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Bereavement due to traumatic death

Telling others, and other people's reactions

Telling others about a death is always difficult. After a sudden traumatic death this is even more difficult. Decisions have to be made about who to tell face-to-face, who can be told by phone and who might prefer a letter. Some people explained how they told other family members, friends and colleagues about what had happened and they recalled how they had reacted. Carole was particularly concerned about her elderly father, who was devastated when her son was murdered. Others talked about the reactions of various family members.
 
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Martin had to tell his five year old daughter that her mother had died in an accident. She cried...

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Age at interview: 43
Sex: Male
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I didn’t, I just, I had one last look at the accident scene before, but my mind was so focused on my daughter, and having to tell her, we got to where she was staying, at Steph’s friend, Steph’s friend just opened the door, just trying to hold the tears back you know, and she just handed my daughter over to me, I carried her home, three, it’s only three streets it’s just, three streets from where we are now, and I carried her home, my sister was walking in front of me, with her boyfriend, and I just got my daughter in the house and she was bewildered, she knew something had gone on, and I just had to sit her down and say, “I’m sorry, there’s, there’s been an accident at the crossing, and, we don’t know what’s happened but a bus has hit Mummy and she’s, she’s died.” This was to a five year old daughter, she started crying, not tears of heartfelt sorrow, it was just tears of disbelief really, she said, “Oh she’ll never see me on the monkey bars again in the park.”
 
Which really, oh, that just, all I could do was hug her and just say, “We’ll look after you.” You’re just trying to think what to say, you know, its, “We don’t know what’s happened yet, we, we we’re so sorry, I’m so sorry, this shouldn’t have happened to your Mummy, we don’t know what’s happened, well, well, well we’re going to look after you, you know.” Ten minutes later she was asking to play out with her friends, and the shock and the dawning, the realisation that Mummy wasn’t coming back didn’t really happen for a good few weeks, you know. 
Cynthia told a few people about her daughter’s death at once, but had a card printed, with a recent picture of her daughter, to send to everyone on her Christmas card list. Pat’s friends set up a network and informed each other about her son’s death. She was thankful that she did not have to tell them all herself. It took Dolores several months to tell some of her friends about her son’s traumatic death.
 
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Although she has four siblings Sally felt it was her responsibility to phone everyone about her...

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Age at interview: 39
Sex: Female
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I felt as it, I needed to be strong for everyone else, and I’m worrying about everyone else rather than what I was thinking.
 
I was thinking I’ve got to tell the girls and they’re going to be devastated when I get back. And I’ve got to start this process of phoning everyone, and going through the story which I think’s quite hard, telling everyone, and I felt as if there was a lot of pressure on me and I felt it was all on me. I mean we’ve got, there’s five, five of us in the family and yet it felt as if it was on me, I had to sort it, try and sort everything out, and which was quite…
 
You wanted support yourself?
 
Yeah. So that was quite hard.
 
 
And how did you tell everybody else? Did you have to make lots of phone calls?
 
Phone calls yes. The phone calls yes. And that gets, I don’t know, just gets you down I think. I just had, by the end of the day my head was just about to explode, it just felt I was going to explode, I just thought I just can’t do this anymore really, just ringing and ringing and ringing, and then starting again, and explaining to every single one, because obviously people want to know, I can’t just say, “Oh she died and it was in a fire,” they were, “How?” You know, “What’s happened?” You know? So I had to keep going over and over and over and over it really. So it was a very stressful, and then the phone didn’t stop ringing obviously, and then it was all really down to me to sort everything out.
When others heard the bad news some rushed to offer support. Cynthia said that her friends were kind and took her out to meals. However, some people said that others did not always react in a way that seemed ‘appropriate’. Some stayed away, or seemed embarrassed or avoided the subject. Elizabeth said that after her daughter died some people just disappeared. She thinks that they were ‘needy’ people and that after Marni died she could not support them as she had done in the past.
 
