Much of the healing of the bereavement takes place in the warmth of family life and friendship. Yet the bereaved, in their distress, turn to or contact many other people. You may not know the bereaved person that personally but they may turn to you for comfort.
The most basic of human responses to those who are grief-stricken and distressed involves the offering of comfort and consolation. The appearance and behaviour of the bereaved person is usually such as to evoke caring responses from others: the head is lowered, the shoulders hunched, the weeping, the agony in all the body language … all this says “ hold me, help my pain – comfort me, I have been hurt”. The natural response is to hold, touch, murmur sympathy. When holding, the comforter may rock backwards and forwards, pat the back, murmur ‘there, there’. Darwin noted that the facial expressions of the bereaved are just like that of the infant who can’t find its mother. Although those are the natural responses, for some it may feel not feel comfortable to get so close – to touch, to become so personal. That’s alright – be true to yourself and your role – just provide a quiet and continuing presence, indicating the willingness to stay with the bereaved, and that will be helpful too.
Practical support is very important – in particular, helping the person see the body of the deceased (which may involve going with them, or helping the family understand the importance of it and even share this final farewell, or helping the person deal with their fears about the state of death and the body) and then allowing him to share his feelings about the experience. The body in death is rarely as bad as the person’s fears about it, and the fact of the death is more readily integrated when it has been seen and known, and farewells made.