Tag Archives: bereavement

Following the death of a spouse (BBC News Magazine)

A month after her husband’s sudden death, Sheryl Sandberg has published an emotional post on Facebook. She writes about “the look of fear” in co-workers’ eyes when she returned to work and the difficulty of finding “a new normal”.
Sheryl Sandberg writes that she has spent moments “lost in that void” after the death of her husband, Dave Goldberg, and is aware that “many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well”.
But the chief operating officer of Facebook also adds: “When I can, I want to choose life and meaning… For me, starting the transition back to work has been a saviour, a chance to feel useful and connected.”
When she went back to the office she realised relationships had changed, however. “Many of my co-workers had a look of fear in their eyes as I approached. I knew why – they wanted to help but weren’t sure how. Should I mention it? Should I not mention it? If I mention it, what the hell do I say?”
“That’s very common,” says Anne-Marie Conlan at the Bereavement Center of Westchester in New York state. “People don’t know how to react. They don’t want to remind you of it, especially if you are having a good day.
“There is no solution and that scares people too. They can find it frustrating and don’t know what to do… It’s a weird reminder of the fragility of life and that it can happen to them.”
When one British man, Ed, suddenly lost his wife 15 years ago he took three months off work – he had a baby to look after – but on his return to the office there were some awkward moments. “Men really didn’t know what to say apart from, ‘Could have been me mate.’ It was quite a difficult position and yes they did have that look of, ‘I’m glad to see you back but hope you’re not stopping too long,’ because they really did run out of things to say.
“Because I was in a management role the incident was soon forgotten and you were expected to be back up to speed 100% quite quickly, which is what I found the hardest thing.
“One chap said to me, ‘This is something you’re going to have to live with now and get on with your life,’ which is an easy thing to say… I was actually told that my situation wasn’t as important as the shareholders I work for.” Comments of this kind, he says, “stop you in your tracks”.
For Sandberg, it helped to admit that she was vulnerable, and invite co-workers to talk about it. “One colleague admitted she’d been driving by my house frequently, not sure if she should come in. Another said he was paralyzed when I was around, worried he might say the wrong thing. Speaking openly replaced the fear of doing and saying the wrong thing,” she writes.
People deal with loss in their own way – but Conlan agrees with Sandberg that telling a bereaved person, “It’s going to be OK,” is not particularly helpful. “People ask, ‘Will I ever feel the same, or better?’ We say, ‘No you won’t – you’ll feel different.’ They will never feel the way they did… it’s accepting the reality and coping with that.”
As for returning to work, “You make your own blueprint,” says Conlan. “People need structure in their day and if you feel productive and useful and still have a purpose, that helps. Kids normally go back to school a few days later.”
Ed agrees. “If you have too much time then you sit and dwell and that’s self destructive. You need to get out and do something. Everyone’s different, some people throw themselves into work, some people throw themselves into hobbies. I think focusing on my son and making sure he was well and brought up properly was 90% of my survival.
“Equally you do have to grieve, otherwise all you do is put it behind a brick wall and at some point that brick wall is going to come down. I suffered worse five years later – delayed grief.
Sandberg writes that she “will never feel pure joy again”, and 15 years after his loss, this is something Ed can relate to. “It’s not the same – that’s kind of a different lifetime almost. This year I’ve been without her as long as I was with her and that hits home quite hard… It’ll never be the same again. Obviously one thing [Sandberg] says is she looks at her children and counts her blessings for that – and I do too.
“You never recapture what you had. I’m not down, you come to terms with it and you learn to live with it and you have to move on or you die with them. When you’ve got a child you can’t afford to do that because you’ve got someone else who depends on you. You can’t just give up.”

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The Way We Were

  • It used to be the norm to have funeral services in the home of the deceased, prior to going to the cemetery.
    I was ordained in 1974 and worked in a rural Parish in Perthshire, centred on a reasonably sized village.
    A service would be conducted in the sitting room while the undertakers brought the coffin down from an upstairs bedroom to the hearse. Most often the “menfolk” would be in the kitchen when I arrived, knocking back nips regardless of how early it was. Everybody would then cram into the living room and I would stand in front of a blazing fire (which was lit for the occasion both summer and winter) with the back of my trousers singeing. We tried not to listen to the coffin bumping on the banisters on the stairway nor the sometimes desperate whispers of the funeral directors as they tried to manoeuvre the deceased round a curve in the stair. 
  •  The shops in the High Street would close and houses would have their curtains closed along the route of the cortège to the cemetery, where, most often, only the men would attend – leaving the ladies to prepare the “funeral tea” back at the family’s home.
    People would stop in the street.  Men and boys would raise their hats or caps in respect. Cars and other vehicles would give way to the funeral procession.
    This wasn’t all that long ago – and, now…. how times have changed amidst the hustle and bustle of contemporary life, where the dead are are seldom honoured as they used to be; and people selfishly ignore the sensibilities of the bereaved.
    Sic gloria transit mundi

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The Show Must Go On

One of the Preacher’s nightmares is to have a dodgy stomach on a Sunday morning, prior to conducting Morning Worship (tip: never have a takeaway curry the night before)

One is sitting enthroned with less than an hour to go and wondering what to do.  It has happened a couple of times – but, mercifully, I’ve had Session Clerks who could take bits of the service, while I dashed off to the church loo.

