Chapter 2: Accompanying those who grieve

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Accompanying the bereaved

In many cultures, some very old, some new, the immediate approach to supporting bereaved people is to visit or contact them, sometimes in groups, ready to respond to their needs, showing concern and appreciation of their emotion; prepared to listen and involve yourself, or perhaps to do things that might otherwise be neglected: i.e. prepare food, clear up, go shopping, answer the door or the phone, share responsibility for the children for an hour.

Usually, what the bereaved people need beyond anything is to share their turmoil with people who care about them and are prepared to listen to them and appreciate what they are going through. In brief:

The bereaved people may need to be heard, accepted and understood.

They may need your presence, interest, concern and involvement to help them to re-discover their own strengths and to develop new ways of coping.

If that is the case, then your task is:

a) to listen hard, giving your full attention, clarifying what is said, and not criticising;

b) to establish yourself as a person your neighbour can trust, who is concerned and is really trying to appreciate what they are feeling, in other words to establish a supportive relationship;

c) at the same time being open and honest and not pretending to authority or knowledge that you do not have.

How can this be managed?

The first thing is to help your neighbour to discover what his or her needs are.  This you do together, she tells of her perception of her situation; you encourage her in this, and you listen and help her by becoming involved, searching out the really significant statements, asking for clarification, sometimes for more detail. Try to avoid making assumptions for, as you already know:

all relationships are different; 

all deaths are different in their circumstances;

all social or family situations are different;

all people are different;

all their belief systems are personal to them,

so all grieving processes are unique.

It follows that

there are few words of wisdom or comfort that can be offered appropriately to everyone.

All that most of us can do is to:

express our concern and interest,

encourage the bereaved people to talk about themselves

Often they will do this without hesitaton, but sometimes, until they have learnt to trust you, it may help by asking about

their situation, their perception of the death, how they are coping,  and how well they are.

Listening and responding to their replies.

Listening

So, in brief, the companion needs

  • to encourage the neighbour to talk;
  • to listen with concentrated attention;
  • to show, with words, grunts, body language, as in any everyday conversation, her or his concern, interest and appreciation of what they are experiencing;
  • to join in with the narrative just enough to understand what is being told, so to avoid mistakes, false assumptions, misinterpretations, but also to demonstrate concern and interest, to become part of the process;
  • and also to help the bereaved person to clarify their story, to help make it whole and coherent, to remark upon strangenesses or contradictions, to follow the narrative into any unfashionable or embarrassing  aspects;
  • to offer any opinion or information in a clear but tentative, non-aggressive way.

The extraordinary and welcome fact is that

being heard like this is itself healing.

This is because when you listen to someone,

a) you take in information, the stories, the emotions etc.,

but also

b) you, by our attention, acknowledge the worth of the speaker.

For the neighbour,

  • being heard is felt as being taken seriously, and this gives self-respect;
  • being heard is felt as being accepted and so feeling less isolated;
  • being heard, being noticed, understood and taken seriously conveys positive, even loving, appreciation;
  • being heard gives confidence and enables a person to rediscover their own strengths and understanding.

If someone is anxious or distressed, frightened or confused, they may need to be “heard”, to have their situation and state-of mind appreciated, more than they need to be understood

They will know that they are being heard if you can combine showing that you are listening {eye contact, body position}, with appropriate responses and reactions which show  appreciation.

If, in these circumstances, listening is restricted to taking in information, and no time is given to appreciative “hearing”, anger, frustration and lack of trust may well be felt.

Attitudes of mind

To make good listening effective, it is necessary that you are fully attentive and not distracted by other people, events, or experiences of our own, and it is necessary that you fully engage with your neighbour’s world.  A critical attitude has no place in this work.

Aims :

            to show people that they are being taken seriously, accepted and understood,

            enabling them to rediscover or develop their own strengths, competencies and coping mechanisms. {It is rarely useful to make judgmental statements, or to give advice - saying  “If I were you ...” or  “You ought to ....” - offering consolation.}

Attitudes:

            a) listen with attention - and with focus, that is, actively participating in your neighbour’s issues without intruding your own needs, experiences or preoccupations;

            b) accept the person unconditionally;

            c) engage with the inner world of the neighbour, or make serious efforts to do so;

            d) be open and genuine.

Assumptions:

            a) that the neighbour is autonomous, important, has his own strengths and is capable of reaching his own decisions;

            b) that to maintain this autonomy, power has to be held openly and fairly between you and the neighbour;

            c) that the neighbour really is suffering as he says he is;

            d) that the neighbour’s defences should be respected.

The dangers of reassurance and consolation

As situations emerge from the bereaved person’s narrative, so also will their anxieties and uncertainties.  For example:

  • I feel so angry.  Am I going mad?
  • Its six months since he died, but I still need to talk about him.  That’s morbid.
  • My family say I should move house, but I don’t want to.  Is that silly?
  • I’m so low I’m worried I’ll do something “silly”.
  • God was cruel to let her suffer so much.  He must be a sadist.                                                        

These anxieties may make us anxious and we rush to say: “No. You are certainly not mad.”. “Of course its not silly to want to talk about him, or to want to stay in this house.”, “No you won’t take your life.”, “Oh no. God is no sadist.”  But we rarely know enough to be able to make these reassurances. Doubts and questions need to be explored so that, in the end, it is the client himself who finds the confidence needed to move on.  All you can really offer as consolation is your presence, and your serious effort to respond appropriately.

For the bereaved, the need is to be heard, accepted and appreciated so that he can trust the listener.  Then he can search for the truth of events, and of his reactions and emotions and beliefs. Anything other than this shared search belittles the bereaved person and undermines the supportive relationship.

Continue to Reflections on Chapter 2