Dying Matters Awareness Week 2024: What to say when someone you know is bereaved

9 May 2024

Hospice UK’s Dying Matters Awareness Week 2024 runs from 6-12th May. Focusing on How we talk about Dying Matters, the campaign encourages everyone to talk in a way that works for them.

So if a colleague, friend or relative is bereaved, do you know what – and what not – to say? The National Bereavement Service has put together this quick guide to help you have better conversations, especially in that first encounter after the death which many of us find daunting.

  • Anticipate

Don’t cross the street to avoid meeting someone who is newly bereaved, or – unless they’ve communicated that this is their preference – launch into a work-related conversation with no reference to what has happened to your colleague on their first day back at work.  A little thought in advance and, while the conversation may feel slightly awkward, it will be one that is genuine and leaves the bereaved person feeling that their grief has been recognised and acknowledged.

  • Acknowledge
    Always acknowledge what has happened unless you’ve been given specific instructions otherwise. “I was sorry to hear….” – you may not even complete the sentence before the bereaved person responds. Their response will demonstrate whether that’s sufficient, or whether they want to have a longer conversation.
  • Listen
    Not just with your ears, but with your eyes and body language. For some people a spontaneous hug is exactly right, but for others it will be intrusive – it could even feel almost like an assault.
  • Focus
    This interaction must always be about the bereaved person’s experience and their preferences. It is not the time to reminisce about all the people in your family who have died.
  • Be honest – with kindness
    If you didn’t know the person who has died, you don’t need to invent. Concentrate on the bereaved person instead, or facts about the deceased person you know from your friend or colleague. If your colleague often complained about how loudly their partner played music then ‘I guess the house may seem too quiet now?’ may show you have remembered what they have said, but recognise that all changes are challenging in early bereavement.
  • Never make assumptions
    Never assume anything about the relationship of the bereaved person with the person who has died, nor about their belief systems or their end of life experience. There are very few religions that guarantee that someone is “in a better place”. “At least they didn’t suffer” is also a major assumption. None of us can really know this, and pain and suffering can be spiritual, moral, emotional as well as physical. What appears superficially to have been a successful marriage may have, in reality, been characterised by years of abuse of varying kinds.
  • Be specific with offers of help
    “Let me know if there is anything I can do” is too vague. Are you saying it just to be polite or do you really mean it? The bereaved person can’t be sure. Offers of meals for the freezer, lifts to go shopping, sharing the school run or help with gardening, DIY or other chores are often needed and, even if not, show that your offer is genuine. If it is likely that a newly bereaved person will be inundated with visitors, then tea, coffee, biscuits and loo roll will all be helpful.
  • When is your experience relevant?
    You may have experienced a bereavement in the past in similar circumstances. You may choose to have a quiet word with your bereaved colleague or friend, or send a note or an email acknowledging this, saying “You may not know this about me but my son took his own life ….. years ago. I’m here for you if you want to talk about what has happened.”

A personal experience from our NBS adviser

I was in a remote location in central Africa when news reached me that my father had been admitted to a hospice. This was long before the internet and instant communications, so the news was already a week old.

A colleague said to me “It will be good for you to get home in time to see him”. The truth was that I didn’t want to see him again – I’m not proud of that, but he had been terminally ill for over 2 years and we both knew when I went to Africa that we might not see each other again. I also knew that if I did get home ‘in time’, I would take refuge in my identity as a nurse rather than as a daughter in an ambivalent relationship.

I recognised my colleague’s words as well-intentioned but unhelpful. When we discovered that my father had died on the day I had received the news of his deterioration, also a week after the event, far better was the reaction of one of my African colleagues. He approached another member of the expatriate staff and asked for guidance about the appropriate way to approach me. That made me feel very respected and supported.

Need more help in knowing what to say? Access practical bereavement support from the National Bereavement Service

The National Bereavement Service supports anyone who has experienced a bereavement, including sudden or traumatic bereavement, with practical and emotional information and advice from professional bereavement advisors with lived experience.

We help you to comply with legal requirements, signpost you to providers such as funeral directors and solicitors, and provide a listening ear that helps you through a very difficult time.

Our expert advisers also help anyone to plan ahead for their own death, from Wills and Lasting Powers of Attorney to considering funeral costs.

For personal, confidential, and practical help following a bereavement, or for advice when planning your future, call the NBS on 0800 0246 121 or visit www.thenbs.org