Emotions of Suicide Loss

Reaching out to fellow Aspies, Lisa Morgan proffers her insight and advice to ensure that others on the autism spectrum don’t have to face suicide loss alone. Her book, Living Through Suicide Loss with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD): An Insider Guide for Individuals, Family, Friends, and Professional Responders is an honest look at the immediate aftermath of suicide loss, how emergency responders can help, and the long-term implications of living with suicide loss for individuals on the autism spectrum.

“A suicide loss can elicit such intense emotions that a person with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) can be quickly overwhelmed and flooded with out of control feelings.  The complicated grief, possible trauma, and relationship difficulties are some of the reasons for the emotional flooding a person with AS might experience.  I have experienced emotional flooding many times since my husband completed suicide in 2015.  I am going to share with you the coping skills that worked for me as I continue to understand and gain control over my troublesome emotions.”

  • Complicated Grief

“Complicated grief is grief that is coupled with anger, rejection, and feelings of guilt to name a few. Anger is the lion of my emotions. It’s wild, ferocious, and can maul my heart before I even know what is happening. I have learned to let it out slowly in small, manageable bits.  There are different ways this can be done. The easy way is to recognize when you are feeling angry and go with it while still maintaining control. Hit a pillow, punch the couch, or the mattress on the bed until you are spent and have no energy left. Go for a brisk walk or a run. For me, the coping skill is to do something physical. I have found emotions caused by rejection and feelings of guilt can be reasoned away somewhat by logic. Accepting that the decision to complete suicide was not up to you, but was responsibility of the person who died by suicide is the first logical step. I worked at accepting my husband’s decision and releasing myself from feeling any rejection and guilt.  There were uncomfortable emotions I had to sort out, but the comfortable logic of reason helped very much. It doesn’t happen overnight. Healing from complicated grief is a process that will take time. It’s an investment in a future of hope, happiness, and health.”

  • Possible Trauma

“There is possible trauma involved in losing a loved one to suicide. There are people who witness the suicide, find their loved one after the suicide, or who reach their loved one in time to try to save them, only to have their loved one still not make it. The trauma added to the complicated grief can bring out confusing emotions and flood an adult with AS. When I experience emotional flooding I shut down. My senses are extremely hyper-sensitive. I can’t control my anxiety which leads to lots of crying, and all I want to do is to withdraw inside of myself. When my emotions flood, I try to reach out to someone who can ground me and help me to regain control. It’s usually very helpful to have someone repeat truths until I can feel that my emotions are calming down. If I can’t find someone to reach out to, I can stay emotionally flooded for a long time. Instead, I try to draw, write, listen to music, take walks, and use the coping skills I know have worked before until I feel better. It can be difficult to actually start using the coping skills, but with determination it can be done.   One thing that I have learned with all the emotional flooding I’ve experienced is it will dissipate eventually. The more coping skills I use, the faster I have felt better.”

  • Relationship Difficulties

“I have yet to completely understand how some relationships disintegrate for the survivor of suicide loss at a time when those relationships are needed more than ever before. It’s a painful absence for sure. I had friends tell me they would stay with me no matter what I was going through and then- leave soon after the worst experience of my life. As an adult with AS, trust is extremely important, yet dreadfully hard to do because of my early school years where I learned to not trust anyone. The reason I can still trust after some relationships died with my husband, is because I still have some friends that were true to their word and stayed with me the whole time even until now. The emotions of losing the relationships I did—were painful, confusing, and left a big hole of emptiness in me.  The pain that comes with relational loss is deep. I thought those friends would be my friends for life. Acceptance is the key to coping with lost relationships. Remembering that the friends who left decided to go and there’s nothing I could do about it. Is it difficult to accept? Yes! Is it impossible to accept? No.”

“Nothing that has happened since the loss of my husband to suicide has been easy. Knowing that the aftermath of suicide loss is terribly hard has helped me to take up the challenge to succeed, to thrive, and to move forward. I’m worth it, you’re worth it, and we all matter.”

To learn more about Lisa Morgan’s book or to purchase a copy, click here.

Living Through Suicide Loss is a valuable addition to suicide grief literature. Morgan’s account of the challenges she faced, following her husband’s death, will resonate deeply with all suicide loss survivors.  The special challenges she documented as someone with Asperger’s syndrome, will sensitize and empower all involved in such tragedies.”

