Introduction: Preparing to help a grieving friend or neighbour.

You notice that a bereaved neighbour is struggling. He is not himself. He may begin to tell you about his loss. You may feel that you would like to help him.   Questions immediately arise:

  • Should I offer to help or should I leave it to the church or to a counselling agency?
  • Do I feel like helping him?  Have I the time and energy? What would my family think?
  • Or do I think it my duty?  If so, have I the strength for it?
  • What sort of help would he accept?  What preparation should I make?

Many bereaved people prefer to cope without help; but many welcome a companion who will attend to their needs: someone whom they can trust; someone who is friendly, concerned, accepting, aware and prepared to listen: who will engage with them and possibly provide practical help, but who will not try to impose their own opinions or control their life: someone also who is strong enough to be steady in the presence of high emotion or bitterly sad events.

In most cases, untrained neighbours are able give wonderfully useful support, but they may need to prepare themselves a little beforehand.  This book is an attempt to describe some ways of doing this. It has four parts that are detailed in the Contents:

Part 1 is a reminder of the possible effects of a bereavement on those who remain.

Part 2 encourages the process of listening, your main weapon of assistance; and raises some practical and ethical issues. {3 chapters, ideally to be read before the first contact.}

Part 3 draws attention to some of the deep-seated forms of distress following a bereavement, and to some recent research recommendations. {4 chapters}

Part 4 is less general; it is for reference where the companion recognizes certain particularities about the death or the grieving. It considers the traumatised, and the depressed; that is, situations which may require professional help and so which need to be clearly recognised.  There is also a chapter on supporting parents who are dealing with grieving children or young people. {3 chapters}

How can all this be managed without training, and without commonly held beliefs?  Partly by limiting the help being offered; partly by sharpening awareness of the purpose of bereavement support; partly by shifting the emphasis away from psychological or grieving theories towards the need for trust and so for behaviour that leads to trust, i.e. for old familiar virtues such as fortitude, prudence or temperance in giving service; and partly through anticipation, and developing self awareness.

So how can you sharpen your reaction to the bereaved neighbour?

  • First by resolving to avoid harming your neighbour.
  • Then by recognising and affirming your initial reaction of concern and compassion, so that your neighbour can trust you to maintain your good intentions, for example to exercise such disciplines as honesty or promise keeping, especially in confidentiality.      
  • Then by resolving to listen and involve yourself in discovering and appreciating the neighbour’s needs {see Chapter 2}.

Some general points:

Reflections. Any training of formal bereavement supporters should include observed exercises and role-plays where attitudes and skills can be developed and where people can extend their experience of different grieving processes.  Reading a book gives no opportunity for such “experiential” learning.  So, under “REFLECTIONS”, there are real though disguised examples of grieving people so that you can exercise your empathy in each case; and consider how you might practise your responses to yourself “out loud”, or discuss them with friends.

Beliefs. The ideas and practices considered here are of general application. They underlie support equally for those with and those without religious faith, or of various faiths.

No use has been made of transcendental notions. The material here is resolutely within the bounds of observation and research on relationships, grieving and trauma. But, in the event, bereaved people may need to talk about their faith, about changes in their value systems, or about inexplicable death-associated experiences even before discussing them with their preferred expert, the family elder or priest. If that is their need, then that is what you should attempt in ways that show acceptance and interest in their beliefs.

No knowledge of any general theory of counselling is assumed, nor of any particular religion. In supporting bereaved people, an approach which accepts equally a religious or a non-religious position is usually far more effective that any fundamentalist one.  You are not there to provide a remedy, but to stand by the grieving person while she or he regains the ability to cope.

Individual opinions You may bring your own experience and ideas about bereavement, support, religion, the “proper” way to grieve, etc. These opinions may have stemmed from earlier, totally different theories of bereavement; they may not be entirely appropriate in the circumstances of the present loss. And further they may stem from the so-called “modern” or “post modern” periods that had different approaches to the “certainties” of science, or to the nature of belief. Attention has been brought to these difficulties, so that you may re-examine your opinions.

Unsupported helping   In agencies, all workers are supported by the ethos of the service, often by guidance from the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, the BACP, with their invaluable Code of Ethics, by professional supervisors and a routine for obtaining and managing clients.  In the individual, voluntary work that you are offering, there is none of this support.  It is therefore sensible to go carefully, to think ahead and whenever possible to discuss the issues with the grieving neighbour.  The book gives some suggestions as to how this might be done.   

Just as with medical doctors, one of the first considerations is not to harm their patients, so the companion should consider how to avoid harming those they wish to support. Some pitfalls might be:

  • betraying trust, particularly by carelessness in confidentiality;
  • trying to control;
  • attempting to insist on some belief system other their own;
  • making no effort to recognise different processes of grieving;
  • failure to recognise the importance of the societal stress as well as the loss;
  • failure to notice the fear and confusion that a close death may bring.

All these dangers have been mentioned.

Words we shall use:

We shall use:

  • the word “you” to refer to you, the reader;                        
  • the word “companion” to represent anyone who gives time and attention to another who is in distress through bereavement, for instance you;
  • the word “neighbour” as a name to refer to the bereaved acquaintance you wish to help, whether it be family member, friend, colleague or neighbour.

We shall use:

  • the word “bereavement” to refer to the death of a person with whom the survivor has had a significant relationship, good or bad;
  • the word “grieving” to refer to a person’s internal responses to a bereavement, and the word “mourning” to refer to the external or formal expression of these responses;
  • the words “psychological trauma” to refer to the emotional and cognitive dislocation that may follow an especially stressful event, and which could possibly become a mental health issue;
  • the word “depression” to refer to severe despondency and dejection, which may, as distinct from the “despair” of bereavement, become a mental health issue.

Continue to Chapter 1