ – be conscious that the person or family might need time alone.
Phone calls, e-mails and letters might be appreciated. Visits should be offered rather than just turning up and, if necessary, it is best to have arranged somewhere to stay other than with the person or their family. Go with a purpose, not out of guilt or obligation. Check whether taking anything would be appropriate – it is possible to have a surfeit of flowers/grapes/chocolate.
The limits of help
Support your friends and family simply as friends or family and with common sense. Remember you are not a trained counsellor and sometimes professional help from a GP or a counsellor will be needed. For information, see NHS choices: counselling (website details at (C) below).
Look after yourself
You as a friend will need other friends to share concerns and experiences with. A small network of people offering support to the sufferer as well as to one another can work well.
For those wishing to help but who have not experienced significant bereavement themselves there are some things to be aware of:
It is different for everyone
Whatever the timing or situation of death the bereaved individual’s experience of and response to loss is different. It is impossible for those who have not been through the death of someone emotionally close to know how bereavement feels.
It is a long up and down process
Bereavement is a long, often ‘roller coaster’ process. Just when you think you are coming out of it you are overwhelmed again. It is not something that can be ‘snapped out of’ – everyone needs to go at their own speed and should not compare themselves with others.
The cycle of the year is important. Christmas and birthdays are often difficult times, as can be family and other gatherings when the significant someone is missing. The death anniversary is a particularly difficult time. Weekends and winter evenings can seem endless, lonely times.
For some, several years might go by before the promised ‘it will get better’ eventually comes. The special someone will never be forgotten but a ‘new normal’ is established and life can go on.
This will be my second Christmas without Shelley, and I think of her every day. It’s not so much that the hurt and empty void disappear, more that you learn to live with it, and remember the good times. I can still hear her laughter echoing down the hallway and she will always be with me.' David, a young widower
Does anything help?
Some benefit from activity – having a programme of things that must be done. Those who have children to care for don’t have much choice; they must carry on. Exercise is important and can be helpful; it might be a way of meeting people.
The most unexpected people are especially helpful and seem to know what you need. Others of your friends might find it difficult to understand.
It is said that those with faith in general fare better. But even if you are a true believer that death is not the end, there remains the ‘Dark Night’ of the soul.
Letter and cards are appreciated, especially if they speak about the one who has died and avoid platitudes such as ‘a happy release’ or ‘a good death’ which can be upsetting to the one left in bereavement.
Talk about the one who has died. Listen, don’t jump in with suggestions. Let the bereaved talk about what they want to talk about. There might be anger: at God, at the person who has ‘left’ them, at others who haven’t shown appropriate care or understanding. There might be tears, guilt, and always a deep, deep sadness. Don’t be frightened of tears. Weep with those who weep. Only in heaven will there be no more tears.
Eating alone is hard; hospitality provides company as well as food.
Keep on remembering
‘It is still helpful and nice to hear others’ memories of the person. Don’t think we won’t be interested or will break down or be upset.' Mother of 19-year-old who died by suicide several years ago.
‘We would have liked more opportunity, in the years after C died and up to the present, to talk to others about her, e.g. to say how proud we were of her strengths and achievements. We would be hesitant to start such a conversation, not wanting to be thought to be looking backwards. No doubt some friends, who knew C, and even family, think it might upset us to talk about her, but the opposite is true.’ C’s parents, several years after their daughter’s death as a young adult
Other helpful resources
Burnham, Elizabeth, When your Friend is Dying (Kingsway, 1982).
Fawcett, Nick, Living with Loss: Poems to Inspire Prayer, (Kevin Mayhew Ltd, 2005).
NHS choices, counselling: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/ Counselling/Pages/Introduction.aspx
From the New Testament Romans 8:38-39
Prayers which may be helpful
The Third Collect at Evening Prayer (Book of Common Prayer)
Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and
dangers of this night;
for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ.
J.H. Newman: Lead, Kindly Light
Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom, Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home, Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see The distant scene; one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears, Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!
So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile, Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!
Meantime, along the narrow rugged path, Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith, Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife In the calm light of everlasting life.
The Lord’s Prayer (Church of England, Common Worship)
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your Kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom,
the power, and the glory are yours now and for ever.
The Lord’s Prayer (Book of Common Prayer)
Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name,
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done,
in earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread; And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us; And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, For ever and ever.