My father died at the age of 57 (when I was 26) and my mother at the age of 89. My in-laws also lived to ripe old ages. So I can say that I have experienced bereavement, but not in its sharpest forms – sudden or violent death, death of a spouse or a child, or a parent while still very young. How people endure such I do not know.
Recently, inspired perhaps by a Guardian article on how to help the bereaved (it’s here, looks very good https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/mar/04/how-to-live-and-learn-from-great-loss-death) I’ve been rehashing the subject in my mind. From my experience, unsullied by training, wisdom or books on the subject, I have three disjointed things to say, which are all trite, but I feel sometimes overlooked.
The first is that bereavement is strange. Doubtless there are the documented five stages that begin with denial and end with acceptance; but generally I have found no rules to grief except that it doesn’t do what you expect (and isn’t the same each time). I loved both my parents, but I reacted very differently to the two deaths. As I remember my mother saying, it is surely a mistake to think that the level of A’s devastation after B’s death is an accurate measure of A’s love. (She didn’t put it quite like that.) We should not judge anyone else’s response.
The second is that people (especially spiritual people) tend to look at death in terms of the grief and loss of the bereaved, to the exclusion of other kinds of loss, and in particular the loss to the dead person themselves. When a person dies, especially if they die young or youngish, even if they have gone to a better place, it is not unreasonable to think they have missed something.
After my father’s death, I was irritated by well-meaning friends or books who suggested that God had a purpose for me in this event. Concentrating on this, for every death that touches us, can be worryingly self-centred. As far as my life was concerned, my parents had in a sense performed their function by bringing me up, and giving me a stable and affectionate background for which I shall never cease to be grateful. My father’s death affected and grieved me, and I missed him, but the principal sufferers were him and my mother. He lost the years, perhaps decades, of growing old gracefully that men in this country tend to expect, with all the experiences of those years. In particular he lost the chance in earthly life to meet any of his grandchildren. Part of the pain of his illness, I’m sure, was his knowledge of this. I’m not convinced that we consider this often enough.
Thirdly, a tip on notes of condolence which the Guardian inexplicably failed to give. If you want to contact someone in writing when they’ve been bereaved, please do so. A card is sweet, but an individual message written inside means so much more. And that message can say how sad you are for them, how much you want to help, and how devastated they must be feeling… but the best letters of condolence are the ones that talk about the dead person. These are the real comfort – words of praise, anecdotes (even silly ones), evidence of their influence: that’s what we wanted thirty years ago, and I doubt it’s changed now.
Honest words of course. A clergyman at my grandmother’s funeral doubtless meant well by ascribing to her religious beliefs she did not hold, but I found this very distressing. And sometimes you can’t talk about the person, because you didn’t know them; you may never have met your best friend’s parents, but you should still write. (In this case I tend to say that the parent must have been a wonderful person because their child is, which is corny, I suppose. But honest, because all my friends are wonderful.)
These are my three thoughts about bereavement and loss, culled from a very limited experience. I have been very fortunate in my life.
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