Some people made tactless remarks when they heard the news. For example, when Karen’s mother died in a fire people asked her why her mother didn’t have a smoke detector, which upset her because her mother did have a smoke detector.
 

Dolores realised that people reacted very differently to the terrible news about her son’s death....

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Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
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And how did you find other people’s reactions? You talked about the family and, a bit but what about colleagues and friends and…
 
Everybody was wonderful, you know and, and supportive and came to see us, came to see me and, and, you know, offered anything I could have wished for, you know. If I’d taken it up, but I, you know…
 
I haven’t taken it up much. And they’ve supported me ever since, you know. And what is interesting is that I’ve, I’ve changed a bit because I, I’m not a judgemental person but I’m very quick to say my opinion about something and I’m usually quite open, but I’ve realised in time of grief people react in different ways and they don’t, they don’t react out of insensitivity, there are very few, as I say, thick skinned, very few. There were one or two but they’re not my friend, you know, I’m glad to say. Some quite close friends couldn’t cope with it. And they, they were in shock themselves.
 
A friend who suffers with heart problems who lives abroad literally put the phone down on me. And I thought, “What? How, how can he react..?” Then I realised he was protecting himself.
 
Because he was going to have a heart attack. And I only found that out that later.
 
And so, so I’ve just decided I’m not going to judge anybody. You know, whether they react in a nice or a not nice way. Or, or not expect anything from anyone.  
 
And basically, that was a great help because so many people react in so many different ways. And I think that’s natural to a human being, is to protect themselves from shock.
 
And they retreat. A lot of them retreat. My very close friends never retreated and they were there all the time. At the beginning I did not communicate with any of them for several months. I found difficult to speak on the phone because I was bursting in tears every five minutes and a lot of my friends are abroad and how can I talk to someone on the phone? How can I explain without seeing them face-to-face? It’s so difficult.
 
It’s so difficult. But slowly, and I started speaking to people and in fact friends I haven’t seen in 30 years have popped up. They’ve seen, you know, just on Facebook or on the, the website, they suddenly recognise the name and they, they’re in just as much of a shock.
 

Godfrey wanted to talk about his awful loss but some of his best friends and colleagues found it...

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Age at interview: 77
Sex: Male
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And it was very nice to have people, you know, coming and talking about him. Because one of the things we’ve found is that we wanted to talk about him a lot, and I think one of the painful things that I found going back to, to the question of colleagues and so on, was some of my colleagues found it quite difficult to talk to me and of course I was aware that that was a behaviour which some people do exhibit in these situations, and I admit too some of my best friends really couldn’t talk to me about it, it was too, too painful for them perhaps to do that, I wanted to talk about it but they didn’t want to talk about him, and it is interesting how, how people vary in their ability to cope with other people’s distress.
 
So if you were giving a message to other people would you say that it’s actually helpful to be,
 
Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely. It’s nice to be reminded, and its, it’s certainly painful to, to for them to totally ignore the fact that you’ve had this awfully this awful loss and you know, people should realise that people do want to talk about it. I think most people do, maybe some people don’t, but I think most people want to, want to talk about it at every opportunity. 
At first Martin was overwhelmed by friends who were offering sympathy and support. He received over 400 cards and had many phone calls. However, 2 years after the accident only one friend was still regularly in touch.
 
David's feelings were very mixed after his son was fatally stabbed. Sometimes he wanted to be alone and at other times he was glad to have family and friends in the house. At work he wanted to talk about his son, but when someone expressed his sorrow about the murder he ‘went ballistic’. He found it hard to explain his mixed emotions.
 

Sometimes David wanted to talk about his son with friends, family and work colleagues. At other...

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Age at interview: 55
Sex: Male
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And over the next sort of days and weeks, what was the family and your reactions then?
 
