Considering loss

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 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.

Love from the PPI Blogger


  • Malachi Malagowther

    10th March 2017 at 6:27 pm Reply

    I hope you don’t have to experience the loss of a spouse anytime soon. I seem to remember Elizabeth Bennett’s father in Pride and Prejudice rather mockingly suggesting that he might outlive his wife but I don’t think it is usual for the man to do so. To say that I hope you die before either of your children might be well-meaning and an echo of the statement of King Théoden at his son’s funeral, but it could be misconstrued especially if you died under mysterious circumstances and the prosecuting barrister were just to partially quote the statement.

    I suppose the trick is to live in a way that would mean that anyone writing a condolence letter would have lots of nice things to say about us. Even that is a bit risky because they might say that we were very generous in our alms-giving or very devout in our public prayers and that isn’t supposed to be of any use to us in the life everlasting and may not be of much comfort to the griever.

  • Matthew Perry

    11th March 2017 at 8:00 am Reply

    Thank you for the post, thought-provoking. I have two thoughts in response, one reflects a comment made a former vicar about the number of people for whom he had held funerals whose families told him the the deceased would have “done anything for anyone”; his comment was that he had not met many people alive who were actuallly like that. The second pertains to my parents, now both in their 80s. I have from time-to-time wondered what I will say at their funerals, should I get the chance/responsibility. Particularly that perhaps I should not be given the opportunity as I would be inclined to tell the truth and not say the things that people like to hear at funerals. Do I come over as ungrateful to them? I am not, but I am far from blind to my parent’s faults (nor my own I hope) and there are some major factors in both their lives that should not be glossed over, in my opinion.

    • Malachi Malagowther

      11th March 2017 at 6:57 pm Reply

      Have you read Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” and “Speaker for the Dead”, Matthew Perry, science fiction partly about a new religion that springs up out of an honest posthumous assessment of a person’s life (or an alien’s life)? It depends partly on what a funeral is: a religious ceremony committing a person to God and worshipping God; or a summing-up of their life; or a comforting part of the grieving process for the bereaved?

      • Matthew Perry

        12th March 2017 at 8:45 am Reply

        I have indeed read the full series of Enders Game and Enders Shadow, though I have not really thought of them in that way and in my typical way can not really remember what the “speaker” does I’m afraid.
        The question of what a funeral is for is a very pertinent one. It depends on the person and the family. For a person who has folllowed a faith then it can be religious but I have felt very uncomfortable at services for people I have known who had no connection with any religion yet still had a clergyperson saying religious words at their funeral. It does not seem right.

  • Penelope Wallace

    11th March 2017 at 6:58 pm Reply

    Oops, that last comment wasn’t Malachi but me! (We share a computer.)

  • Judith Leader

    11th March 2017 at 9:10 pm Reply

    9:07 PM (2 minutes ago)

    to Penelope
    Dear Penny,
    I too found the article very interesting and we have similar experiences of death of our parents.
    My father was 62 when he died and I was 24 and 34 weeks pregnant with my first child and the first grandchild. After my father died, my mother who was 58 and in good health felt that having looked after my father it was her turn to be looked after. This made life very difficult and for various reasons my memory of my fathers death left me with feelings of guilt. My mother was 84 when she died and it was only after her death I found I could grieve for my father.
    Of course the stages of grief can be most unhelpful in as much as some people feel that you have go through them in the ‘correct order’ but are helpful in as much as you know in retrospect that other people go through similar feelings. How helpful they are at the time I am not sure. I believe our culture does not allow for grief, especially as after a certain period of time you are meant to be back to normal. I wish we did what many religions do and have a period of mourning, where people come and talk about the dead person.
    Death seems a taboo subject and many people have never seen a dead body. As a nurse of course I have had the privilege (and it is a privilege) of doing the last offices when people die, and for the last 18 years of work, working in the neonatal unit, with those babies who died. It was good to see the carers of the babies who did die, nursing their baby and occasionally helping to wash them and choosing cloths in which they wanted to dress them.
    Grief can be difficult as it embarrasses people so the bereaved person has to put on a brave face. It is helpful to remember that we are all going to die, obvious though it is, I have often found that people in church are better at praying for healing than facing up to death and it makes me wonder why, if heaven is so good, why we are afraid of going.

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