Talking to someone recently bereaved
Please be aware - this information is for healthcare professionals
Grieving is an individual experience, and people react differently to the death of someone they love. Culture and religion play a part too. Be prepared for a range of responses, from very emotional to quite reserved. The person who is bereaved might be overwhelmed or, especially at the early stages, numb and in shock.
Supporting someone through their grief can take a lot of time. Many people in the caring professions are on a pressured work schedule, but try to allow room for this important process.
What should I say?
It’s less about what you say, and more about listening and being there. You should try to follow their lead. If they want to talk a lot about the person who died, encourage them to share memories and experiences. Let them do most of the talking and allow them to tell you their story.
At other times, people need to sit quietly or have a cry. You can help simply by being there.
Remember that a person’s grief is their own personal experience. So there are some responses that may be unhelpful, such as saying that you know how they feel or that time will heal their pain. When supporting someone through their grief, it’s better not to talk about your own experiences.
You may find it helpful to signpost to our information for bereaved family and friends.
Is it OK to hold their hand?
Sometimes words aren’t enough. By all means, if the person who is bereaved reaches out for you or if it seems like the right thing to do, take their hand. An arm around their shoulders might be a comfort. Use your judgment at the time, and do what seems right for them.
I am worried the person who is bereaved needs more help. What should I do?
A grieving person might require more support than you are able to offer, personally or professionally. There are lots of ways to get support at this difficult time.
With the person’s consent, you could refer them or signpost them onwards, for instance to a senior nurse or counsellor via their GP. If the person wants spiritual support, a faith leader can be called with their permission. The chaplain from the local hospital, palliative care team or hospice can also help. If the patient was not receiving care from a hospital or hospice, they may not be able to access a chaplain.
You can suggest they call a voluntary service such as Cruse Bereavement Care for more support or their local hospice’s bereavement support team. If you are worried about their mental health or are concerned about someone’s immediate safety, you can suggest calling their GP or Samaritans.
They can also contact the Marie Curie Support Line on 0800 090 209.
Is it OK if I cry too?
If you knew the person who died you may feel sad too, especially if you cared for them over a period of time or got to know them well. It’s OK to cry, however try not to put more pressure on the bereaved with your own emotions.
It’s hard to lose a patient, so it’s important to look after yourself. Accessing support for yourself, either from colleagues or through clinical supervision, is crucial. Talking to colleagues on your team is a good way to do this. They know you and perhaps have been through similar experiences themselves.
Points to remember
- Grieving is a normal process and everyone deals with it individually.
- Supporting someone through their grief may take a long time and you should be prepared for this.
- Listening is the most beneficial thing that you do. Encourage them to tell their story.
- It’s OK to hold their hand or put an arm around their shoulders, if this seems appropriate at the time.
- Be prepared in advance, in case they need more support. Know where you can signpost the person who is bereaved for further help and support.
- Call on other members of the team if you have any concerns about the person who is bereaved, or if you’re struggling with your own feelings.
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