—Ronnie Susan Walker MS, LCPC, Founder: Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors

“The excellent and much-needed book deals with the specific issues—emotional and practical—faced by people on the autism spectrum when a loved one completes suicide. Written from a personal, lived experience perspective, this sensitive and valuable book validates the experience of readers and helps them to manage what is essentially unmanageable.

—Jeanette Purks, autism self-advocate and author of
The Guide to Good Mental Health on the Autism Spectrum

 

Why We Need to Break the Silence Around Suicide, Especially for our Children

Louise Moir explains why she wrote Rafi’s Red Racing Car, details her own experiences, and expresses the need for a breakdown in the stigma that surrounds mental illness and suicide.

I lost my husband to suicide in 2011 following his brief decline into mental ill health that was triggered by a job redundancy. My sons were aged 4 ½ and nineteen months. Rafi’s Red Racing Car is the book that I wished I’d had at that time to help me with the terribly painful and bewildering task of trying to explain to my boys what had happened to their Daddy.

Before their father’s suicide, my children had not yet experienced death of any kind, so they had absolutely no understanding. I quickly learnt that their grief was too raw and overwhelming for them to be able to tolerate me talking directly about the tragedy that had enveloped us all. Very young children are very visual and respond well to explanations in pictorial or metaphoric realms. I found a wealth of good, age appropriate books that helped to explain death and the emotions that surround loss and these helped tremendously. Identifying with the character in the book who was experiencing similar events and emotions to themselves enabled my sons to externalise their own feelings, begin to understand their experience and led to them asking me questions about their own loss.

Continue reading

Pooky Knightsmith: Three good reasons to write bad poetry

You don’t need tKnightsmith_Using-Poetry-to_978-1-78592-053-0_colourjpg-printo be a poet to write poetry, and you don’t need to write ‘good’ poetry to get a lot out of it.  I’ve found that the very act of writing and reviewing poetry can be incredibly therapeutic regardless of what we might produce.  Letting go of the idea that we need to be in some way talented with words to write poetry can open the door to a truly engaging, interesting and meaningful way to explore and express how we’re feeling.

In this blog post I’m exploring three key reasons why I’m an advocate of writing even the most terrible poetry – I hope it inspires you to give it a go (if so, you may find the fifty poetry writing prompts in my new book, Using Poetry to Promote Talking and Healing a good starting point).  Continue reading

Dyslexia, self-harm and attempted suicide

 Research shows that at least 5% of schoolchildren are likely to have dyslexia.  Children sometimes lack the maturity to ask for help and things can go sour when they’re left to fend for themselves. With the aim to assist both parents and educational practitioners to recognise the emotional turmoil that young dyslexics face in life, Neil Alexander-Passe explains the link between dyslexia, self-harm and attempted suicide. The author’s new book Dyslexia and Mental Health: Helping people identify destructive behaviours and find positive ways to cope is out now.

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School – legally enforced torture

If you were forced to attend school in Japan without the aptitude to understand the language nor pens and pencils to record what is required, you might not mind if it were only for one day. However, imagine you were legally forced to go five days a week for eight hours a day for ten or more years. Is this fair? I’m sure you would agree not. Well this is exactly how a dyslexic feels. They lack the skills and tools to understand school, and are marked poorly by the lack of such abilities. Everywhere they turn, they see books, and the ability to read and write are valued above all other skills. You can appreciate that they could feel helpless and lacked of control in their lives.

To make matters worse, most teachers lack the skills and aptitude to recognise a struggling learner in their classrooms. It must be said that dyslexic children begin to develop self-protecting strategies to camouflage themselves from showing up their lack of skills, especially amongst their able-bodied peers. Such strategies can include: hiding in class, being the class clown to cover up for the lack of abilities, being the class helper to avoid writing tasks, forgetting homework on purpose, and calling in sick to avoid lessons when there are spelling tests or they need to give in homework. They develop sensitive antennas for situations that might highlight their difficulties, and quickly put in place back-up plans to avoid trouble.

It should also be recognised that children sometimes lack the maturity to ask for help from teachers, and get bored waiting in a long line for help. Calling out in class is sometimes seen ‘bad behaviour’ but in reality it is the child asking for help, albeit not in the way the teacher would prefer.

