woman with long read hair standing in front of graphic background with the appearance of a squiggly line entering the left of his head and two gently wavy arrows emerging from the right hand side

Recently Prince Harry bravely spoke out about how he had suppressed the grief of his mother’s death and how it has affected his mental health for the last 20 years. He talked about how his loss has also made him feel lost and how he lacked a sense of purpose and direction, which ultimately made him unhappy.

We often say it is harder for those left behind and after losing my dad a few weeks ago I have naturally given this more thought Dad died of cancer and we were fortunate to have more months than had been originally predicted. During this time we cared for him and there was less time to think about ourselves. It gave us a sense of purpose to ensure that his last few months were filled with memorable times and that he was comfortable. At the end, as he deteriorated it became apparent that it was time for us all to let go. While not easy, initially the void was filled with making arrangements.

When Harry said he felt lost, I can understand this. However, I did have my mum to look after as she was now living with us. If she became wobbly then so did I although together we are able to catch ourselves and the moment passes. What I have come to realise is that what is “pulling us through” is that we have a plan and that by sticking to this and making it happen we have both a routine and a sense of purpose We have a road map.

Shortly after my dad’s funeral mum had a fall and so she has had to focus on getting moving again and has had to learn to put herself first. Watching her during this time I can see that putting herself “centre stage” is the best thing she can do to help her deal with her loss. I have taken this lesson and have started to prioritise myself.

I have become more mindful of the importance of nurturing myself, and how this in turn, makes me stronger for the rest of the family.

Death is inevitable and we are all going to experience loss. It is often easier to cope, to know how to support others through bereavement when we are personally involved. It is often harder to know what to do when it is an acquaintance. Reflecting on my experience and drawing on my personal mindfulness practice I turned to the question of how we can support work colleagues suffering from a bereavement.

What I have noticed is that I find it difficult when someone asks how I am. I find it more comforting to be able to just talk about specific things such as arrangements for the funeral or anything that I am struggling with like the mechanics of probate. It is also good to know that your colleagues will step in when needed. That they have “got your back” and will cover for you or temporarily take over pieces of work so that you don’t have any added pressures to worry about. We know from mindfulness that it is important to “turn towards” our experience rather than expending energy wishing it were different. It is helpful to be able to talk openly about your grief with others rather than feel you have to hide it in case you offend their sensibilities.

Here are some tips for supporting colleagues:

  • A thoughtful sympathy card or some flowers is very comforting and acknowledges their grief
  • Don’t avoid them because you feel uncomfortable or embarrassed – they will notice and putting on an enforced “brave face” to spare your feelings only adds to their suffering
  • Have some neutral questions – so rather than asking how a person is – perhaps ask how the arrangements are going or if their anything you can do to help in a work context
  • Don’t be over familiar, be available and willing to listen in an appropriate context – you don’t need to be a therapist
  • If you are aware of workplace counselling for bereavement you may like to sign post them
  • Because they are grieving doesn’t mean their brain has stopped functioning – remember to include them in decisions, routine work. Their work may be a respite and give purpose and routine
  • Don’t add to their stress. Take away unnecessary workload pressure, but remember to agree what and how this will work
  • Be aware that the person might have had to take on looking after other relatives and this can be added stress
  • Be mindful that bereavement can be very tiring as often sleep patterns are disrupted and emotional distress drags you down. Perhaps allow flexible working if possible or simply offer to cover for the person to come in later and go home early

Additional reading

Blue Skies of Autumn by Elizabeth Turner published by Simon and Shuster – ISBN-13: 978-1847376275

Elizabeth was seven months pregnant when she lost her husband, Simon in 9/11. Working in HR at Channel 4, she watched with horror as the devastating events unfolded. Her book is a very personal account of the deep grief that she experienced and how she been able to gradually work through it.