Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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31/7/16: helping bereaved friends

Yesterday would have been Pete's 54th birthday, just over 6 weeks on from his passing so suddenly.  Since that time a huge number of people have expressed their love and concern in many ways to immediate family members for which I'm very grateful, it has made a difficult time considerably easier.

The suddenness of it all meant, of course, that there was no preparation, and I'm aware from the opposite point of view, when I've been the friend of a bereaved person, that it is not at all clear what the 'right' thing to say or do is.  I'm also aware that individuals and cultures vary hugely in how bereavements are handled and, again, speaking for myself, what I myself want and need can vary from day to day, hour to hour, with no clearly discernible pattern.

Notwithstanding these differences, I felt that I wanted to pull out from the last few weeks a few things that I think that I've learnt that will, I hope, help in the future when I'm the friend of a bereaved person.  I would say first of all that I'm glad I arranged a gathering in my flat in Pete's honour, in effect at the suggestion of one of my students (thank you, Simon!)  I quite deliberately and unapologetically chose timings and a format which were convenient for me - I prefer to get up early and go to bed early, particularly in tropical heat, so opted for a late morning slot making clear that I was providing snacks but not lunch.  This provided me, and the people I know in Dar es Salaam, with a clear focal point, helping them to help me in a clear way.  (I would say also that my housekeeper, Hellen, her sister Emily and friend Lucy were just fantastic at handling the required shopping and domestic arrangements, thank you!)

Beyond this there are some points which have come up over the last few weeks, aware that I am very much speaking about myself and what I find helpful, would be very interested to hear views from other people who have other views.

Keep interactions short in the first instance
In the immediate aftermath of the bereavement I was having difficulty concentrating and was trying to continue to work as normally as possible.  So, short interactions were most helpful, with messages of support kept simple.  It's always possible to go into writing, eg. with long funny stories which can then be read and appreciated at leisure.   So, I think, better to end a conversation than start talking about something else, including other people who have died.  Also, asking questions about what has happened shows support, love and concern, but if one is finding it difficult to concentrate, what is intended as supportive can easily feel like a bit of a barrage, even intrusive.  So again, keep things short and simple - unless there are clear signs that the bereaved person is wanting to talk at greater length.

Give the bereaved space to construct their own meanings
It is, of course, very much a tenet of the Christian faith that after death our spirits go onto Glory.  My favourite expression of this is found in the last verse of the hymn 'Amazing Grace' which goes like this:

When we've been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun
We've no less days to sing His praise
Than when we first begun.

I have to be honest, it's in large part the mathematician in me that likes this because of the definition of infinity it gives, ie. infinity minus ten thousand is still equal to infinity!  And so, there is a clear sense of hope - and indeed celebration - as we reflect on Pete's passing, which came out beautifully in his funeral service.

But alongside this is a strong sense of loss, shock, mourning and bereavement.  If we put this in the context of Philippians 1:21

To live is Christ and to die is gain.

Life for as long as it lasts is a precious gift from God to be used to His glory.  And in the transition there is going to be a sense of loss for what was very important and special but no longer there.

What I am trying to say here is that it is for the bereaved to work through these feelings of loss, shock, mourning on the one hand and hope and celebration on the other.  If we are not careful, I think, we can in the Christian world, in the nicest possible way, be pushing people too hard and too quickly to come out of the mourning into the celebration.  Again, things we have to say in terms of hope and celebration can be put in writing, then to be appreciated and reflected at leisure when people are ready to do so.

Keep offers of help as specific as possible
Saying something like, "If there's anything I can do, anything at all, please don't hesitate to say," reflect a level of love and concern which is very much appreciated.  But there is, I think, a problem here.  Unless there is an extremely close relationship and a history eg. of doing supermarket shopping for each other, such offers are difficult to access, putting the onus on the bereaved to try to work out what would be helpful and not too much of an imposition at a time when they already have a considerable amount to think about.

