Be there to listen; even when you don’t know what to say

When someone dies, we often find it difficult to know what to say to the people they’ve left behind.  Strangely, rather than overcoming this sense of embarrassment, we often avoid having a conversation at a time when, by just being there to listen, we could make such a huge difference.

As an Independent Celebrant, I often meet with loved ones very soon after their loss and it is my job to talk to them about the person who has died, to help us prepare a service to celebrate their life.  It is a huge privilege to be with families at this time and to hear their stories and share their memories.  I love helping them open up their box of happy memories, finding comfort in the joyful moments they all spent together is a wonderful way to start the process of grieving.  And most of what I do at our first meeting is listen.

It is hard to know what to say.  Nobody finds it easy, or comfortable to start a conversation about death, especially when it seems there are no words that are “enough”.  And there really are no words that will ever feel like the right ones, so you have to be yourself and use the kind of language you normally do.  We tend to over-think what to say and this becomes our excuse to say nothing.  “better to say nothing than the wrong thing”, we tell ourselves, but in truth, it is better to say something simple and show you are thinking of them.

Before the age of facebook messages, we used to write to people when they lost a family member or loved-one.  Sympathy cards, which so often seem ‘old-fashioned’ now, are exactly that – a lovely, kind old-fashioned way of showing that you are thinking about what that person and their family are going through.  They cost very little (even less if you make one yourself, or use writing paper) but mean a great deal to the recipient.  I recently spent time with a client looking through more than 130 cards from her husband’s work colleagues and friends.  She was overwhelmed by their kindness and by how many lives her husband had touched.  She told me that their words meant more to her that she knew how to express, and that they were giving her great comfort.

One of the wonderful things about being a Celebrant in a small community, is that you also hear about the way people support each other at a time of loss.  Food arrives regularly, cooked with love and care and with no thanks expected.  Lifts to appointments and offers of filling in forms and informing locals of funeral arrangements are common place and every time I visit a family, there are neighbours popping in to make tea, do washing or collect the kids for an hour’s relief.  I am constantly reminded that life goes on and it is the people around us who ensure we’re able to get back on board as we start to recover.

And as time passes, after funerals and wakes and celebrations of life are over and the family has to return to ‘normal’ life, comes the time when being there is even more important.  Once the initial shock and support has subsided, and everyone has had to return to their own lives, it can be a very isolating time for the family.  Once the organising and preparing for the remembrance has ended, family can feel at a loss and the reality of finality hits home.  This takes a different amount of time and a different form for everyone.  We all grieve at our own pace, and one of the most important things you can do is reassure them that there is no need to rush the process.  Reassuring them that you’re there for as long as they want to talk, whenever that might be, is very supportive.  Don’t be disappointed if they don’t take you up on this offer, and don’t hesitate to keep offering; when they’re ready they’ll hear you.

Most of all, don’t stop talking to them about the person who has died.  We tend to feel like we should avoid mentioning them, in case we upset their loved one.  I like to think of this in a different way  – when we talk to them about the person who has died, we help them remember the memories they created together, their shared stories and the good times they enjoyed.  We give them a chance to reconnect with their happiness at a time when they are feeling sad, and to see that the memories will always be with them to enable them to experience those emotions again.  It’s a gift we can give them which might make them cry as they smile.

I think we talk too little about death in our society, and this is a key reason why we hesitate to engage with those who are experiencing it within their family group.  We don’t know what to say, because we’ve rarely heard our parents talking about it and it’s highly unlikely it has been discussed at school unless a tragedy has impacted the school directly.  When we look at cultures where death is more widely discussed and made part of life, we discover the challenges in talking about it are less frequent.  In Mexico, for example, every child has experienced the Day of the Dead celebrations, by the time they reach school age.  Death is part of the culture from art to music to tourism, so offering words of support is second nature.

I’d love to know if you were supported by people listening when you lost someone you loved.  How do you think we can make it easier for people to feel they can offer a hug or words of support?

With love

Dinah

Let’s talk about death, darling

Talking about our inevitable death and our wishes after the event, is not usually included in recommended light conversation for date night.  Even amongst those who work in roles where you’d expect talking about dying to be something they’re trained in, and despite us all knowing that we will, at some point, die, many of us never let our family or close friends know if we have any special requests for our own life celebration service.

As a Celebrant, I often have detailed conversations with family members to ensure every detail of the service we put together is exactly in line with the wishes of the departed loved-one.  An integral part of writing the ceremony, is often including particular words or music that meant a great deal to everyone present.

Despite this being such an important part of creating ceremonies that help the family move forward, I realised last weekend, that I had never spoken in any real detail with my husband, John, about what I would like for my life celebration.  Even with my experience and training, I found it slightly difficult to pick the right moment to suggest we ought to make it clear for those left with the task of arranging our funerals, if there was anything particularly important to us that we’d like them to include or consider.

I am pleased to say, that once I got over the initial “this isn’t the most positive thing to talk about over pudding, but I’d like to talk about death, darling” John and I had a constructive, positive and at times even funny conversation.

We talked about where and how we wanted to have our bodily remains left, and both agreed we liked the idea of being cremated.  John has always said he’d like a Viking send-off, but after giggling about sending him down the garden stream in a log boat, set alight with his charcoal, we got a bit more practical and agreed a Life Celebration where we were by water would be more manageable.

We talked about who we’d love to have there, and why.  We shared ideas on who we’d want to speak and what stories they might share.  I was reminded of my first experience speaking at a funeral, when John’s dad died and I was asked by his mum to write and deliver the service, with just two days to prepare.  Before long we were remembering holidays we’d shared before his dad became ill, and it was one of the most positive conversations we’ve had about him since his death seven years ago.

One of the big things we acknowledged, was that the service is really for the people we leave behind, not for ourself.  We wanted to be sure the ceremony would be positive and uplifting for our daughter and friends, we hoped the people we’d ask to read would share joyful and happy memories and be there to offer a hug and support to our family.  By preparing as much as we could in advance, we were removing some of the burden for those that had to plan and make arrangements during a challenging time.

I made him promise that, if he is around to help plan my service, nobody would read “Stop all the clocks” by W.H. Auden; it would have our daughter in pieces.  By the same token, “The life that I have” is far too much like him for her to cope with it at his service, so we’re planning on short, simple and possibly even comedic poetry, with a leaning towards Pam Ayres.

And all the time that we talked about these plans, we held each other’s gaze; we smiled and listened intently.  We cried a little too; the thought of being here without each other brings no joy and after over 30 years together, I don’t spend time imagining a life after John. Yet this evening’s conversation, heart-wrenching, laughter-creating and above all, surprising, had proved to be soothing and calming, leaving me with a sense that, despite the fear, we can talk about death; even with those we fear leaving the most.

Dinah