Bereavement – What to say?


What can hurt us more than the death of a loved one? We unconsciously attempt to protect ourselves from being overwhelmed by intense feelings of heartache. So an initial bereavement creates a sense of numbness and shock. However, sadness, anger, guilt, and/or depression may come soon.

Grieving is a process and it is not humanly possible to deal with its devastation all at once. An unexpected bereavement can be especially hard to make sense of. Bewilderment and protest can endure for years.

What has been felt as a vital relationship may have vanished. The death then results in a sense of vulnerability for one as a lone human being.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that we all might feel uncomfortable when in the company of a mourning friend especially following an important recent loss. Not wanting to mention the death for fear of saying the wrong thing. Uncertainty  about what to say that might be useful in the situation. In two minds about how much time to give them if they wish to talk at length about their feelings.

Here are 6 tips:

1. Bereavement and sharing of negative feelings

Some people may be in the habit of not allowing themselves to get in touch with any inner painful feelings. So, following the death of a loved one, they may try to carry on as if little had happened, not even referring to the dead person in conversation. But it doesn’t help to collude with them in ignoring their bereavement.

It is tempting to soothe and comfort the bereaved person who is hurting. But actually this might hinder them from talking about their feelings at their own pace.

2. Bereavement and time to talk privately.

The bereaved vary as to how much they want to share their negative feelings. Some want to talk at length. This may make you feel uncomfortable. However, they may need you to allow them to do this. So imply anything can be said. Give time.

3. Bereavement and irrational thoughts

There is an irrational part of each of us which is likely to add to feelings of bitterness or create a blaming attitude about a loss. For example anger against fate, or even against the person who has died. If challenged such attitudes may be suppressed. Only when they come out into the open can they be explored and later questioned.

Some people may mention their loss but try to put on a brave face. It doesn’t make things any easier by going along with their desire to be falsely cheerful or to look on the bright side too soon. They may feel ashamed of their strong feelings and need encouragement to express their sorrow.

4. Bereavement and insight

A part of us may unfairly feel some responsibility for the death of a loved one. ‘Is there something I could have done to prevent this? If only I had…’

In her classic book On Death and Dying Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, points out that personal relationships that have been close, yet difficult, often leave a legacy of guilt. This feeling may be for what was unresolved between the deceased and the surviving person. All personal relationships have complications. Bereavement has the potential to revive emotions connected to previously unresolved issues.

The bereaved person can be greatly helped to be gain insight into irrational thoughts about their loved one by reliving memories, e.g. by going through the photos, and talking about and acknowledging what has been good and precious in the relationship. Likewise, why not encourage them to talk about the deceased with people who knew the dead person well. This would help to develop a more accurate picture and to integrate others’ understandings with the person’s own memories and images.

This should also help the bereaved individual be more realistic about him or herself. Talking about the deceased helps the individual to recognise that each of us is who we are, in part because of whom the other person was to us.

5. Bereavement and professional help.

It is realistic to expect to continue to be greatly upset by bereavement for two years or so. However, your friend may need at some point to be reassured that it would not be disloyal for them to allow a re-integration with life and gradual forming of new ties. A letting go and saying good-bye but not a forgetting.

However they might appear to be inconsolable, stuck endlessly in their grief. They may be functioning in a restricted way but deny this is related to their bereavement or any inability to give expression to their feelings. If so why not suggest some sessions with a professional counsellor.

“If a person has not had the benefit of prior secure attachment, the loss will be much harder to bear (and may require counselling to unravel the earlier problems).” (Psychologist, Fraser Watts)    

6. Bereavement and potential reunion

The spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg claimed to have visionary experiences of a hidden reality of spirit people. He reported that unlike the body, the mind of a person does not die. In the material world a desire to talk to someone brings people together on the phone or in person. Likewise, after death in the next life, he wrote that we can talk to any deceased person we want to who we had previously known from our physical life; especially a lover or other family member.  Swedenborg wrote that he had seen many spirit people with their spirit relatives. However, if they discovered they were of different inner character they parted company after a while. For in the spiritual realm he says inner likeness unites and inner difference separates.

Perhaps sharing this information at the right time might bring some comfort in the hope of a future reunion with a loved one who has died.

Copyright 2018 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

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