David' Oh, it was, it was really strange because we had a house full of people, with family who’d come round, some were very good, some were very helpful and kind, and in the same breath you didn’t want them there, you just wanted to be left on your own to sort it out yourself. But when they did eventually fizzle out, you thought, “Well where are they? They’ve all gone now.” When you know, it just didn’t make any sense. Other things were like, if we wanted to buy a pint of milk or a loaf of bread, you you’d go like 15 miles out of the way because you didn’t want to go shopping locally, and things like that, I can’t explain why, you didn’t want people turning round and say, “Oh that’s the one that’s just lost her son.” You know, you didn’t want that, so we’d go all sorts of places just to get the simplest of products.
 
 
How long were you off work for?
 
David' About, about three months I think, but would that be right? [turns to wife]
 
Wife' Mm. About that.
 
David' Yeah, I’m not too sure, about three months. That was very difficult, and I had some good friends at work, but they were too good and like they would wrap me in cotton wool, and I didn’t like that to be honest. You know, “You can sit in the office you don’t need to come out.” And I worked at the airport, and, “You don’t need to go out in the airport, just sit in the office all day,” and I didn’t want that, I wanted to get involved and, but one of the things we used to do was we used to search people’s baggage, and the moment a knife come through on one of the cases, which we showed on the x-ray, everyone would crowd round so that I couldn’t see the knife. And I didn’t like that. And another thing that sticks in my mind was nobody would talk to me about what had happened, and I wanted them to, but the moment somebody did come up and say, “I’m sorry to hear about your son,” I went mad, and I went ballistic at them, “What’s it to do with you, none of your business.” You know I think it was mixed emotions like that, it does, it does take a long time to get over with things like that. And you can’t explain your own reactions. I found it very difficult. 
Sarah said that when she told people about her husband’s death she wanted others to listen, and to acknowledge what she was saying, but she found that other people often tried to express sympathy by telling her about their own bereavement or divorce, which she felt was inappropriate. Rosemary also found she was hearing about others people’s experiences when she talked about her son’s death.
 

When Rosemary told people about her son’s death she sometimes found she was consoling them or...

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Age at interview: 65
Sex: Female
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As I say my sisters and my brother and my husband’s relations and everybody were genuinely you know, concerned for us and so forth but it is interesting in these situations because, you know, there are, you know, inevitably everyone does don’t they if you’ve got a number of relations a couple of our relations are pretty needy in their own right and were very devastated by this and I have found, I have found particularly at first, I was doing quite a lot of consoling of other people and even my friends, I think there is this like feeling oh I’ve had this, you know, people can’t help it can they, I’m going to about to regale you with my ghastly experience now. Having said that, I mean my sisters were fabulous.
 
 
Do you like talking about him at home?
 
Yes we do, yes we do talk about him, we talk about him quite a lot because, I think everybody’s always done that quite naturally because we feel the need to actually. I don’t think you can dismiss it and quite often when we’re talking about you know, things that people did, I think now that we can also talk about him in a oh God do you remember what he did sometimes, you know, which is very healthy I think. One of the things I still find quite difficult I have to say is necessarily talk about it to people who I’ve just met, I do find that quite difficult because you don’t know what people’s reactions are going to be and even things I’m quite involved with you think, I mean I am conscious, I’m going back to being a Trustee of a charity and I haven’t told them and I think I’m going to have to soon because, I don’t know it seems, a thing I didn’t want to do I suppose is, I didn’t consciously not talk about it but it just didn’t come up and I think I want to raise the topic under the right circumstances really and that’s not necessarily that easy I think so there are things like that but there are practical things. And like your first question like, how many children do you say you have, you know, it’s difficult actually that sort of thing. 
 

After Marcus' fiancée died other people found it hard to talk to him because they were unsure how...