Worse – an occasion when I had to drive some distance on a particular Sunday morning to preach for a vacant Charge in the Interim-Moderator’s Church.  We set off in good time, but the snow got heavier and heavier until the road was eventually blocked.  This was in the days before mobile (cell) phones – so I had to walk through the snow-drift to a public phone box to let the Minister know that I couldn’t make it.  Poor guy – this was  his first church and so he didn’t have any “oldies” from elsewhere to fall back upon.  I hope the Holy Spirit came to his rescue!  (I later revisited – and got the post)

While a hospital chaplain, I was paged some years ago by the company which now owns the Crichton Memorial Church in Dumfries.  It would be about three in the afternoon and the Minister who was supposed to conduct the marriage ceremony (scheduled to start then) at the Church hadn’t turned up.

Could I help out?

As I wore an open-neck shirt (for hygiene reasons) and chinos at work – I said that I would have to return home to get changed into something more appropriate for a wedding – and that it would take me half an hour.  The poor bride was in tears (her mum was in tears and – later – the wedding cake was in tiers!) but after what I hoped was a reassuring chat, we got started.

It transpired that the missing Minister (who didn’t believe in rehearsals) had assumed that the Wedding was on the Saturday.  The groom and the family were not best pleased – and it even made the local rag.

On auto-pilot:  my beloved father had osophegal  cancer and died in the Western Infirmary in Glasgow in the early evening of Saturday, 21st February 1976.  After spending some time at the Hospital, I took my mother back to the family home and spent some time with her and my Father’s brother and sister who were staying with her.

About ten o’clock, I drove the thirty-odd miles to where my Church was; had a quick bite to eat, and spent the next three hours writing my sermon.

I took the Sunday service at 11 o’clock that morning, before driving back to Bearsden immediately afterwards.  And I haven’t a clue what I preached about that day.

and here’s a repost on the same subject:

Christmas Eve 1974
The Meenister’s Log

Murder in the Cathedral – well, getting duffed up on the steps of the kirk……..

I went to my first charge in June 1974 – a pleasantly quiet village where most of the excitement at Christmastide was going to look at the lights (green, amber, red, amber, green – hell , this was confusing – but exhilarating)

Anyhow, it was Christmas Eve and my first watch night service as a newly fledged meenister.

I got to the church just as the pub across the road was scaling out (whiff of the barmaid’s apron £1; sook of the spittoon £1.25; half-pint of dregs only £1.30. – I made that up)

Mind you, a few weeks before draped from the window of one of the flats above was a bed sheet with the message: “Happy 27th birthday, Granny”

OK – to our tale of woe: some of the punters from that pub decided that it would be a good idea to rough up our church officer who had asthma.

I managed to get those youths out of the building, but they started to smash up some of the diamond-shaped stained-glass windows.

So this daft wee meenister followed them outside to remonstrate; they then got stuck into me and hit on the head with an object (at that point, unknown)

The Polis arrived very quickly, and, even though they knew who the miscreants were, were annoyed when I wouldn’t make a statement.

Our Session Clerk, the saintly Dr Tom Burnett (RIP) arrived at the same time as my heavily pregnant wife. Gossip started about a Christmas baby – Matthew was actually born at the beginning of February – but he was actually putting stitches in my head (without anesthetic!)

Then right on time, I stood in the pulpit and preached about peace and goodwill toward all men.

The next day – Christmas morning – I had a 10.30 service – and, before we stated, Davie the Beadle, went to the church safe, and dialed in the code (6-6-6) opened the door and produced a dented can of Tennant’s lager (for my older friends, these were the heavier metal tins with the ‘Lovelies’ depicted thereon) – the one that had caused me to have three stitches put in my head.

I later enjoyed that can of beer – because it was ………….. Thirst after righteousness!

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At that hour: dealing with death

 from the Independent

Why our Irish compatriots ‘do death’ better than us



Early one morning, a year ago this month, the thing I’d always dreaded happening, happened. My mother had gone to bed the night before seeming fine, but suffered a massive stroke in her sleep. In a blur of tears and panic, I packed a few things and rushed to Heathrow, willing her to stay alive, at least until I got to the hospital in Ireland.

Three days later, my siblings and I were standing in the family home, next to an open coffin, shaking hands with people who queued down the street to offer sympathy. For nearly four hours, they came. By magic, the kitchen had filled with a small army of volunteers making sandwiches and tea, and passing around plates of apple tart.

