Don’t hide behind flowers: why it’s time to stop avoiding the subject of grief

Posted by
The Stylist web team
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

It’s hard to find the right words to speak about grief, but imperative you say something. A wave of new releases on the subject offer advice on how

Words: Theresa Harold

Of all the subjects we struggle to talk about, death is perhaps the most difficult. It is awkward, upsetting – easier to ignore or brush aside. We don’t like to think about our own mortality – only a third of us make a will, and 83% of Britons are uncomfortable talking about dying. But most of all, it’s almost impossible to find the right words.

A new dialogue is beginning to open up, though. Finally, our shared conversation around grief is changing – we’ve become more open to talking about the messy, painful reality of loss.

Last month, ex-England captain Rio Ferdinand opened up about his struggle to cope after his wife’s death in the BBC documentary Being Mum And Dad. There are a cluster of new books exploring the impact of grief – from Sheryl Sandberg’s memoir, Option B, on how she got through the first months after her husband Dave Goldberg’s sudden death, to Poorna Bell’s Chase The Rainbow, on her journey to understand her husband Rob’s suicide. In June this year, Brendan Cox will publish a tribute to his late wife, the MP Jo Cox. Over Easter, a Channel 4 interview with Google executive Mo Gawdat on finding happiness after the death of his son went viral, reaching 39 million views within a few days. We are no longer scared of exploring loss.

And it’s about time we started talking, because none of us is immune. “Every day thousands of people die,” says Julia Samuel, psychotherapist and author of Grief Works. “On average every death affects at least five people, which means millions of us will be hit by the shock of the news.”

Our experience of grief is both unique and universal – we all feel it in different ways but there will be things in common. And we can take some comfort in knowing that others have been where we are now – and survived. Here, we ask three authors of newly released books about grief to share what they have learned.

How to speak to a friend who is grieving

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, is the co-author of Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, And Finding Joy (WH Allen, £16.99). She tells Stylist how to talk to someone who is grieving

After Dave died, what did your friends do that really helped?
The best thing my friends did was just be with us, whatever that meant at that particular moment. When I sobbed, they held me. When I had nothing to say, they sat with me quietly. When my kids wanted to talk about Dave, they joined in the reminiscing with gusto. When I couldn’t quite deal with a logistical hurdle – like who would fill in for Dave at a father-child school event – they figured it out for me. Again and again, they showed up and they keep showing up. Thanks to them, I know that even though my kids and I don’t have Dave, we are never alone.

People’s response to grief is often to remove themselves from that person’s life as they either don’t know what to say or don’t want to intrude: why is this not the right thing to do?
It turns out that resilience isn’t just built in individuals, it’s also built among individuals – in our families, our workplaces and our communities. The experiences we share, the stories we tell, the identity that we forge together – all of it helps make us stronger. So as difficult or awkward as it might be to reach out to a grieving friend, I urge you to do it – and not just once, but again and again. You don’t have to say anything profound or do anything heroic. Just say that you’re there for them. Take something off their to-do list – even something small, like taking the trash out or swinging by the store to grab milk. I promise it helps.

How did your colleagues react when you went back to work?
No one said anything terrible. It was more what people didn’t say. Before losing Dave, I often didn’t do this well. I’d say “I’m so sorry you’re going through this” – once. Then I’d never mention it again. I didn’t want to remind them of what they were going through. I know now that it’s not possible to remind people that they just lost a spouse or got diagnosed with cancer. It’s always on their mind.

What helped you?
When Mark [Zuckerberg] or a colleague would say, “You made a great point in that meeting” or “I’d love your thoughts on this”. Now, when someone at work is dealing with a tragedy, I know how important it is to give them time off and help them with their work if they need a break, but also to treat them as a regular member of the team, by praising them when they do good work or even offering them projects you think they’d be interested in. Showing them you believe in them can help build their confidence back up – something I really needed.

How did your experience change your own response to other people’s grief?
I check in more regularly. I no longer say, “I know it’s going to be OK”, because a lot of the time you don’t. What I say now is, “I’m here for you no matter what happens.” That acknowledges their pain in a more realistic way and I think it makes people feel less alone. It did for me.

What are the best things we can say to a friend when they are in the first throes of grief?
I can’t speak for everyone, but for me it was, “We will get through this together.” Not “You will get through this”, but “We will get through this”. Through this tragedy, I learned the amazing power of the word “we”.

How important is listening and just being present?
Very! Too often we search for that perfect thing to say or do, when what our grieving friends need to know is that we’re there for them and they aren’t alone. That matters more than anything.

