When you first find out that someone is bereaved it’s hard to know what to say, do you ask them how they are? Do you say anything at all or just ignore it? Dying Matters week is also about finding out how you can help friends, family and community when affected by death and loss.
At Sue Ryder Wheatfields Hospice the Family Support team support patients and their friends and family through illness and bereavement. Christine Ellis, Head of the team, talks about how we can all help during these difficult times“Bereavement affects people in so many ways – from the overwhelming, tear ridden public expression of grief to the silent, tense, constrained internal grief that is kept unshared. And these reactions shift, change over time, ease, get worse, alter with different circumstances.
You may be experiencing both physical and emotional symptoms of your loss so both your body and your mind need time to heal. Listen to what your feelings and body are telling you and do what you feel comfortable with, not what you, or others, think you should do. It may have been some time since you put yourself first but doing this is what will help. Sleep and appetite may be affected so eat and sleep when you can. For others, however, sticking to established routines works better. Do the things that you have always enjoyed or have brought you peace and calm – seeing friends, walking in the countryside, attending church, reading, spoiling yourself with your favourite food or films etc. or you could consider making a book or box of memories. Allow yourself to be sad, to cry. What works is unique to you but may also change over time so listen to what your head and your heart are telling you. During this time, don’t be afraid to ask for support or help from family, friends, colleagues. People usually appreciate this as they themselves are unsure or uncomfortable about approaching you. And don’t worry about telling people if you need some time alone – it is not unusual to want this so be firm in explaining this
If you are the person who is offering support you may find yourself nervous or even avoiding the person who has been bereaved because you don’t know what to say. Don’t let this stop you – there are no ‘right’ words and it very difficult, with the exception of trying to tell the bereaved person how they should be feeling, to say any wrong ones. Just being there for someone and caring is usually enough. So reach out – if you feel embarrassed, how must the bereaved person feel?
Some bereaved people however, either don’t have family or friends around or may prefer to talk to someone with whom they are not so close so the family support team at the hospice is also able to offer support. Because people are so different in their grief our service is designed to work with and support people in a way that suits them. Our team of social workers, counsellors, bereavement support workers and spiritual care workers support bereaved individuals and families in a number of ways; we can help people to deal with practical tasks such as arranging funerals, informing other organisations about the death, dealing with bank accounts etc. We also offer emotional support by meeting with people face to face, talking with them on the telephone, running groups where people can meet with each other or organising remembrance services throughout the year.
Of course, there will be times throughout the year(s) that you find particularly difficult – birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, family events etc and Christmas, for most people, is one of these. Christmas can bring so much with it – memories, traditions, family visits, hopes and plans for the future. How you cope with this is, again, very individual. Some people may wish to ignore Christmas, others will want to celebrate it as they have always done. Neither way is right or wrong, what counts is what is most helpful to you. You may wish to be alone with your memories or you may wish to meet with family or friends. Sometimes people find they want to have a candle or memento at the table with them to remember the person they have lost. If spending the day with others it can be helpful to forewarn them of how you are feeling or that you might become upset at some point. Emotions are very often heightened for everyone at this time of year and it is fine for you to take yourself away from a situation if you feel it is getting too much. Or you could decide to do something totally different; take a hot flask and go for a walk or to a place with happy memories of the person you have lost. Go alone or with family or friend. Start a new Christmas family tradition. Above all, don’t be pressured into doing something you know instinctively won’t be helpful. Remember, you are the best person to know what will work for you.”
Thank you Christine.
Kate Bratt-Farrar, Sue Ryder Wheatfields Hospice Director, also has some thoughts about the importance of Dying Matters week
“When you work in a place where people die, whether it be a hospice, hospital or nursing home. You think about death and bereavement often. At Sue Ryder we are passionate and committed to supporting people to live the best life they can until the end. Focus is on helping people to maintain independence and be as pain free and stress free as possible.
When discussing the death of some of our own staff members with a colleague recently, she highlighted to me that we who work in end of life care can be terrible at planning and talking about what we want for ourselves. Many of us don’t have wills and haven’t had the important conversations with our families about the things we want to happen after we die.
This year for dying matters awareness week, I really hope that more people (including our staff) will think and talk about what they want for themselves. We need to take the time to share our wishes, even plan our own funerals.”
There are other organisations that offer bereavement support and the Leeds Bereavement Forum will be hosting Death Cafes that are free to attend for a cuppa and a chat. Loss of a pet can also be difficult to come to terms with.