"Bereavement is a deep wound with no visible scar"

We were delighted to welcome our regular blogger, Richard Littledale, as keynote speaker at the Sue Ryder annual lecture last week. The event was hosted by Rachel Reeves MP at the House of Commons and discussed the topic of bereavement.

Photo of Richard Littledale at Sue Ryder's annual lecture 2019

During the lecture, Richard described his experiences of grief following the death of his wife, Fiona, in 2017.

He also explained how Sue Ryder's new report, 'A Better Grief', is helping to highlight some of the issues associated with bereavement that need addressing. Here is an extract of Richard's speech from the event.

On November 7th 2017, my wife, Fiona, died at home whilst under the care of our wonderful Sue Ryder team. The meticulous expertise and deep compassion which they brought into our home are things I shall never forget.

The debt I owe to them is both indescribable and unpayable – and if these words make some small scratch on its surface, I shall be pleased.

‘Postcards from the Land of Grief’

Let me make a confession - I hate writing postcards. As a child, whenever we would travel on holiday, the responsibility for doing so would be divided up between my brother and I. One would write to Granny, one to Auntie and so on. I hated it.

I would write in the biggest possible script so as to minimise the number of words required – and I am sure they were as boring to read as they were to write.

Years later, travelling with children of my own – the same rules applied. Fiona and I would parcel out between us who was writing to whom. Out would come the big handwriting, and my reluctant words would fill up the page and disappear into the post box.

So why, seven days after Fiona’s death, did I find myself coming home from a walk across the crunching, frosted grass of the cemetery, to write a postcard? 

It was because I felt as if I were abroad. Everything looked the same, the landmarks were still in the same places, the cars still drove on the left – and yet somehow, I had been transposed into an alien place.

A shift had gone on so that the familiar became unfamiliar, the reassuring became disturbing and I didn’t belong. Like a stranger living abroad, I found that my calendar seemed to have different dates to those marked on other people’s. My milestones were not theirs.  Like a newbie on foreign soil speaking a foreign language all day – I was exhausted by teatime… or often by lunchtime. 

And so, I began to chart the experience through a series of some 30 ‘Postcards from the Land of Grief’. Initially they were published on my blog, and received lots of interest. Later they were featured on BBC Radio 4’s “Sunday worship” – provoking one of the biggest audience responses that programme has ever seen. 

A little later this year they will appear in a book, and there is every indication that there is a good appetite to read them. 

51% of people are afraid to say the wrong thing

Other people live in this foreign land of grief too, it would seem. Their friends and family see them there, separated by an invisible border and oh so far away.

They want to help, but as the report, ‘A Better Grief’, has told us – 51% of people are afraid of saying the wrong thing to a bereaved person.

The report also says that ‘bereavement is a very individual phenomenon’. As a minister of religion for 30 years, I am no stranger to death. I have been there at the bedside as a person slips away. I have been there to conduct the funeral. I have been there to visit the family after it and see how they are doing. Despite all of that, my arrival in the land of grief was a rude shock.

As the report observes, there is an awkwardness about seeking help. The version of ourselves which needs to reach out for it is one which we neither recognise nor welcome. To admit to loneliness is to admit to a form of social plague, it feels.

The report talks about the importance of community in addressing what is essentially the individual problem of grief. I could not agree more – and I am fortunate to find myself in the midst of this painful and challenging experience with a faith community gathered around me. 

"Bereavement is a deep wound with no visible scar"

However, sometimes the least tolerant or understanding person within the circle surrounding the bereaved person can be the bereaved person. I found myself too often in the company of people whom I described as 'Mr Shouty', 'Mr Angry' and 'Mr Selfish'. 

Between them they would rant about anything not going their way, and they would berate me for having the audacity to look up a little. Sometimes they would conspire to make even the positive things seem like negatives.

To understand the bereaved person is to understand that this kind of internal conflict can go on for months, or even years, after the death. Bereavement is a deep wound with no visible scar.

If we are to make a change within this landscape of grief, then we shall all have to make adjustments, I think. Friends and family will have to embrace the joyful danger of getting it wrong for the greater good of getting it right. 

Employers will have to recognise that the incapacity brought about by grief may far outlast any bereavement leave they give.

The bereaved themselves will have to speak a little more in the foreign tongue of this place to which they have moved. 

And we shall all have to recognise that the scars left by grief, like the patina on a much-loved antique – may add to our value rather than diminish it.

With new growth comes courage

There’s a tree I often pass on my morning walks with the dog, and I want to leave you there as you read this now.

At some point in its life the tree has been all but uprooted. The main trunk now lies parallel to the ground. 

Springing up from it, though, is new growth – defiant and wonderful. I call it the Courage Tree – and I would like to see forests of them all across the country. 

Maybe with Sue Ryder’s help, we will.

Download A Better Grief

Our new research 'A Better Grief' reveals that, as a nation, we have a big issue talking about death. Learn more about our findings and how we suggest changes can be made.

Richard Littledale

Husband of patient

Richard Littledale

Richard's wife Fiona was cared for by Sue Ryder Hospice at Home Nurses during the last few weeks of her life. Since then, he has been chronicling his journey through grief via his personal blog http://richardlittledale.me.uk.