Are you alright?
I was clearing the snow from my drive in January when an old colleague walked by who I didn’t know very well. We had the customary exchange of ‘Are you alright’, but it turned out that she wasn’t: her father had just passed away.
A few things struck me about our ensuing conversation.
My colleague and I had never had a particularly long conversation in the time that we worked for the same company, but on this occasion she really wanted to talk about what happened, even though it was actually snowing and very cold.
First lesson about grief
It made me recall a time when I was in my 30s, working with a younger colleague whose partner had died, and my first lesson about grief. She told me that one of the hardest things for her was that her friends didn’t know what to say, so they avoided her. She really wanted to talk about her boyfriend, but had no one in her friendship circle to talk to share her feelings with.
When my mother died, I was fortunate, suddenly many relatives I hadn’t been in touch with rallied round and provided me with a platform to talk about my mum. Most people find talking about their loved one and what’s happened helps them process the loss. So be prepared to find people you can talk to and if you’re reading this blog to understand what it is people go through, be prepared to listen.
The second thing that struck me was that my colleague said she felt really lonely, even though she had a husband, two grown children and her mother as immediate family. Grief is a deeply personal thing; no one else can feel what you are feeling and therefore it is not uncommon to feel isolated with it. The intensity of the feelings makes it difficult to feel anything else and to experience the everyday emotions we felt before our bereavement. How many times have we heard about children who, having lost a parent, feel like they’ve lost the remaining parent to grief? It is natural we go into ourselves to deal with what has happened, but in doing so we feel lonely.
For most of us grief is a temporary state; we do work through to a position where we can enjoy life again, though it doesn’t feel as if we will at the time. I felt for my colleague as I knew she was just at the beginning of her process.
I am sorry for your loss
Another thing that my colleague mentioned was her experience of dealing with officials and staff in reporting her father’s death and the fact that people in these organisations had not said to her that they were sorry to hear of her loss.
I recall that my experience is that some people were great and acknowledged the loss and others were entirely functional. Even though there was part of me which thought the individual didn’t know me or my mother and that the phrase meant nothing to the individual saying it, it was better to hear it than to not have the death acknowledged.
I think there are people working in roles so accustomed to dealing with the practicalities of death that they don’t realise that as routine as death is to them, to the rest of us it is often devastating. I know it’s difficult, but all you have to say is “I am sorry for your loss”. That’s all – “I am sorry for your loss”.