Helping to cope with grief

It's golden jubilee year for Cruse Bereavement Care, the charity that helps people understand grief and cope with loss.

Steven Russell

It's golden jubilee year for Cruse Bereavement Care, the charity that helps people understand grief and cope with loss. STEVEN RUSSELL speaks to a mum glad of its help and to the volunteer who was there for her.

LINDA Palmer is eternally grateful to those who helped her get back on her feet. “I don't know that I'd be doing the things I am now if it hadn't been for Cruse,” she says.

It was on November 10, 2004, that 17-year-old son Sam and one of his friends were killed in a car crash near Bramford - about two miles from home. Understandably, dark and difficult days followed. “I tried to manage, with the support of friends and family, but found that after five or six months I wasn't progressing very far. You get through the funeral and the initial aftermath, somehow, but then there's this void, this big empty space, and you do tend to get lost in it. Everything, even everyday issues, is just so hard to deal with.

“It's only four years down the line that I realise what a wreck I must have been. At the time you think 'Yes, I'm getting out that front door; I'm going to work; this is what managing is.' But I used to get halfway through a sentence and forget what I was going to say. I'd just go blank, because uppermost in your mind is what's happened, and your brain sort of freezes at certain points. You've got no control over it.

“A friend of a friend suggested Cruse might be a good idea and I thought 'I feel so wretched I can't be any worse for speaking to them.'” That was in the spring of 2005. Bereavement volunteer Bridget Ramsay came to Linda's home and they met over 18 months to two years - once every two or three weeks to start with, and later at longer intervals.

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“We did hit it off; we found we gelled as people, as well as her working through my anxieties and everything that was going round my head. Took a long time - a lot longer than I thought it would and a lot longer than other people thought it might take.”

It's the chance to articulate your feelings - before someone able to listen for as long as it takes - that seems key.

“I felt a desperate need to talk when something that big happens in your life and I think those around you - family, friends - can only talk so much. And they're dealing with their own grief,” says Linda.

“I found I was repeating myself a lot. The same things were coming up, but you need to be able to talk your way through it and come out the other side. You have to exorcise all the things that are causing you anxiety; putting them on one side won't make them go away.

“Bridget was so patient; endlessly patient. Cruse volunteers don't tell you how to deal with things but they point out what is in front of your nose but what you really can't see sometimes.

“One of the phrases quite early on in our sessions was 'Do you carry on living with the dead or do you carry on living with the living but remembering the dead?'

“It's four years now, and I feel all that hurt is still inside me - it doesn't take much to trigger it off - but I can function out in the big wide world. I can enjoy things, which at that time you never think you're going to enjoy ever again. Just to say 'The sun's shining; isn't it lovely?' would send you into reams of guilt. I think people underestimate how much effort it takes to partake in the real world once you've had something big happen.”

Linda was working for an Ipswich florist at the time of Sam's death and says people there were good to her. It was difficult for people to know what to do for the best when she cried or tailed off in the middle of sentences. After a while she left. Today she runs her own floristry business from home, though returns to the shop occasionally to help during busy periods.

“I only now feel I'm coming out into the world, having been in this bubble, and actually starting to want things to happen, like with the house and the garden, and jobwise - all the sorts of things which, when somebody close to you dies, lose their importance totally and the world becomes this horrible, unfair place. You see how petty things are a major issue for everyone else, but to you they're just not important.”

The charity, and Bridget specifically, proved her lifeline, Linda says.

“I don't want people to get the impression that if you go to Cruse you're going to be mended and be whole again. You're never the same again; but I would imagine that for most people it would improve how they think about things and improve their ability to understand.

“They can't make it go away - and they'll tell you that - but they do help you claw back the best bits. You can put things in perspective, more, with a view to carrying on your own life.”

Cruse can be contacted on 01284 767674. Web: www.crusebereavementcare.org.uk

RETIRED management and business consultant Bridget Ramsay has been involved with Cruse since 1991. A friend and his wife, prime movers in setting up a West Suffolk branch 22 years ago, suggested she become a bereavement volunteer.

In an average year she might help five or six people - her involvement ranging from a single meeting, perhaps, to sessions spread over many months. It all depends what a client needs. Although most people come via their GP, who has noticed they're having a really tough time, anyone who has been bereaved can contact Cruse.

Bridget, who lives near Hadleigh, stresses that volunteers are not professionally-trained counsellors, but they do offer a friendly face and an open ear.

The public could do with being better informed about bereavement and grief, she says.

“I think as a society we have all kinds of expectations in our minds about how long it takes to get better. If you talk to anybody who's been bereaved, you will find their friends say things like 'Time's a great healer.'” I can tell the phrase makes her wince . . . “Yes, it does! It takes a lot longer for people to come through. The person I mentioned earlier, whose friends think it is old news, was bereaved about eight months ago. For that person it isn't old news; it's still very fresh.

“I can think of a mother who lost a stepchild, and people said to her 'Oh, it's not as though he was really your child.' You'd be amazed at the sorts of things people say. It's not out of callousness; it's simply a failure to understand or imagine. And, of course, we don't have - because we don't wear clothes of mourning any more - an outward sign.”

How best can people help a bereaved friend or relative, then?

“I think to listen is the most important thing. Not to give advice. Not to say 'I know how you feel.' Because, actually, you don't. I'm convinced that although there are common patterns with bereavement, each one is an individual experience. It's well-intentioned but inaccurate to say 'I know how you feel.'

“I would say to take your cue from the person who's been bereaved. Some days they might need to go into the office loo and have a good cry with you; other days they won't want you saying (in a whisper) 'How are you feeling today?' It's really about being sensitive to the cues being given out.”

Cruse facts

Last year, more than 80,000 people contacted Cruse, including a growing number of children

It has about 5,500 volunteers

All are trained so they have the knowledge and experience to help bereaved people.

Although it gets some money from councils and health authorities, the charity relies overwhelmingly on the generosity of the public to fund its work

The name Cruse comes from a passage in the Old Testament about a widow's cruse, or jar of oil, which never ran out - signifying that support would be given as long as it was needed. The charity stresses it's a non-religious organisation and helps people of all beliefs and none.