 

Regaining control in a world they can’t control

When dyslexics feel that they have no control over their life at home and at school, and feel like failures at everything they try to achieve, they begin to look for ways to feel better.

We all can recognise comfort eating; maybe a chocolate bar when you feel sad – but self-harm goes beyond this. Food, if taken to extremes can give an individual some control in a world they feel is uncontrollable. They are forced to go to school each day; even though they hate it and are taught in ways they can’t learn. Over-eating and becoming obese can protect them from social situations that might require them to read or write (e.g. reading the bus timetable; reading numbers on a bus to meet up with friends; reading the name of the film being shown at the cinema; reading a timetable etc.). They might take the other extreme and think if they didn’t eat they would be so small and thin that no one would recognise and take note of them.

Others see that drugs are a way to escape the harsh world they believe they live in, so sniffing glue or taking drugs will bring a high that allows them a respite/escape even for minutes from the pain they feel at school and home, being socially excluded or by them not having a job.

Self-harm through cutting allows a sense of control in their lives, it also gives an adrenaline high to the body. It allows an individual to regain control of some aspect of their life, however it can become more dangerous in their pursuit of this natural high. Easy to hide at first but harder as time goes by with constant cutting.

In the extreme, the need for an escape through risk-taking can lead to putting one’s life in even more dangerous situations (e.g. playing on train lines, getting into fights), however it is with attempted suicide that can be shocking in young dyslexics from a very young age of seven years old. They want to escape a world they feel excluded from, they also see the pain and anguish they are putting their parents through and want to save them from further pain. Sadly many dyslexics do take their lives but such deaths are unrecorded as they haven’t left a suicide note, as that would require writing, a task they feel is very hard and they want an escape from.

It is interesting to note that some dyslexics get into fights to break bones, especially arms and hands to avoid writing tests. Such calculated lengths to avoid taking tests should be recognised, along with unrecognised dyslexic children forcing themselves to be sick just before a test to avoid being judged badly in front of peers. The lengths some dyslexics go to preserve what self-esteem they have can be remarkable.

 

What can be done?

  • Schools need to screen and put in place interventions to help dyslexic and other struggling learners.
  • Schools need to provide counsellors for children who experience difficulty learning at school, as the emotional effects of failure can lead to social exclusion, depression and self-harming.
  • Teachers need to recognise the avoidance by children, ask themselves why, and act to question if there is a learning difficulty or another barrier to their learning e.g. avoiding reading and writing.
  • Teachers need to read through secondary behavioural manifestations in pupils and look to understand their primary learning needs. What is bad behaviour covering up? Are they lost in class? Have they missed vital stepping stones to learning? Are they using bad behaviour to cover up for their struggle to understand what is required?
  • Parents need to recognise the signs of self-harm and depression in their children, so that they can refer them to specialist teams for help.
  • Parents need to praise the effort, not the end result, and support their children to focus on strengths not weaknesses.

 

Neil Alexander-Passe is the Head of Learning Support (SENCO) at Mill Hill School in London, UK, as well as being a special needs teacher and researcher. He has taught in mainstream state, independent and special education sector schools, and also several pupil referral units. He specialises in students with dyslexia, emotional and behavioural difficulties, ADHD and autism. Neil has written extensively on the subject of dyslexia and emotional coping and, being dyslexic himself, brings empathy and an alternative perspective to the field. Find out more about Neil’s work here.

Learn more about Dyslexia and Mental Health here.

Read Neil’s other blog post: The lifelong social and emotional effects of dyslexia

Developing Luna: representing grief in childhood

Emmi Smid, author of Luna’s Red Hat, walks us through her creative process as she developed Luna’s character: from her name and her look, to her dress and her special hat.

The name Luna

The name Luna is not a coincidence.  Luna is Latin for moon. Symbolically, the name Luna stands for transition, renewal and balance, among other things. I thought it a suitable and hopeful name for a young girl who is coming to terms with the loss of her mother.