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Age at interview: 38
Sex: Male
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My concentration… I don’t remember… I wasn’t able to do very much, at the time after her death. I remember sort of creating a shrine about a fireplace for her. And I’m… I can quite honestly say that I had many psychological problems in those days. Sleeping was one. Getting out of bed in particular was a problem. Getting into bed was another one because she’d… you don’t want to sleep because you’re scared of sleeping. And then when it’s… your whole body clock is totally gone ga- ga. And the only way of communicating with the outside world for me was going down to the local pub to see what was left of my friends, who found it extremely difficult being with me and talking to me. The only way they could communicate to me was by buying me a drink. And just sitting and then and being together, I guess. But of course the old adage is that you do it often enough, you get so used to it, which developed a problem for me later in life, which I’ve now got over.
 
But at the time, for a least two or three years, it was the only place I could go where I could meet anybody to talk to was down a pub. So life was very difficult.
 
How did your friends react to what had happened, apart from inviting to the pub for a drink?
 
They were… they were coping with me. That was the only way I can say it. There was one lady in particular and her daughter who are still… my great friends to this day. They still find it hard, being with me. A lot of people do. It’s just a difficult, it’s difficult to be around. If, if it’s not happened to you, it’s difficult for you to be around somebody like me. So a lot of the people I assist now in, in the work that I do, we’re all very, very… well we are all very similar people. But we’ve all suffered bereavement through murder or manslaughter. So we tend to be… sort of group ourselves together I suppose. We all have a similar sort of feeling.
 
You said people sometimes even now find it difficult to be with you, why is that?
 
I think to answer that question, they find it difficult to be with me because sometimes they’re not quite sure if they say the wrong thing how I’m going to react. But luckily enough I have a… I still maintain a sense of humour. So I can always say that look it’s, it’s ok to talk about this. I’m ok answering any questions.
 
Right.
 
But occasionally your new friends they just shy away from it and I sense it as well. And I say, “Look it’s ok you say it, I don’t mind. We can talk about this”. I mean talking is a great, a great help. And I do talk about my experiences to a lot of people now.  
Many people said that only those who had lost someone through a traumatic death or who had lost a child could really understand what they were going through. Other people’s reactions sometimes seemed insensitive. People expected them to ‘get over’ the death of a relative and get back to normal much too quickly. William felt that a neighbour expected him to feel better only two weeks after his daughter died, which he thought was insensitive. Pat was likewise shocked to find that some people expected her son’s funeral somehow to bring ‘closure’. In the weeks that followed Pat felt she was expected to repress her anger and sadness and behave as though nothing had happened.
 
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Pat regretted that our society has no mourning rituals. She wanted to drape her door in black and...

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Age at interview: 62
Sex: Female
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And I have to say that as we came up to the funeral, some people unwittingly said or gave me the message that they felt there would be closure. How bizarre is that? How bizarre is that?
 
That a funeral would bring closure, which is mad. And actually saying madness, there is a sense that the world has gone mad, there is a sense that the world has gone mad and people’s reactions and, and just people going about their everyday business looks, looked to me like madness…
 
…because I couldn’t understand how, how people were functioning and being happy and remarking about the weather and doing their shopping and I could not understand why the world had not come to a halt and why every roadside wasn’t lined with people dressed in black weeping and wailing and I did, I did, I remember feeling very sorry that in this country we don’t have any mourning rituals. I felt very sorry that we have nothing, we don’t have, we don’t dress in black, we don’t, we don’t keep ourselves indoors, we don’t wail, we don’t screech. There is no ritual. We don’t hang, I would have liked to have draped my door in a black cloth, or draped my windows in black or something to, I wanted to shout at the world, “My son is dead.”
 
And there was no way I could do that. To do that would have been socially unacceptable, completely unacceptable. Any behaviour that deviated from the impression that everything is absolutely fine is not acceptable, is the message that I think is consistently given to us day after day after day. And so we, we have this message reinforced in us all the time' Repress you anger, repress your sadness, shove it down, don’t express it, it’s not allowed, it’s bad. And…
 
Where do you think that comes from? What made you feel that all the time?
 
