What you should never say to someone who has been bereaved

Crying. Coping. Not-coping. Throwing yourself into charity work. Throwing yourself back under the covers.

Everyone has a unique experience when someone close to them has died, and each person finds their own way through their feelings.  As well as sadness and pain, there are also feelings of guilt, anger, resentment and confusion, and often a reassessment of the past or uncertainty about the future.

“I know how you feel”. No, no actually, you don’t. 

Each person grieves differently and we cannot know how any individual is feeling when their loved one has died. This is the guiding principle I learned in a recent Bereavement and Sensitivity training session, led by Bereavement Coordinator, Jane Maxfield, from St Johns Hospice.

Jane has been working for Sue Ryder for 10 years, providing one to one sessions for the families of those staying at St Johns; seeing families whilst their loved one is still alive, and supporting them through the death and for the years that follow.

Everyone can help

It turns out that it’s not just bereavement counsellors who can provide a listening ear, which is why I took part in this training course. Everyone who comes into contact with Sue Ryder should get a caring, supportive response, whether they contact the fundraising team or the furniture collection hotline. 

During the session it became clear that many members of my team take phone calls from supporters who are noticeably distressed. It can be difficult to know what to say to someone who is so upset, and during our training we were given the opportunity to explore responses to some conversations we’ve had.

“I’m so sorry to hear that.”

We learn that this should be our first response. Someone close to your caller has died – you cannot let this go unacknowledged. It may have taken them hours to pluck up courage to call, so we must invite them to share their feelings, if they want to. 

“How are you feeling today?”

This opens up the conversation. It may have been a while since they were bereaved, but the grieving process takes a minimum of two years, and there could be a reason they called to talk about their loved one, on this specific day.

“What support have you had?”

If your caller is upset, this could be part of their natural grieving process. Most people are able to manage with the support of friends and family but some need additional professional counselling to help them cope. It is down to us to signpost them to these services and ensure they are well cared for.

Family support

Sue Ryder operates a family support service in seven locations across the UK, run by a combination of spiritual care co-ordinators, counsellors and bereavement volunteers. They give one to one support or counselling, and they facilitate bereavement support groups, which take the various guises of country walks or cookery classes. 

And often they just give a listening ear. We are not necessarily able to provide answers to all the questions a bereaved person may have, but we can listen, we can signpost, and we can give our support. 

And we won’t say we know how you feel.

The Sue Ryder online community

You are not alone. If someone you love is dying or has died, our online community is a place to share experiences, get things off your chest, ask questions and chat to people who understand.