So, I suggest, better to say things like, "I'm going to the supermarket tomorrow afternoon, is there anything I can get for you when I'm there?"  Or, "I'm cooking a casserole this evening, shall I bring some round hot or would you prefer it frozen?"  That is, definite, clear offers of help which, I think, are easy to access.

Working through the mourning can take a considerable time
In some respects the real mourning starts after the funeral is all over, as the immediate activity subsides and we all look to adjust to a new normality.  So, expressions of love, offers of help (noting comments above!) and so on are welcome long after passing itself.  Do not assume that an outward demeanour actually reflects how people are feeling.


In concluding these thoughts I would like to make special mention of Jane, a friend of my parents.  Jane called round to my parents' house (when I was there) at about 6pm on the Sunday immediate before Pete's funeral, bringing a card and a box of chocolates.  She made it very clear that she was not stopping, and declined offers to sit down and have something to drink.  Having assured us of her love and prayers, she was gone again within a very short period of time, certainly less than 5 minutes.

The key point here, I suggest, is not the chocolates - although they were very nice.  Nor is it the card - although that also was a very kind thought.  It was the expression of love and support in a short period of time.  Jane, if you're reading this, from the bottom of my heart, thank you, really grateful to you for your support which was - and is - hugely appreciated.


In finishing this blog post I would like to say that this will now be the last time I write about Pete's passing.  This represents on my part a conscious effort to live out Christian teaching.  Having mourned his passing, celebrated the hope we have, reflected on the process, we commit him to our Almighty God's care, and then look to move on, trusting in our Lord that there is no better place for him to be.  That's not to say that I won't continue to remember Pete.  And his birthday will remain in my diary.


6 Comments to 31/7/16: helping bereaved friends:

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Margot Allen on 31 July 2016 11:17
These points are really helpful, as the road of grief can be very long and rocky at times. I think its important not to presume someone has 'got over it' too soon. I'm impressed with your determination to give him to God and not dwell on things, but quite honestly even after 9 years I still think of my sister every day and can't help but think what might have been as she has 4 Grandchildren she never even saw. I had some very unhelpful comments at the time, so I think this kind of blog is a great idea. We certainly don't handle death well in our culture. My sister took her own life which has been referred to a a Special Scar as it is far more complex than most deaths.
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Geoff on 31 July 2016 23:15
Thank you for sharing, Margot. Cannot begin to imagine what you went through, understand that the pain is still there. And agree that the British 'stiff upper lip' approach is not necessarily helpful. Both having lived abroad and having been a jobbing organist in London I've been privileged to see rituals around bereavements from a variety of points of view, I would agree that we have things to learn from how other cultures go about this. Hope to stay in touch and thanks once again, Geoff
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SIMON PETER ERUMU on 01 August 2016 08:31
Really very humbled with the message"helping a bereaved friend". I want first to appreciate the message so much. It is really,really important to learn how to help any bereaved person because this is one of the experiences we can not avoid. I would like to observe that in line with this, I think it is also important to learn different cultures across the world and appreciate them. It is not an easy task to help a bereaved friend whose culture you are not sure of. At least I have this experience. Dr Geoff thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. I shall learn a lot from these observations and will always remember and try as much as possible to practice what can be applicable to own culture. God bless.
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Geoff on 01 August 2016 08:59
Thank you Simon - and thank you for the idea of having a gathering as mentioned above, that was very helpful. Agree that we can learn from each other, as I say above, in the UK we can tend not to show our emotions which I don't think is healthy. Thank you once again and see you soon, Geoff
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Rebecca Ecwou on 01 August 2016 10:59
My teacher, thanks for always being a teacher. Indeed am too grateful for the courage you have taken to enlighten us. The world has become a global village therefore making it very important to learn different cultures so that we behave appropriately at different occasions. We leave all unto the Lord.
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Geoff on 01 August 2016 11:05
Thank you for your kind words, Rebecca, much appreciated. See you soon, Geoff

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