Talking about death and bereavement – Dying Matters Awareness Week

Ilustration of two people sitting on a bench with arm round shoulders, and speech bubble

8-14 May is ‘Dying Matters Awareness Week.’ Started by the UK Hospice movement, this is a week set aside to encourage friends, families, and communities to begin healthy conversation around the topic of death and dying. This follows from the fact that in many cultures, including our own, death continues to be a difficult and uncomfortable topic.

There are several events on to mark the week, including:

  • Wednesday 10 May, 14:00-15:30 – come along to a Death Cafe (Canterbury) for a relaxed, informal chat about death and dying.
  • Friday 12 May, 11:00-14:00 – drop in to see the Medway campus chaplain in Drill Hall Library for coffee, cake and conversation to mark Dying Matters Awareness Week.

You can also watch Medway chaplain Lynne’s excellent video on talking about death, dying and grief on YouTube at any time.

When someone we care about is grieving, it can be difficult to know what to say or do. We are afraid about intruding, saying the wrong thing, or making them feel worse at such a difficult time. While these worries are perfectly understandable, it’s important to not let them stop you from reaching out. Now, more than ever, your loved one needs your support. You don’t need to have answers or give advice. The most important thing you can do for a grieving person is to simply be there.

How to talk to someone who is grieving

Let them know that you’re there to listen

While you should never try to force someone to open up, it’s important to let your grieving loved one that you’re there to listen if they want to talk about their loss.

When it seems appropriate (for instance, if they mention the person who has died), ask sensitive questions that invite them to openly express their feelings. By simply asking, “Do you feel like talking?” you’re letting your loved one know that you’re available to listen.

Accept your loved one’s feelings

Let the grieving person know that it’s OK to cry in front of you, to get angry, or to break down. Don’t try to reason with them over how they should or shouldn’t feel.

People who are grieving may also need to tell a the story of the situation over and over again, sometimes in minute detail. Be patient. Repeating is a way of processing and accepting the death.

Acknowledge the situation

Oftentimes, well-meaning people avoid talking about the death or steer away from the subject when the deceased person is mentioned. But for many, this avoidance makes things all the more difficult.

The bereaved need to feel that their loss is acknowledged, it’s not too terrible to talk about, and their loved one won’t be forgotten. Talk candidly about the person who has died and consider sharing a loving memory.

Things to avoid saying to someone who is grieving:

“I know how you feel.”

Saying you know how someone feels can be unhelpful. Losing someone is different for everyone, and so saying this can make it seem like you’re not really listening.

“Time is a great healer.”

Talking about time is a tricky area too. It’s easy to fall back on such phrases while forgetting that grief has a mind of its own and works at its own pace.

“You are so strong.”

Don’t make assumptions based on outward appearances. The bereaved person may look fine on the outside, while inside they’re suffering. Such statements may put pressure on them to keep up appearances and to hide their true feelings.

“It’s part of God’s plan.”

If you have a faith, try to remember that it might not help offers, even if it is very important to you.

Offer practical support.

It is difficult for many grieving people to ask for help. They may feel guilty about receiving so much attention, fear being a burden to others, or simply be too depressed to reach out.

They may not have the energy or motivation to call you when they need something, so instead of saying, “Lert me know if there’s anything I can do,” make it easier for them by making specific requests. For instance, “For instance, I’m going shopping this afternoon, is there anything I can get for you?”

Try to keep checking in as time passes by.

Your loved one will continue grieving long after the funeral is over, and the cards and flowers have stopped. The length of the grieving process varies from person to person, but often lasts much longer than people expect.

Continue your support over the long haul, periodically checking in, dropping by, or sending cards or letters. Try and offer extra support on special occasions – birthdays, holidays, anniversaries etc. – and remind your loved one that you’re there for them.

Get support

If you, or another student at Kent is trying to cope with bereavement, it may be helpful (when ready) to work through the Togetherall Coping With Grief and Loss online course, or seek one to one counselling via Student Support and Wellbeing. For in the moment support that can’t wait for an appointment with the Student Support and Wellbeing team at Kent, you can call or text our partner organisation Spectrum Life.

For external support for anyone, the charity Cruse provides bereavement support via telephone, chat and resources.

Written by Ellie, Student Services, 09.05.23