Grief is not an illness. But we know that if a bereaved person continues to struggle with their loss and is not able to access good support at the right time, then it can sometimes become a health issue. There is simply not enough bereavement support available in our local communities; no matter how many or how good existing services are, they are unlikely to ever have sufficient capacity to offer the kind of prompt, straightforward support that we think most bereaved people want and need. We are also inclined to medicalise grief. Feeling sad? Visit your GP – they’ll know what to do. Yet although many community GPs are wonderful with their patients and very concerned with their emotional as well as physical wellbeing, many are also overstretched or simply have very few resources to offer the grieving person.
During the 14 or so years that I spent working with and for organisations concerned with bereavement, the key question has always been ‘what exactly do bereaved people want and need?’ My answer may be different to yours, since the very nature of bereavement is that every person’s experience of it is entirely unique. Yet while each person’s experience of grief and loss is highly individual, it is also universal; we are all going to lose someone we love at some point in our lives. Nobody enjoys grieving, but it is something that we all will do and that at times we might feel that we need a little extra help to get through it.
At Professional Help we believe what bereaved people need is the right support, at the right time. This may take the form of information, reassurance, compassion, time, encouragement to talk if they want to and practical help. For those who feel that they need a little bit extra, one to one specialist bereavement counselling may be the right thing to seek. For others it might be a group with other bereaved people, where there is the opportunity to share your loss and gain reassurance from others. For some it will be a friendly voice on the telephone who understands that you need to tell your story again and again to try to make sense of what has happened. It might be the anonymity of email support from someone you are never likely to meet and who almost certainly won’t bump into you at the supermarket and ask how you are. It might even be a book or leaflet that you find comforting to read, realising that you are not alone and that others have been there too.
There are lots of good suggestions for the ‘do’s and don’ts’ of helping someone after a bereavement that can be easily found with a quick google search or by looking at the pages of long-serving charities such as Cruse Bereavement Care and Child Bereavement UK. But still we struggle. And the workplace is no exception: what on earth do we say to the recently bereaved colleague when they come back to work in the days or weeks after the death of an elderly parent? How do we recognise and support the manager who is dealing with her own grief and also caring for her bereaved children after their dad has died suddenly? And how do we find the right words when one of our team has lost a spouse, or even a child…?
There is no going back to normal after a significant bereavement. We need to find and accommodate a ‘new normal’, whatever that may be for us. But experiencing compassionate support from colleagues and managers at work and experiencing a flexible and encouraging return to employment after bereavement helps us to find this new normal and to begin to pick up the pieces of our lives as they are now. If you are a business owner, a leader or a manager, ask yourself – would you know what to do if one of your staff members was significantly bereaved? Would you know what their rights are? Would you want to care for them in the best way you can, while at the same time protecting your organisation and ensuring that other staff members who may have been similarly significantly bereaved are also supported and able to cope?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, you know what to do…