This week is highlighting national Dying Matters Awareness Week. The purpose is to encourage communities across the country to come together to talk about death, dying and grief, especially in the workplace.
Stigma around grieving, and a lack of understanding about what it means to be ill and what happens when you’re dying, means that too many of us are struggling to cope when faced with life’s inevitable challenges, and the workplace is no exception. The grief that comes following a bereavement may include difficult and unexpected emotions, from shock or anger to disbelief, guilt, and profound sadness. It can lead to a loss of sleep, a loss of appetite and an inability to think properly, and can even trigger mental health conditions such as depression, eating disorders, anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For employers, it is of the utmost importance that all employees are supported during a time of bereavement and grief. 57% of employees will have experienced bereavement in the last five years (Hospice UK, 2022) and every day, more than 600 people leave their job to look after older and disabled relatives (Carers UK, 2019).
Death is inevitable. It is going to happen to each and everyone of us. In fact, aside from birth it is the only other thing in this life which is guaranteed to happen. Yet death and dying are not conversations that are talked about unless they need to be happening. There are many different reasons for this, it isn’t nice talking about the end of a life especially if it is those of our loved ones. Death and dying isn't exactly a happy subject, lots of people do not know what to say when a death happens, which can then result in not saying anything at all… and that can feel even worse.
One of the hardest things about death is that even though we know it is going to happen, no one is ever prepared for it. If a death is unexpected or sudden then it feels so shocking. This leaves the people that have been ‘left behind’ with lots of different feelings, usually lots of unanswered questions and lots of regret about the things that they didn't get to say. If a death is followed by a terminal illness or a long deterioration in mental and physical health, we are still never ‘ready’ to say our goodbyes.
Whilst I was training to become a qualified Counsellor I worked at a Children's Hospital. My role there was to support children and young people and their families who were faced with life threatening illness. Sadly, for quite a lot of these families, their children died. To lose a child, whatever age, is one of the most difficult things any family has to face. Society ‘sold’ us the notion that ‘the normal pattern of life’, is that parents will always outlive their children. When anyone experiences the loss of a child, life feels cruel, unkind and punishing in a way that no one has experienced before. As well as the physical loss of that child, there is also the loss of the life that those families thought they were going to have. Losing a child hasn’t allowed those families to create any memories like they would have done if they were to lose someone from old age.
Being in that hospital environment, death and dying is something that is ever present. Even though the parents hoped, with every ounce of their being, that their child wouldn't die, the reality was it was always there. I have been privileged to walk alongside many different families during their children's end of life. Engaging in the most difficult of conversations, losing the hope they carried, asking how they should say goodbye and what they should do when the end comes. These are indeed the most difficult of conversations, but conversations no less that had to be had. By talking, the parents were able to navigate their way through something that they thought they would never have to do.
For me personally, I have been hugely open with my family should I die (whatever age that may be). It is important for me to know that I will have the funeral that I would like, for others to hear the songs that they know would have made me smile. I have had conversations about organ donation (if I am able) and my choices about termination of my life if that ever presented. All difficult but necessary conversations, but by sharing my thoughts, I feel that I will have done as much as I can possibly do to support my family during this time.
Death and dying is hard and sad, and upsetting and shocking, but if we are able then please try to talk about this topic. Talk about it at home with your loved ones or at work with your colleagues and bosses. A bereavement café is another wonderful environment that welcomes anyone who has been bereaved. The purpose is to enable communities and individuals to support each other through the hard times, to engage in conversations with others who understand something of your experience whilst providing a chance to connect with others so that you can begin to build you own social support networks.
If you would like more information on our bereavement café or if you feel that you would benefit from some one to one grief counselling, then please get in contact.