By the time we buried my mother at the end of that August week, hundreds of people had arrived or been in contact and we’d experienced an outpouring of warmth, support, affection – and food. We could have filled the freezer several times with the home-made cakes, scones and casseroles that simply arrived. One person appeared at the front door and handed in a side of fresh salmon prepared on a baking tray dotted with lemon and dill. “Twenty-five minutes, hot oven,” is all she said, before rushing off.

Back in England, individual friends or colleagues who had themselves experienced bereavement wrote me letters or made phone calls so empathic they were heartbreaking. But for many others it was as if nothing had happened. I began to wonder if, for the English, death was either a private matter which would be indecent or even embarrassing to refer to, or that they had no idea what to say. Another possibility is they simply didn’t know.

In Ireland, passing on the news quickly is considered an important part of the response to death and this is not just in villages or small towns. My brother received a letter of condolence from the chief executive of the very large organisation he works for. It is standard practice for HR departments to send an email around when someone loses a family member. My boss in London had been very supportive, but I thought guiltily of work colleagues whose parents or spouses may have died and whose loss I had failed to acknowledge. Yet unless they had worn a black armband, how would anyone in a big workplace even know of their sorrow?

The Irish are not known for being any less emotionally repressed than their British neighbours but they do death very well. Funerals come with up to three opportunities for mourners to show up: there’s the waking of the body, which is often in the home, the “removal” to the church, and, on the final day, a funeral mass and burial followed by a reception or meal.

My friends in the UK asked me about the open coffin with a mix of fascination and horror. I didn’t tell them how my mother’s grandchildren had knelt up on chairs to get a proper look, and to place drawings beside her, or how we’d rearranged her fringe because the undertaker had made it too fussy.

To English friends, it all “sounded ghastly”. But perhaps they are used to a culture where death remains taboo even when it’s staring you in the face. One UK friend’s mother died in her fifties after a short illness. “You are invited to the funeral,” he’d said very formally. I knew that the family members were devastated but it struck me as rather sad that only a handful of people were there as they said goodbye to her. Perhaps they could not bear to feel pitied.

In Ireland, it is considered unsupportive not to show up if you know either the dead person or their family. This has much more to do with community, and perhaps psychology, than with faith. Many Irish people are now Catholics in name only but the rituals that have evolved endure and are, in my view, worth hanging on to.

Such rituals equip people with perhaps formulaic but extremely useful things to say and ways in which to act. They don’t need to ask, “Is there anything I can do?” – they know what the routine is so they just do it. One family I know awoke the day of the wake to find a neighbour hoovering their stairs. Embarrassment doesn’t come into it.

My mother died in the busy stroke unit at an overstretched hospital but nurses behaved in keeping with what is a profound, almost sacred moment for the family. They lit candles and placed a Celtic “triskele” (a pre-Christian symbol of life, death and rebirth) on the door of her room to alert other staff and patients. They covered her in an elegant purple drape and, when we eventually left, they hugged us, handing over a woven bag, her things neatly folded inside. When it seems unbearable that your mother has just died and the rest of the world is carrying on as normal, these gestures are comforting. From then to the burial four days later was intense. We were scarcely left alone for five minutes, but I think that intensity has an important healing effect.

This past year has taught me that grief is not linear. It can creep up again suddenly, just when you think you are emerging into the light. You see somebody who reminds you of the person who’s gone. Or, for a split second, you forget they’re not alive and then feel overwhelmed in odd places, as I did months later one day, queuing to buy a sandwich.

But if the culture in which you live regards death as individual or private, then you have little choice but to keep quiet about it. I suspect the cost to the NHS for treating depression or other illnesses related to it, and the cost to employers in days lost to stress leave for staff dealing with bereavement in isolation, is high.

Speaking about the death of her son, the broadcaster Libby Purves described how she felt it her duty to make other people think she was OK, otherwise they would have avoided her. “You have to make it all right for others. You want to create a feeling of casualness so that you don’t become the poor old creature nobody speaks to because they have been through tragic tragic-ness.”

To me, that seems like an extraordinary burden to place on the grieving person. I feel fortunate to come from a culture where death is part of life and people take it upon themselves to pick up the phone, send a message and, above all, keep talking you through it.

I returned this month to my home town for a small family event to mark my mother’s first anniversary and was again struck by the readiness with which local people referred to her passing, devoid of awkwardness or indeed pity. In the butcher’s, the supermarket and the hardware store as I paid for a tin of paint, I was greeted with variations on: “Your mother was a fine woman, the Lord have mercy on her” or “Hard to believe it’s been a year since your mum went”.

In Britain, death seems to be regarded as something so awful that it is best contained in the immediate family or with a counsellor if circumstances are traumatic. Perhaps there is a connection with it also being a society where even a natural, peaceful death is a medical event which few ever witness, and where the old and chronically ill are hidden away. Would attitudes to ageing be more compassionate and attitudes to life itself more fulfilling if funerals were not regarded as necessarily ghastly and mortality as something that happens only to other, less lucky people?

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