The Moon is also a place most ordinary people can’t reach. What goes on up there is incomprehensible to us. At some point in the story, we see Luna’s Mum depicted on the Moon, trapped in her own world and out of reach. People who have dealt with a suicidal loved one will be able to empathise with this.


luna page

Luna as a Rabbit

While I was developing Luna, I played with the idea of using an animal for the main character, as you can see in the sketches below, but eventually decided against this idea. Suicide is a fathomless notion, whether you are a child or an adult. In this specific case, I felt that it was very important to show children (and their family) that they are not the only ones going through this. Therefore, I wanted to illustrate a representation of an ordinary family.luna rabbit 2

luna rabbit

Luna as a girl

Ever since that I made that decision, Luna’s look went through quite a few changes – from using different materials, which gave her  a different feel as a character, to different heights; from tall and gangling to the petite but feisty 6-year-old she is now.luna girllcollage

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Luna in 3D

I also made a 3D version of Luna, so I could play with light sources and shadows, and use photos I took of her as a reference for my illustrations.

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Luna’s Dress 

Luna’s dress, with its checked pattern, stayed the same throughout the process. It was inspired by a dress my Aunt Judith used to wear when she was around that age. The dress has appeared in several of my fine art pieces throughout the years, as you can see below, and finally found its destiny in this book.

luna dress

 

Luna’s Red Hat

Ironically, the thing I struggled drawing most was Luna’s red hat! It was either too small, too floppy, too big, too bonnet-y, too red, or not red enough, and even looked like a fire brigade hat or a UFO. You name it, I’ve drawn it, over and over again.

 luna red hat

 

Emmi Smid is a children’s book author and illustrator. She was born in the Netherlands but currently lives and works in Brighton, UK. Learn more about Luna’s Red Hat here.

The Story Behind Luna’s Red Hat

Featuring suicide in a picture book may sound like an unlikely combination to some people, which is why we’ve asked Emmi Smid, author of Luna’s Red Hat to explain what motivated her to write and illustrate Luna’s story.

That art is a necessity to society’s well-being and structure is, in my humble opinion, a fact; creative people have the ability to shine a light on important matters from different perspectives. Through their words, visuals and sounds, these products of creativity encourage us to ‘think outside the box’, touch people’s hearts and bring people closer together.

My background originates in Fine Art. With my above-mentioned image of “The Artist” in mind, I struggled to find the ‘use’ for my own art within our modern day society. What do I have to offer that could potentially add something positive to how we think about and deal with current social matters?

During my time at the University of Brighton, where I read for a Masters degree called Sequential Design/Illustration, I started revaluing the importance of the picture book, and how a balanced ‘marriage’ between words and pictures can teach not only children, but also adults, simple but profound lessons in life. So, I started by revisiting my collection of picture books that handle the topic of death: Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, Wolf Erlbruch’s Duck, Death and the Tulip, Oliver Jeffers’ The Heart and the Bottle, among others. Then the penny dropped. As beautiful and heartfelt as each of these picture books were, none of them touched upon the topic of loss through suicide. I noticed this because I have lost loved ones to suicide. I was 16 when my friend Bram committed suicide. We were the same age, and we were raised on the same street. We went to primary school together, and after that to secondary school. As far as I knew Bram was always going to be a part of my life, until he wasn’t. His sudden death came as a shock to all of us – Bram’s family first of all, my family, our mutual friends and their families, our teachers, the school, there was a real ripple effect.

In the spring of 2009, when I was 21 and had moved from my home country the Netherlands to England to study Fine Art at University College Falmouth, my aunt Judith committed suicide. She left behind her two daughters, Merel and Silke, aged 14 and 10 at the time. Being away from home, I felt rather disconnected from my family. I was concerned about my cousins – with all of us struggling to grasp the notion of suicide and getting our lives back on track, how were my cousins going to deal with this at their age? I felt powerless and useless.

Fast-forward to January 2014, and there I was discussing the idea of designing a picture book about dealing with loss through suicide with one of my tutors at the University of Brighton. I was very passionate about the idea but the fact that there weren’t many books about the topic made me doubt myself. “If you are not sure, then maybe you should start by finding out why there aren’t many children’s books about suicide?” my tutor suggested. So I sat down and came up with a number of reasons why: the notion of death is difficult enough for children, let alone dying by apparent ‘choice’; we live in a society where children are wrapped up in cotton wool and are protected from real life for as long as possible; Suicide is still a social taboo.

