Learning not to 'shun' other people's grief

THAT'S MEN: Our behaviour can leave bereaved feeling isolated, writes PADRAIG O'MORAIN

THAT'S MEN:Our behaviour can leave bereaved feeling isolated, writes PADRAIG O'MORAIN

WE ARE not good at handling other people’s grief. We avoid the subject or, worse, the person who is bereaved, or we say stupid things such as, “Sure he had a good innings”, which is just an invitation to dismiss the dead person.

Men, for all our famed reluctance to discuss our feelings, are probably not much worse than women when it comes to handling the losses suffered by our friends.

Both genders are liable to shun the bereaved person or to say things that are unhelpful. “Shun” may seem like an unfairly strong word, but if enough people avoid talking to a bereaved person because they don’t know what to say, the effect can be that they feel shunned.


I think that we want people to get over their grief because their grief upsets us. It reminds us of our own approaching death; it reminds us also that our whole world can be ruptured by the absence of another person; and the closest we can get to a return to normality is for the bereaved person to get over their loss and back to normality – our normality, that is, because for the grieving person the old normality is no longer possible.

At the time of the death, we wrap the bereaved in condolences and support (though some suffer the unthinkable pain of returning to an empty apartment after burying a loved one alone).

When the funeral is over, usually within the hour, we resume our lives. That’s okay. The need to resume normal life is huge.

When we see the bereaved person going about their business, it is all too easy to assume – because we want to assume – that they have got over their loss and are getting on with their lives.

But, of course, they haven’t and they aren’t. It’s often said it takes about two years to “get over” the loss of somebody very close to you. Like all rules of thumb, this doesn’t fit everybody. For some, it will take much longer than two years and, for some, perhaps less.

Here are a few ideas for helping out a friend who is grieving:

First, don’t avoid them. Talk to them. If all you can talk to them about are the latest scores in the Premiership, then do it. But if you can mention the person who has died that, in the vast majority of cases, is a really good thing to do. Not talking about the person who has died can prolong grief, so by dropping their name into the conversation you are doing the bereaved person a great favour.

Second, never just assume they are “over it” or that they don’t need your help. They may put on a brave face, but they may desperately need a little company or somebody to go to the shop or collect the kids from school. If they are children or teenagers, they may need someone to take a benevolent and practical interest in them – and, yes, you would be surprised at how easy it is for children and teenagers to be left to get on with it after their parents die. The Irish Hospice Foundation advises that instead of vague offers of help (“Call me if you need anything”, and I cringe at the memory of having said that to someone who needed so much more) we offer specific assistance – to go for a walk, cut the grass, shop, make a meal, for instance.

Third, if you work with this person, acknowledge their loss if only by saying you’re sorry. Recognise that their energy may be low, their thinking disordered and their emotions very fragile, no matter how brave a face they put on. Don’t expect their performance immediately after they return to work to be as good as it was before the death.

The Irish Hospice Foundation has put together a series of excellent leaflets on grief. They can be downloaded free of charge from hospice-foundation.ie (click on the “publications” link).

Padraig O'Morain (pomorain@ireland.com) is accredited as a counsellor by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind – Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas.

His mindfulness newsletter is free by e-mail.