The death of someone close to you is difficult. That’s true even if the event is expected and comes as something of a relief at the end of a progressive and debilitating disease. 

So, it may be a shock to find there are things that can make grief worse. Some of these we can protect ourselves against. Others are things we need to consider if we are relatives, friends or professionals supporting a bereaved person.

When the death isn’t acknowledged by others 

The National Bereavement Service often speaks to bereaved people who feel let down by people close to them. 

Sometimes it is a friend who has crossed the road to avoid them because they don’t know what to say. This can leave the bereaved person wondering whether the news hadn’t reached them, or more probably, the other person doesn’t care enough about them to risk embarrassment. 

Loneliness and isolation are among the worst aspects of bereavement. Simply saying, ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘Is there anything I can help with?’ can feel inadequate but can be helpful. It gives the bereaved person the chance to continue a conversation if they wish, especially if you also knew the person who has died. You might be able to say something positive about the person or offer specific help such as a lift to the shops or a medical appointment. 

It may be that the bereaved person doesn’t have time for a conversation or can’t cope with a conversation at that moment. In this case you could follow up in a few days with a card or a phone call. You could make contact again after the funeral, which is when much of the hard admin work after a death begins, and the immediate rush of support fades away. 

Not knowing where to start with practical tasks

The majority of people only learn about the practical tasks that must be done when somebody has died, and they are the person responsible for making arrangements.

Learning and remembering sometimes complex information when someone close to you has just died is daunting. You will probably feel a sense of responsibility for getting things right – to honour the person who has died and for the sake of other people affected. 

To find out about registering a death and all the other necessary tasks, please have a look at https://thenbs.org/.

Finding it hard to access information 

Some people die in circumstances where their families are given very good information about the initial steps to take when someone has died. Most hospitals provide oral or written information, and many hospices do the same. 

If the death is in the community, it may be harder to find out who to get in touch with and what needs to be done. The person to contact depends on the circumstances, but if you call NBS our advisors can signpost you to the right person. 

The coroner’s office is usually involved if the death was unexpected in any way. Your council website will usually give details of the local coroner’s office. Normally you can find out what has happened and who is involved within an hour or so of starting a search. However, on a weekend or a bank holiday there can be a day or more delay which can leave you feeling a sense of panic and dread with the uncertainty of not knowing.

Poor customer service from organisations

Bereaved people do not expect bank and utility organisations’ staff to be counsellors. However, it is reasonable to expect that staff will be knowledgeable about their own organisations’ policies and procedures when a customer has died. This knowledge should be delivered with empathy and in a way that can be clearly understood. There can be considerable distress and confusion over matters such as what to do if there is not enough money in a bank account to pay for a funeral.

Customer service managers and trainers should monitor staff for their approach to bereaved people. This should include ensuring they can signpost people to sources of help when needed. Customer service should be more than just providing information about an organisation’s own products. 

Everybody experiences bereavement at some point in their lives, so this is a fundamental aspect of customer care. A genuinely helpful service delivered with sensitivity is a positive reflection on any organisation. 

Inadequate professional support can make grief worse

Bereaved people are already distressed, and this will often be evident when they speak. 

When they are bereaved, people can swing between emotional states. They can burst into tears or have sudden flashes of anger, for example. When emotions are in turmoil then normal emotional restraints are stretched to breaking point. 

Professionals who look after bereaved people (doctors, nurses, funeral directors and registrars, for example) should be able to recognise the clues and identify when a person is at breaking point. Recognising this moment and introducing breathing space by saying, ‘I’m sorry, I understand that this is very difficult information for you to hear,’ or ‘I’m sorry, perhaps I haven’t explained that very well – do you need me to go over anything again?’ gives the bereaved person the reassurance that the person has recognised what is happening and can cope with any reaction. 

When someone does not recognise the clues, this can have harmful consequences. Professionals should recognise that grief is complicated, and everybody is different. 

Get support from the National Bereavement Service

If you are struggling with grief, need information about the practical tasks after a death or you would like advice about how you can support somebody you love who is grieving, please contact the National Bereavement Service. We can provide you with both practical and emotional help at a challenging time.

You can contact us in confidence through our live chat service or call 0800 0246 121.