None of these reasons felt very satisfying – in fact, the more I thought about it, the stronger the urge became to confront and perhaps even tackle those reasons. Children are as clever as adults, with the difference that they lack life experience. The only way for adults to help children gain life experience is to provide them with the tools to deal with life, as and when it happens. Social taboos are created and perpetuated the same way: it all boils down to our own lack of tools to be able to empathise rather than judge, communicate rather than ignore, and confront rather than beat around the bush.

Unfortunately, people commit suicide. I have felt isolated and lonely when trying to deal with overcoming the loss of my friend and my aunt, and I have seen the effects it has had on my family and friends. If we adults are struggling, then how will young children deal with such a loss? Determined and on a mission, I created the first series of sketches telling Luna’s story:

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I posted the sketches on my blog and asked people for feedback. The reply of Alexis Deacon (writer and illustrator of picture books such as Beegu) made me take a step back and reconsider my approach: “You might try offsetting the sadness with moments of humour or just exploring different kinds of sadness. After all, the message is an important one and you are more likely to reach a wider audience if you don’t club people round the head with it!”

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Considering the sensitivity of the topic, I also decided to get feedback from specialists in the field. During my research I read the book Couldn’t You Stay for Me? by Dutch bereavement specialist Dr Riet Fiddelaers-Jaspers and contacted her. Riet has been an immense help ever since, providing me with feedback regarding different stages of grief and sharing her expertise with me. She also agreed to write the ‘Guide for Parents’, her contribution in the back of Luna’s Red Hat, which is designed to help parents, carers, teachers and professionals to support and communicate with children who have lost a loved one through suicide.

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In search for feedback from parents who have been through similar situations, I contacted Belgian bereavement institution Werkgroep Verder. They agreed to share my manuscript with some of their clients, and I received some very useful and eye-opening replies. The one that got to me most was feedback regarding one of my illustrations. I wanted to show Luna being overwhelmed by her own anger, through drawing a big metaphorical red wave of anger behind her. A parent rightfully pointed out that one never knows whether the child was exposed to the incident, and that “splashes of red liquid” may cause further pain. I instantly decided to make the wave blue instead.

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Designing Luna’s Red Hat has been a tough but blessed learning curve, personally as well as professionally. There are many more insights into the process that I could show you, but the main insight I would like to share with you, is that we can learn to embrace our losses together, however heartbreaking they may be. I wasn’t able to physically be there for my cousins Merel and Silke when they lost their mother, but I dedicate this book to them. If Luna’s Red Hat could provide parents and their children with a new perspective or hope in even the slightest way possible, then that would mean the world to me.

Emmi Smid is a children’s book author and illustrator. She was born in the Netherlands but currently lives and works in Brighton, UK. Learn more about Luna’s Red Hat here.

 

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A sneak peek into Luna’s Red Hat

It is spring. Luna is in the park, wearing her Mum’s red hat. The sun is shining, but today is not a day for feeling sunny: it was a year ago today that Luna’s mum committed suicide. Fear, anger, and guilt are just some of the emotions that Luna is coping with. Luckily, her Dad is there to help Luna with her emotions and questions.

 

An extract from Luna's Red Hat

An extract from Luna’s Red Hat

Emmi Smid is a children’s book author and illustrator. She was born in the Netherlands but currently lives and works in Brighton, UK. Emmi wrote Luna’s Red Hat for her cousins, who would have wanted to have a book like this when they were younger.

Helping people through the holidays.

In this blog post, John Wilson, bereavement counsellor and author of Supporting People through Loss and Grief, shares some thoughts on how grieving people can cope with the difficult holiday season, and how those around can try to help and support them.  

Supporting People through Loss and Grief cover

Supporting People through Loss and Grief

This Christmas will be Sophie’s first since her husband David* died in early Spring 2013. Her eyes filled with tears as she recalled a long-standing family tradition. Each year since the children were small, the family would drive to a plantation in a country park and select their Christmas tree. They would all sing along to festive music on the car stereo, and once home, would decorate the tree together.

In her grief counselling session, Sophie and I, her counsellor, were discussing how she and her three children should buy their tree this year. Should they try to continue the family ritual as if Dad was still with them, or should they do something entirely new? Sophie had talked to her children, who were certain that they wanted to continue the tradition.

