Health: How to give comfort in the darkest of times

Roy and Hayley Cropper

Roy and Hayley Cropper

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A soap storyline has brought grief onto our screens. an expert told Katie Baldwin how to help a bereaved person.

The death of Coronation Street’s Hayley Cropper has been the most hotly-debated soap storyline for years.

When the soap showed her choosing to end her own life while suffering from terminal cancer, assisted death made headlines throughout the media.

This week, viewers will see Hayley’s husband Roy struggle to come to terms with her decision.

In addition, the programme will depict a man facing terrible grief at the loss of his partner.

Being bereaved, by a close relative, friend or partner, is something that will happen to us all at some point.

Greg O’Sullivan, bereavement co-ordinator at the Sue Ryder Wheatfields Hospice in Headingley, Leeds, is there to help some of those affected get through these most difficult times.

His role in the hospice’s bereavement service involves supporting those affected by the death of a loved one who has either been cared for at the hospice or through one of their services.

Greg said that when a friend or relative is bereaved, people close to them might know how they are likely to deal with a terrible event.

But even if a death is expected – as with Hayley – their loved ones can still be left in shock.

That is to be expected, as is the fact that there is no set time for how long intense grief should last.

“We may have an expectation that people get over their grief in about 12 months,” Greg said.

“People say silly things, like ‘you should move on’ and ‘shouldn’t you be over it by now?’

“We should be thinking in terms of a two or three year period.”

So if you know a bereaved person, how best can you help them?

Greg has heard of people crossing the road to avoid a bereaved person because they didn’t know what to say.

But the most important thing is simply to be there, and to listen.

“No-one wants to think about dying or death and seeing someone who has been affected can be really hard.

“You don’t have to do anything. Just sit with the person.

“You don’t have to have magic answers or say something clever.

“Just hear what they’ve got to say about how difficult things are.”

He said bereaved people are often hard on themselves, feeling guilty for not doing more – even if they cared for them round-the-clock – or telling themselves they should be coping better.

“People often say ‘I have not accepted it yet’ – and I say ‘why would you accept something that’s so unacceptable?’

“It’s much more useful to think in terms of adapting to a change of circumstances.

“With grief there’s a whole adjustment process.

“That takes time because people can be desperately sad and it’s really hard to do new things.”

In fact it’s often practical issues which crop up, and make coping much more difficult.

In Greg’s role, he comes across couples who lose a partner later in life, but the man may have never had to cook for himself.

Or the woman might have never driven the car, or looked after the household finances.

“Sometimes we get a fixed idea of grief being an emotional process, but there’s all kinds of practical and social implications.”

And the problem is, these things must be dealt with when the bereaved person probably feels least equipped to do so.

That’s why Greg suggests that, as well as being there to listen, offering practical help can also be hugely beneficial.

“Often people can’t be bothered to cook or they don’t know how to shop for one,” he said.

“That’s where family and neighbours are really good. If you’re eating with other people, you tend to eat more.”

He advises to remember other people might deal with grief differently, so if they want to keep the person’s clothes, or have their ashes close to them, that’s up to them.

Most importantly is to help the bereaved person not to ‘get over’ their loss, but to find a way through it.

“Grief is not static,” he says. “People are learning to live with a change in circumstances. They are learning to live with it and it’s an ongoing process.”

Useful contacts

Sue Ryder-Wheatfields Hospice cares for over 2,500 people living with incurable illnesses each year through in-patient beds, day care, outpatient clinics and community day therapy. Contact 0113 2033 333 or visit www.sueryder.org.

If you have been bereaved, visit your GP to find out about getting health and emotional support.

Cruse Bereavement Care runs a helpline on 0844 477 9400 or log on to www.cruse.org.uk for more on its services.