It varies depending on the relationship

Julia Samuel, psycho-therapist and author of Grief Works (£14.99, Penguin Life), explains why the loss of different people can affect us in very different ways

For a parent
However old we are, we can feel very young when a parent dies. They’re the person who knew you first, loved you most (hopefully), and their death really puts you in touch with your mortality. The ‘type’ of death has an impact on the grief reaction an adult child experiences. For instance, dealing with a sudden and unexpected death has been likened to grief with the volume turned up – it’s that much more intense.

For a sibling
The death of a sibling is the death of your shared memories and of your shared history. Even though some siblings aren’t close, there’s still that thing of coming from the same roots. Siblings are often called ‘the hidden mourners’, because the partner or the parent of the deceased often gets most of the attention and the support.

For a friend
When a peer dies, it puts you in touch with your mortality: if your friend can die, you can die. If they’re a really close friend, you’re also grieving all the times you had together and what that means to your present and your future. If it was a childhood friend, it could feel a lot like the death of a sibling. The level of your loss is equal to the emotional investment in the person who has died. If you loved them a lot – whoever they are – it will feel like a huge loss.

For a partner
The death of a partner is very complicated. You may feel you’ve lost your status, or you may think that everyone liked your partner but not you, or you may think that you’re a single person so people don’t want you. Also, your partner is often the centre of your life – where you felt most safe and best known. If you had children, the whole family system has to be reconfigured, so it’s a big loss. You’re hurting for your children, for yourself – and you may all grieve differently so that can cause difficulty among you.

For a child
There isn’t a hierarchy of grief, but this is what all of us would dread most. It’s a death out of time. You’re grieving the death of your future, as well as the future you expected for your child. It alters your perception of safety and what matters in life. This kind of grief lasts longer, it hurts more, and you’re changed by it. It’s very different to, say, your parent dying. With a parent dying, you may be sad, but it’s the norm, as it were.

For yourself
Grief starts at the point of diagnosis, when we can no longer assume (as most of us do) that we are going to live for the foreseeable future. It shatters the blissful ignorance that death happens to other people but not to ourselves. If you’re given a fatal diagnosis and you’re preparing for your own death, it’s what is known as ‘pre-bereavement’. Often, people don’t want to talk to you about it, but you do, because it’s frightening. The more you can talk about these things before they are likely to happen, before you get a diagnosis, before your parent dies, the better able you are to cope with it.

Grief looks different for everybody

Ben Brooks-Dutton is author of It’s Not Raining, Daddy, It’s Happy (£8.99, Hodder & Stoughton) and blogger at

“My wife died in 2012 when she was hit by a car in front of me and my little boy (who was two at the time). Everyone told me at the beginning that I had to be strong. People would say, ‘Oh my god, you’ve been amazing, you’ve made everyone feel better,’ and I remember thinking ‘F*ck off, no one’s made me feel better. I feel worse than I’ve ever felt in my whole life.’ That’s when I realised being vulnerable is more important than being strong.

Be true to what your body and mind are telling you – don’t try to go at 100mph if you can’t stand up. It’s important to realise that grief looks different for everybody. In the space of a year, I wrote a blog, published a book and ran the London Marathon. But that wasn’t me being superhuman, that was me being depressed. I realised it’s possible to be depressed in a very active way. The following year there were times when I found it a struggle to run a bath, never mind 26.2 miles.

People would sometimes try to tell me how I should feel or behave – often people who didn’t even know me before my wife died. This would sometimes make me feel quite angry. No one has the right to tell you how you should feel when you lose someone. And that’s because there are no rules in love or loss. Sometimes you might come across a person you feel is grieving too little or too much for someone who has died, but you can never know what they truly feel, or even why. The death of a stranger can trigger grief of old. Just look at what happens when someone famous dies – we grieve together but not always for the actual person, but something or someone else we have lost before.

I’ve grieved very publicly, which has meant that people – to some extent – have understood how to handle me. But I think everyone broadly needs the same things: space to grieve in their own way; listening without judgment; and support that isn’t just there for a week or two, but that is there way down the line when the pain might really kick in long after the shock of death has worn off.

Find someone to talk to, someone who won’t judge. It might be through a peer group on Facebook – there are loads out there. It might be a vicar, if you’re religious. It might be a counsellor – but equally it’s OK if you don’t want to have counselling at first. A lot of people find it too hard in the early days. I hated it – it made me very angry. But it’s important to have some outlet for your feelings. Grief is like a kind of madness and you need to make sense of what’s in your head. Even if you can’t talk, you can write it down, just to make sense of the chaos.”

Photography: Getty Images