The ‘new normal’ is a phrase that has entered our vocabulary in the past few months to convey how life will be different because of COVID-19. What will this new normal look like? Will more people work flexible hours or work from home? Will bikes and walking overtake our use of public transport? Will we forever have to social distance in supermarkets and restaurants? For these things and many others, we will just have to wait and see how the new world order will pan out.
But for some, the new normal has already begun and for them, life will never return to how it was before. There have been over 40,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the UK alone and in the past three months, many others have died for other reasons. For the family and friends of those who have died the new normal is facing life without their loved one, with no prospect of returning to how it used to be.
Bereavement comes from an old English word that means “rob,” “deprive,” and “seize.” The bereaved person feels they have been robbed and deprived of their loved one because they have been seized from them in death. It is probably the most severe psychological trauma most people will encounter during their lives. Almost all of those who experience a bereavement will face distress, depression, and sadness as a result. The majority will experience grief, a word that comes from the Latin for “make heavy” and accurately describes the heavy burden or affliction someone carries because of their loss.
With over 600,000 deaths occurring in the UK last year and all the recent deaths that are COVID-19 related, many of us will know someone who is recently bereaved. When faced with that situation you, no doubt, feel sad and want to help the person cope with the new normal they are experiencing, but where do you start? If you are anything like me, you can feel totally inadequate in such circumstances. It takes us out of our comfort zone and very quickly we can feel out of our depth. What can I say or do to help? What shouldn’t I say or do to make matters worse?
I can’t provide you with a one size fits all answer to those questions, but from the bereavement seminars I’ve attended at university and run by my church two pieces of advice stood out for me, and have been invaluable in my Christian ministry. First, the one thing I’ve realised not to say is ‘I understand what you are going through,’ because with the best will in the world I don’t. Both of my parents died in the last five years and I reacted in a particular way to my loss, but that doesn’t mean I understand how someone else is feeling who has just lost a parent. Everyone’s experience is different, everyone’s sense of loss and the grief they encounter is unique to them. I’ve had to recognise that I may not understand what a bereaved person is going through, but I can be there for them. And so, secondly, I’ve had to learn that when I am with a newly bereaved person one of the most helpful things I can do is just listen. Very often I don’t know the right words to say, and frequently there are no words that can be said, but what I can do is listen to what the bereaved person wants to talk about. It might be about how much they miss the person who has died, it might be about the numbness they feel, it might be about the anger and hurt they feel that their loved one has left them alone or the God they looked to has deserted them. It could be about anything at all. Simply giving a person the space to off-load their feelings can be of the greatest help.
The new normal for a bereaved person is not an easy thing to come to terms with, but with shared tears and a listening ear, we can help that transition rather than hinder it.
Have a listening week,