At times such as this, there is no escaping the reality of a loved-one’s absence; a situation rendered even more poignant by a holiday others are celebrating. Be it a religious or secular holiday, a birthday or an anniversary, the loss of those we loved and continue to love, evokes bittersweet memories.

Of course David, husband and father, will be with his family when they choose their tree. He will be in their hearts and thoughts; more so perhaps, if they are brave enough to continue this and other rituals in his fond memory. One of the many things my bereaved clients have taught me is the power of symbolic meaning. David will be with his family symbolically. This is not at all the same as pretending that nothing has changed, because for this family, a lot will be different this holiday and on all future holidays.

Not so very long ago, it was believed that to overcome grief, the bereaved needed to relinquish the lost loved-one. “Let them go and move on”, we were told. We accept now that bonds with the deceased can continue. This does not mean clinging on vainly to the past, but it allows the life of our lost parent, child, sibling, lover or friend, to become part of our future. The lessons they taught us, the examples they set us, the values they lived by and the jokes and stories they shared, become immortal; family lore which we can choose to bequeath to each new generation.

Symbolism and ritual are valuable human activities. At festivals and holidays we will inevitably be drawn to think about those no longer with us, whether we like it or not, so let us deliberately and consciously embrace the opportunity to recall the ways in which they continue to affect our life. At the hospice where I work, and at many hospices, relatives can sponsor a light on a tree at Christmas. We call it “Light Up a Life”. The switching on ceremony is emotional, but both happy and sad thoughts are evoked, and in many cases shared. Whoever it is you have lost, there is something helpful in knowing you are not alone in your grief; a reason why collective memorial events serve to heal. You may consider lighting a candle or taking flowers to a grave or to a special place significant to your loved-one. Perhaps you might make a donation to a charity in his or her name.

Not every bereaved person has close family nearby. Childless people bereaved of a spouse often struggle when they lack the continued sense of purpose and meaning which comes to those lucky enough to have children, or even grandchildren. It is easier to maintain a sense of purpose when you have this motivation to “keep cheerful”. Bereaved spouses with no dependents have to find novel, symbolic ways to continue a bond with the partner they have lost. One of my clients would retrace the steps of a favourite moorland path she and her late husband had often walked. At holidays and anniversaries she felt that this brought them closer together. It was important to her that she walked the route alone, to give herself time for reflection. This need for solitude can be very important. For many newly grieving people, December marks the end of a sad year and the hope of a new start. Many bereaved spouses have told me that they would like to have some time on their own on Christmas Day, but that well-meaning relatives will not allow it. If you have a recently bereaved friend or family member who has asked to be alone, at least for some of the day, please try to support this wish. Remember that being alone is not the same as being lonely, and that sometimes the loneliest place to be is in a room full of happy people.

When I see my clients for the last time before New Year, generally in mid-December, I say to them ”Try to have the best time you can”, because to say, ”Enjoy yourself” would be insensitive and unhelpful. There are ways to make a difficult time of year more bearable, and I hope that here I have provided a few pointers.

*Sophie and David are pseudonyms. The real ‘Sophie’ has read this text and has given consent for her story to be told.

 

John’s book, Supporting People through Loss and Grief, will be published 21st December 2013. You can read more of his expert advice by following @JWilsonOnline on Twitter.

What do you say to someone who is bereaved? JKP author Judy Carole Kauffmann advises

In every Bereavement and Loss workshop that I have facilitated over the years, regardless of the role of the participant, the question of universal interest seems to be  ‘what do we say when we don’t know what to say?’

The Essential Guide to Life After Bereavement cover.

The Essential Guide to Life After Bereavement.

Everyone it seems is afraid of saying the wrong thing, and the more tragic the loss the greater our fear. So why is it so hard for us to know what to say when someone has been bereaved? Is it possible to say the wrong thing?  Does it matter what we say, as long as we convey by our tone of voice and facial expression the fact that we care?

In both my personal and profession experience there are certain phrases and actions that are more helpful than others, but without any shadow of doubt the worst action of all is no action at all.

Because we don’t know what to say, we may go out of our way to avoid the person who has been bereaved by literally or figuratively crossing the road to avoid them. Thus we are in a sense punishing them for something that was out of their control. We are isolating them at a time when they most need support. Sometimes all that sustains the person going through a crisis is the knowledge that other people care. They need to be wrapped in a symbolic blanket of love and support. So, how can we best comfort those in emotional pain?