Well I think it comes from many of our childhoods where we, we are not allowed as a small child we’re not allowed to be angry because it’s, it’s, it’s upsetting to our parents or families, it’s unacceptable. Because anger is, is not seen as part of everyday life. Anger is seen as an aberration. It’s not all that many years since people were admitted to mental asylums because there were depressed and behaving differently from the way society wanted them to.
 
And I think there’s, there’s still some lingering taboos there.
 
And, and, and I think, I think if, when we can positively express our anger by simply saying we feel very angry and have that accepted would be a good day.  
Dorothy’s son, Mark, died in an explosion at work. She found it hard to listen to others talking about mundane things such as the price of electricity when she was mourning her son and fighting for justice. She cannot sympathise with other people’s minor problems and as a result has lost some friends.
 

Dorothy finds it hard to relate to other people who have not been bereaved by a traumatic death;...

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Age at interview: 65
Sex: Female
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I feel I’m talking a foreign language to people now, I don’t have, I can’t relate to people now, you know, people who haven’t been through this, because I get very impatient, you know when people are talking of the golf club, and the cruise and the whatever, and the price of this, or the price of electricity, I get very impatient because I think all these things are going on every day, and this is all you’re worried about, you know I’m so, I don’t have an awful lot of sympathy you know.
 
That’s understandable.
 
And they don’t want to know what’s happening in my life either, people back off, you know I’ve lost quite a few friends…
 
Have you?
 
Yes. Yes. I’ve lost one in particular that I hadn’t spoken to her since the day I phoned her to say what had happened to Mark, she’s never been in contact, which hurts.
 
Why do you think that’s happened?
 
I think people, it’s kind of, I think they think it’s some kind of infection, I think its, I don’t know, I think it’s probably they, they don’t know how to cope. Or whether you know you’ve, you’ve become a different person, which you do, you know you start off being a kind of confident, everything’s right with the world and whatever, and you cross over into another parallel universe where everybody has been denied justice, you know, people are losing children for all reasons, everybody is, you know, all these people that are being killed at work, I mean, it gets to a point where you know that people are being killed every day, it’s like you wake up in the morning and think some family is going to start doing what we’re doing today, so its, the true world’s kind of separate really, you know, this world where everybody’s sort of carrying on and talking about buying a new car and all the rest of it, and this world where you know you’re campaigning for people’s basic rights to life and to justice.
 

Some of Michael's colleagues avoided him for a while after his son died. They found it hard to...

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Age at interview: 52
Sex: Male
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What was it like for you yourself when you went back to work with colleagues, how did other people approach you, and react to what had happened?
 
I find most people tend to avoid you, because they don’t know how to deal with the situation. So they don’t know what to say. My boss called me in as soon as I went, and said, “Look you know, if at any time you feel you want to go home, just go home, you know? And if there’s anything that we could do to help, you know, just, just ask.” But a lot of people, for the first week, tended to avoid me, but I probably would’ve done the same in their situation, you know it’s very difficult to sort of know how to talk to somebody who has lost their, a member of their family, especially a child, you know it, but I think after the first week was over, and people saw that you know I was not the sort of gibbering wreck, I was getting on and doing my job, and everything else, and then people would come in, but they don’t approach the subject, you know of death, they tend to do a, “How are you?” You know, “Did you see so and so on the TV last night?” This sort of, sort of small chat.
 
Would you have liked them to actually talk about your son?
 
Yes, I mean, I wouldn’t mind. I mean there was some people did ask you know, and I told them. You know some people would ask you know about the court case, you know, you know, what was that like and, was I happy with the outcome, but overall I’d have to say that the majority of people tend to sort of just, you know, not see you, you know they if you were walking down a corridor they would walk in another door to avoid you. They would go to the toilet, and that lasted I think about three or four weeks, before people would start sort of coming back to some sort of normality.
Although some people prefer to talk to close friends or family members about their bereavement, others may find it helpful to talk to a professional counsellor or someone outside the immediate family (see ‘Professional counselling’ and ‘Support received from charities’ and ‘Religion and spirituality’).

Last reviewed October 2015.

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