Chapter 3: Boundaries and Practicalities

Back to Reflections on Chapter 2

In offering to support a grieving neighbour, you are offering to enter a situation that will be largely unknown, as suggested in Chapter 1, which may be emotionally charged, where your natural empathy may be less than usually reliable so that misunderstandings may occur. It would seem sensible to begin your work together by openly acknowledging the possibility of difficulties and by agreeing on how you might resolve them.  The examples in this chapter stem from practical issues; those in the next, stem from ethical ones.


Choosing the medium for communication

It would be sensible to consider which method of communication is most convenient for you and for the bereaved person; immediate face-to-face or phone contact, or the less immediate letter, text or e-mail. How long should you allow for each session?  Where would you be prepared to meet? Would you feel safe in the neighbour’s home, either alone or with the family present? If not there, where else?  On a walk?  {It is generally best to avoid inviting him into your home, for that might complicate things for you and for your family.}

In each of these possibilities, your availability may need to be mentioned.  Would you mind being unexpectedly called in the evening?


Preparing for this communication, there are two questions: when and for how long. When is it convenient or suitable for each of you to meet? After the first discussions you may need to arrange further contacts. It would seem to be best that these discussions are arranged for an hour each, because most peoples’ powers of concentration weaken after an hour, and it is essential that you do not lose attention and so be thought to have lost interest.

Further, because you do not know much about the new circumstances you will encounter, it is usually best to arrange only one or two meetings ahead.  This is so that, should you find the meetings uncomfortable, you do not risk offence by cancelling appointments.


It is rare that effective support can be offered when the companion feels unsafe: e.g. where the neighbour’s behaviour becomes violent or confused or inexplicable; where the atmosphere between you becomes too intimate or sexually charged, where there seems to be danger to either the companion or the neighbour. Neither self-awareness, neighbour-awareness, clear thinking nor sound judgement can be exercised if you feel unsafe.

So if, at any time during a visit, you feels uncomfortable, then you should immediately make this clear, either by making your feelings known, e.g.” I should prefer to meet in a less isolated place”, or “I would prefer to keep the door open”, or simply by ending the session. But, if you do this, it would be appropriate to say that you will phone later to explain what you have been feeling, and to discuss further contacts.


Occasionally you may find that, on visiting the bereaved person, their entire family has been assembled. This can be very un-nerving and you may well feel that you would be unable to help in these circumstances. Ideally, it would have been best to have made this point clear when arranging the meeting, but now it is perfectly in order to tell the assembled company that you are unable to give support in these circumstances. Then they will have to decide whether they all go away, or you arrange another meeting.

What to wear

As an acquaintance, you will be best able to judge - but it might be best to avoid formality, which could suggest professional knowledge; or bereavement-black suggesting that you too have feelings of bereavement. Neither would be appropriate.


It is true that to be physically touched can be the most reassuring and comforting experience, deeper and more "total" than words. But sometimes we feel dangerously over-confident from our everyday experience that we can know intuitively when this is the appropriate action to take. Within the bereavement context, perhaps the following questions should first be considered:

            a) Is it the neighbour or the companion who feels the need for touch?

            b) Does the neighbour enjoy being touched, i.e. having their space invaded?

            c) Is the companion sure that the touch would not be misinterpreted {in a sexual sense}, or cause anxiety for the next visit?

Topic limits

Though you have offered your support because you know that the neighbour is distressed because of a bereavement, you may find that he or she has other troubles, for example, an illness, difficulties in an another important relationship, considerable monetary troubles.

You may feel that you cannot commit yourself to spend time listening to these other issues. Such preferences are perfectly in order providing they are expressed early; if not during the first session together, then at the beginning of any further sessions.


It may be that one meeting or conversation will be enough, or maybe two or three contacts spaced as necessary; it is rare that many more would be needed. Sometimes, for example when the bereaved person has to wait through a long investigation or trial, they might benefit from just occasional meetings during the wait followed by several together after the event. It is a matter of discussing and agreeing what suits you both.

In this time, you will have established to some degree a new relationship as a companion. But when it is time to end these contacts, you will need to relinquish the “companionship relationship”, though keeping the confidences, and either return to your earlier relationship or form a new one. All this may be difficult to manage socially and may need to be discussed before the end of the last session.


Sometimes it will astonish and upset the grieving person who may feel that they are betraying the dead by admitting to the enjoyment of laughter, even when taken by surprise. But laughter may heal. It helps to reassure them that life after the death of a loved one may eventually become as full of humour as before; and perhaps to ask them whether the dead person would wish it otherwise. But it would be unwise for the companion deliberately to make jokes.

Support for yourself - supervision

Involving yourself in volatile, complicated and possibly highly charged emotional situations can be stressful.  For example, it may become hard to stop thinking about the situation. You may worry that you are not supporting your neighbour as well as you would wish.  You may become concerned when the neighbour’s reactions seem to you to be inappropriate or alarming. Occasionally it is clear that the grieving person only wants one meeting while you consider that more meetings are really required.  Then, you might feel that you have failed.  Or again, you may feel, on reflection that you have missed something or made an unsatisfactory remark, and this may distress you. Another source of concern is where you just cannot understand why things are not improving. {Two instances of this are discussed in Chapters 8 and 9.} In all these cases, some discussion with the neighbour would be in order.

In formal counselling, the counsellor is obliged to have a ”supervisor” whose task it is to support, to teach, to maintain ethical values and to assist with decision making.  In your situation, your needs may be the same, but the organisation is absent.  You, together with the bereaved person, need to consider how something like this can be managed - even before you start working together.  {Supervision from a trained supervisor might be ideal, but is usually expensive. Could you agree on some other person to use in this capacity?}

You may need to discuss and negotiate some of these issues

with the bereaved person and with your family.

Then, if difficulties eventually arise, no-one need be offended.

Continue to Reflections on Chapter 3