Berkeley: How can friends and family support the bereaved?

‘In time everyone finds their own way to cope, draws their own road map’

The death of a precious child of any age goes against the law of nature. In an ideal world adult children bury their elderly parents who have lived a long and healthy life.

The sudden tragic deaths of the Irish students at the start of their J1 adventure in Berkeley, California will have shattered their families' world. Often bereaved families describe it like a bomb going off as they try to absorb that their beloved child, brother or sister, or much loved grandchild has died and won't be coming home.

I was working in Anam Cara when the news broke last Tuesday. As a bereaved parent, my thoughts were first for these young people’s mums and dads, brothers and sisters as they start their tough journey through the intense grief and loss. Our thoughts are still with them.

There are no road maps for those who are suddenly bereaved, because each member of a family has a different relationship with the person who has died. In Anam Cara we know that in time everyone finds their own way to cope, draws their own road map.


At such times extended family, friends, colleagues often don’t know what to do, and ask themselves: how can I support them; what do I say; how can I make this better? The reality is no-one can make this better. The very worst thing has happened.

What bereaved families need is someone who can sit with the grief and the tears and not try to stop them. They are trying to make sense of what has happened, and asking “what if” and “if only”. Those close to them need to be willing to listen, make the tea or go for a walk with them. Let them talk, cry, because when a young person dies suddenly without warning there is no making sense of it. However, being able to talk about them and their death will help families and friends process what has happened, make it real.

Everyday tasks are like climbing Mount Everest for families in the early months after their loss. Some want help but don’t know how to ask, while others want to keep themselves busy. Friends and neighbours need to be able to read the situation, but can help by dropping in a dinner, offering to do shopping or other household tasks.

Employers can also show their support by offering relatives of the bereaved as much time off as possible, and flexibility around their return to work. It is important in larger organisations that work colleagues are told of the death as soon as possible. This gives them the chance to acknowledge the bereavement, by visiting or sending messages of sympathy. It also saves the bereaved relatives the experience of meeting colleagues who don’t know what has happened on their return to work.

Sometimes people can be awkward around bereaved families, because they don’t know what to say, but this shouldn’t stop you acknowledging their loss. A simple “I am so sorry” or a hug may be the right thing to do. A special card sent with a personal message can offer comfort in the months to come.

Often people, with the very best of intentions, will say “thankfully they did not suffer” or “you have an angel in heaven now” or “at least you have other children”. These comments are not helpful, however, there is much that people can do.

Bereaved parents have told Anam Cara that friends and family can help in a number of ways, and they offer a number of suggestions:

* Don’t avoid us, have the courage to accept us and our grief.

* Please be aware that each death is unique and comparisons to other losses are not appropriate.

* Asking “how are you feeling” indicates recognition of our feelings rather than just “How are you”?

* Please speak the name of our son/daughter or brother/sister and share your special memories.

* Understand that if we cry and are emotional when talking about our children it is because they are dead and not because you mentioned them.

* Tolerate our emotional state. Some days we will be angry, some days lethargic, some days we will want to talk and for you to listen, other days we will want you to talk and for us to listen.

* Don’t put a time frame on our grief, everyone grieves in their own way and time, there is no formula.

When a child dies, so do all the dreams and milestones we had hoped for them, their graduation, first job, wedding, grandchildren. As time passes our intense grief changes, softens, moves to a place where we can remember with love rather than pain.

With the passing of time it often seems like the world has forgotten our child, yet as parents and siblings we carry them in our hearts. So as the years pass, it is helpful for friends and family to take time to mention their name and share a memory with us – it is always welcome.

Finally I have learnt on my journey through grief that although death ends a physical relationship it does not end the love I shared with my daughter Rachel. Our relationship continues: it is just different to the one I have with my other living children.

Sharon Vard, CEO Anam Cara (Parental & Sibling Bereavement Support, /Bereaved Mum