Death is a subject we rarely talk about – perhaps because we don’t really know what to say. Cariad Lloyd shares her ways of talking to people who are grieving.
Illustration by Louise Boulter
Death is a cliché. I don’t know where to begin to describe it; the shadow, the grief, the pain, the numbness, the cold grey hand that strikes at your soul, there aren’t any useful words. Recently I had to send flowers to a friend who lost her son, and every time I tried to type out a message, I couldn’t. I ended up with, ‘There aren’t the words’. Not useful, but true. Everything sounds trite, every sentence feels false, fake, insulting to the person you love who you can see is breaking in two because a person they loved stopped breathing, thinking, walking, laughing and holding them.
I have found myself first port of call to friends who have just lost a parent – a veritable guide book of what to expect and the benefits of beans on toast for survival. Although this macabre job has sometimes made me feel sad, it has mainly made me feel useful, which replaced the aching, wailing uselessness of watching someone die.
You’re left with a lot of anger when someone dies. More than people warn you about, and more than most supportive friends are prepared for. There’s nothing more irritating than being ignored, and death is the best sulk since angst began.
And so, with as much joy and tact as you can bear in death, here are my tips to talking to the bereaved.
Don’t avoid it. Even if all you have to say to that person is I’m sorry. Even if when you do say it, they roll their eyes and say, ‘Well it’s not your fault,’ and you feel as if you just burnt their skin. You did – but, you did not burn it as much as if you don’t ask. That is always worse.
Ask a few details if you feel brave. How did it happen? Did they die at home? These are the facts, sometimes you can manage those, painting a story for those who did not take the journey with you.
Don’t pretend you’re cool with death. We’re all scared. Asking without any emotion – ‘How did he die? Oh right, well, anyway can you make that meeting Friday…’ – is heartbreaking. Don’t be embarrassed. We’re not. We’re sad, that’s all.
Equally don’t you start sobbing. You can cry a bit, in solidarity, but wailing that you really loved them too means they’ll have to comfort you. You’re a supporting actor here not the lead.
Do ask ‘is there anything I can do?’ – and mean it. Think about it, what could you do? Do they need food? Hoovering done? Help with banks? Children? There is always something small you can do in the immediate moment.
Don’t forget. The trouble with grief is, as it fades you seem normal and so people think you’re fine. For the first year, you’re not. Birthdays, Christmas, spring flowers; all these things must be faced without that person. Remember this when dealing with a strangely uptight friend about their birthday party six months later. Take them out, send a card, mention it. After six months people stop and you feel as if you might have made it all up.
Be okay being ignored. Someone is now permanently ignoring them, so they might need to ignore you. Wait. Be patient. After the first year, remind them they’ve survived.
If they’re dressed and they’ve had breakfast – congratulate them.
There’s no set manual. Do hug, do remember, do ask.
Cariad is a comedian, actor, improviser and writer. Her dream is to one day pay off her student loan and to finally find the perfect concealer. @ladycariad