‘I don’t know what to say’ and ‘I’m so sorry to hear’ are quite helpful expressions and cover most eventualities; ‘I wish I knew what to say’ is another variation on the theme.

‘Is there is anything I can do?’ needs to be backed up with something concrete. For example ‘if there is anything I can do this is my e-mail’ (for a work environment) on a personal level you could say ‘I am not working on Monday, would you like to meet for coffee?’  Alternatively ‘I’m going to the supermarket can I do any shopping for you?’ or ‘would you like me to pick up your kids from school?’ if appropriate.

Practical offers of help are often welcome and much more helpful than an empty ‘if you need anything don’t hesitate to call me’ which often makes the speaker feel virtuous,  but leaves the recipient unfulfilled and unlikely to take up your offer believing, possibly correctly, that it is not meant.

If the bereaved person says ‘I miss him/her so much’ a reasonable response could be ‘what do you miss most about him/her?’ allowing the person the opportunity to talk about their loss rather than trying to change the subject.

Trying to jolly them along with comments such as ‘but you have two lovely children/grandchildren to take your mind off him/her’ is not helpful.  It may make you feel better because you have said something to ‘cheer them up’ but you will not be helping them at all.

The ‘why did this happen to me?’ type of unanswerable questions that  many professional and non professional carers fear,  can be answered with ‘I wish I knew the answer’ or ‘I wish I knew what to say that would help’

The point is that is not essential to have an endless supply of wise words. The person you are with needs to know that you care and that you want to be supportive. It is not necessary to have a brilliant philosophical response.

The importance lies in being there and being able and willing to really listen, giving that person your whole attention.

To truly give someone your full attention without interrupting them is a gift, and if you can listen without giving them your unsolicited advice, your experiences, or what your neighbour did in similar circumstances, it is a rare gift indeed. 

Judy Carole Kauffmann is the co-author of The Essential Guide to Life after Bereavement – Beyond Tomorrow  (Jessica Kingsley July 2013) and End of Life the Essential Guide to Caring (Hammersmith Press 2010). She facilitates workshops on Bereavement and Loss and can be contacted on 07919 072111. I f you’d like to find out more about her work, visit End-of-Life Management.

Celebrating What Does Dead Mean? at the House of Commons

JKP Commissioning Editor Caroline Walton and Marketing Executive Claudine Harris were delighted to attend an event at the House of Commons on Wednesday 6th February to celebrate the publication of What Does Dead Mean?  A Book for Young Children to Help Explain Death and Dying.

The event was hosted by the Rt Hon Keith Vaz MP and the Angus Lawson Memorial Trust (ALMT), and also celebrated the work of the ALMT and their collaboration with bereavement counsellor and co-author of What Does Dead Mean?, Jenni Thomas.

It was both a moving and uplifting evening. Speeches were given by Keith Vaz, the authors of the book Caroline Jay and Jenni Thomas, and Nick Lawson, the founder of the ALMT. Two short films were shown, the first of a young boy, bereaved of his sister, reading and talking about the book. The second of a six year old boy and his sister talking about their mother who had recently died of breast cancer. The film was shot 20 years ago, and the young boy, now grown up, was at the event.

These moving films, as well as the reading of a beautiful poem written by a bereaved mother, served to highlight the importance of a book that helps children to try to understand what ‘dead’ means, and to talk about their feelings. Jenni Thomas, a bereavement counsellor of many years’ experience, spoke of how important it is that children can ask questions about death and be given clear answers.

After the speeches and films, Keith Vaz very kindly treated us all to a wonderful tour of the Houses of Parliament, complete with tour guide patter, jokes, and greetings to politicians, Baronesses and others that we passed along the way! After a visit to the gallery of the House of Lords, where we happened to enter as John Prescott stood up to speak,  we were ushered on to the floor of the House of Commons, where we practiced our ‘hear hears’ and jeers!

The following day, Keith Vaz tabled an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons which mentioned What Does Dead Mean? and noted that it helps adults to talk to children about death and dying.

You can read the Early Day Motion here:

http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2012-13/1049