FEATURE: If your friend has suffered a bereavement, this is how to respond
"A friend has suffered a bereavement - what on earth do I do?"
by Charlotte Sutherland - Charlotte originally wrote the following piece for Niall Breslin's A Lust For Life site and has kindly agreed to let JOE publish it too. We'd like to thank Bressie and A Lust For Life editor Susan Quirke for facilitating this.
I’ve never been much of a writer, by which I mean I’ve never really attempted to write. I’ve written a few half arsed comedy sketches, (most of which have never seen the light of day) and excruciating diaries when I was a teenager (which I really should get around to burning in case I ever become famous and someone finds them and tries to blackmail me for millions) but not much more.
This changed after my brother Johnny took his own life in 2014. Eleven weeks after his death I wrote a piece entitled Life Without Johnny. I wrote it hoping it might help me looking back in years to come to note that it does get easier and that it might help others who had gone through a similar situation.
But what should I write about now, over two years later? What might be useful? A friend’s sister died suddenly this Christmas and the following week I talked with him at length about the startling lack of response he received from some people. It got me thinking; maybe I could write a list of my own personal FAQs//Tips for those who are perhaps recently bereaved and in particular those who just feel helpless looking in.
*Please note that I am not a healthcare professional, merely a sister whose brother took his own life and these are simply my own musings and thoughts on the subject.*
FOR THOSE LOOKING IN:
Don’t say nothing
Acknowledge it, even if you are just a colleague. To not hear from friends and even, dare I say it, family members is the worst thing. Don’t ignore the person/family affected by the tragedy. Don’t cross to the other side of the road because it’s easier for you. Let them know that you know and that you are thinking of them. Immediately that’s probably best by text unless you are very close. Perhaps don’t ask questions but just let them know you are thinking of them. It’s never too late to say sorry for not being there at the start. You’ll feel better for doing it. But do be there from the start if you can.
“I don’t know what to say”
If you are stuck for words simply tell them that you don’t know what to say. It’s better than ignoring the elephant in the room. Plus who does know what to say? Exactly; no-one.
Send them a card or message
Tell them stories that they might not have heard before. It’s surprisingly wonderful hearing new stories like it is discovering new photographs. It’s incredibly comforting to know others loved them and will miss them too.
Practical help is really useful
If you really want to help don’t say, “Just let me know if there is anything I can do”. Someone so out of their mind with grief won’t know what needs doing. Perhaps cook them a dish or make them a food parcel and drop it off. No one will want to cook in the days that follow and people need to eat. That’s good practical help. More help than flowers (flowers are lovely but they do die and can be rather too symbolic when they do). Or say you will be round every Tuesday morning to take the rubbish out. Little, practical things like this will help your friend out no end. Just don’t expect a thank you. Do it because you love them.
Say their name
Don’t be afraid to talk about them, especially as the weeks and months move on. Talking about them keeps them alive in a certain way, however clichéd that sounds.
Be aware that they might need space
Close family can always pass on a message for you. If someone answers the door or phone and they or a family member say they really don’t want to see/talk to anyone, don’t push it. Also appreciate that they might not want to see anyone having fun, not immediately. The pain they are feeling and grief they will be suffering from is unequivocal. Maybe just laugh elsewhere.
Listen and let them grieve
Be there for when they are ready to talk. Let them lead the conversation and don’t tell them what they should or shouldn’t be doing or thinking. Please don’t tell them how strong they are being or that “X wouldn’t want to see them like this”. Let them be vulnerable.
Do you actually know how they feel?
Try not to say you know how they feel unless, particularly in the case of suicide, you have experienced it first hand. Suicide is different; there is absolutely no closure to it. Likewise if someone has lost their child, be it to suicide or not, please don’t say you know how they feel unless you have actually lost a child yourself.
Have patience for their lack of patience
Their patience with trivial talk might wear thin. Don’t be upset if they have a short fuse. Their loss has been so huge that talk of anything of less magnitude may just seem irrelevant and pathetic. Some days they may just scream out of the blue. They might not know if they want a cup of tea or not. They won’t be able to make rational decisions. It’s normal. Just be aware of that.
Ask what happened
Depending on the situation and if you think it appropriate, ask them what happened. The chances are they’d appreciate you asking, even if they decide they can’t talk about it. At least you asked and showed you care.
Be there for them
In the weeks, months and years that follow give them a call and arrange to meet them. Arrange to go out for dinner or a coffee. Pop in on them. It will mean the world to them. Don’t be offended if they refuse or even cancel at the eleventh hour. Some days will be worse than others. Let them know it’s fine and you completely understand. The amount of people they will see at the funeral and never hear from again is overwhelming. Don’t be one of them.
Learn to make a good cup of tea.
“Real isn’t who’s with you at your celebration, real is who’s standing with you at rock bottom.”
FOR THOSE ON THE INSIDE:
It does get easier
Eventually. Time doesn’t heal but it does help. I thought my mother would never eat or sleep again; I thought she would never stop crying and she would die of a broken heart after losing her only son. Two and a half years later my parents are alive and well. They are often seen laughing. They still cry, of course they do, but that will always be the case. They have survived and they will carry on surviving and you will survive too.
Talk about them
It’s horrible and beyond weird at first to talk about them in the past tense but I talk about my brother every day. We all talk about him all the time. It is the only way to keep them alive. Above all else don’t let their name die with them.
People, probably, just won’t know what to say
Don’t think that they don’t care, they realistically just don’t know what to say. Some people, however, won’t be affected by your loss; you’ll work out who they are. Save your energies for those who are there when you are at your lowest ebb.
Grief has no timescale
Don’t think that people will leave your side because you are still crying six months on. I have a friend who lost her son 10 years ago. She still grieves; she still cries; there are days when she leaves the house looking fabulous and days where she doesn’t change out of her dressing gown. If someone tells you that, “X wouldn’t want to see you like this”, tell them to damn well F off. There is no rhyme or reason to grief. It does what it does and don’t apologise for that.
My mother and I, with some friends, eventually opened a mental health, community café called Johnny’s Happy Place in my hometown of Kettering. It gives my mother a focus and has brought lots of wonderful people into our lives. For this we are so lucky.
In 2015 I self-published a story Johnny had written in the weeks leading up to his death called Norman the Caterpillar. I was adamant I was going to do it for him. Stephen Fry is quoted as saying, “Anyone who travels in a different direction will fall in love with this delightful book”. It’s a beautiful story with so much soul and fantastic and poignant messages. It’s a fabulous legacy for our fabulous boy, Johnny Mackay.
Charlotte Sutherland is an actress and keen interior designer. After her brother's suicide in 2014 she has been a staunch campaigner for mental health rights and tries to use her words in the form of articles and poetry to help others.