Dear Annie: My sister's dear husband died recently. He suffered from Alzheimer's and by the end, I think we already felt we'd lost the Jim we knew. We live close by, so in a practical sense, I'm on hand to help when I drop in. I feel like my sister's been bereaved, in a way, for many years, but she just had to get on with it, as she cared - day and night- for him. His death didn't come as a shock and my sister seems to be coping. But I'm worried that she's coped for so long, her feelings have become bottled up inside. How do I talk about things? I don't want to make things harder for her - HB
Annie says: It can be very difficult to see someone we love put on a brave face. But, losing someone to Alzheimer’s is a unique type of grief – as you say, it begins before the death and so the goodbye is slow and very painful. It might be that your sister is feeling some relief for now – relief that her husband’s suffering is over, and one aspect of hers is as well. If she is feeling relief, she might feel unable to share that for fear of judgement, which could be contributing to her presentation of coping. You could always share your concern with her. You could tell her you’ve wondered if she’s bottling things up and gently ask if this is the case, or if she’s experiencing something else. This might well be the opening she needs. If you don’t feel able to do that, just stay being near her, being the loving and accepting sister you no doubt are, and when she is ready to show more of her vulnerability, she will know you are there for her.
Dear Annie: A friend of mine lost his sister very suddenly. He lives abroad, but I've made an effort to contact him more than normal, asking how he is. He seems unable to acknowledge the situation and makes light hearted comments about it, even joking how their family get together might not be much fun this year. I don't know how to help him realise that he doesn't need to be strong for my sake. He doesn't have good friends where he lives and I'm worried about the support that he's getting - TS
Annie says: It sounds like you’re doing a fantastic job at being there for your friend. I know it can be very difficult when we don’t see the effects of our efforts manifesting in the way we expect or imagine. It’s also very hard not to project our own ideas of how we would deal with grief on to others. Humour can be a wonderful source of support in the midst of grief, and although it might seem surprising or even inappropriate to you, if it is serving your friend, this must be respected. Try and join in where you can, follow his lead and make jokes with him. It’s difficult for the bereaved if they know their sense of humour is making other people uncomfortable, so letting him know you can handle it will be a great comfort to him. You can also be quite explicit with him and let him know that he needn’t make jokes for your sake and that you are also there for him to be vulnerable if he feels able. Just letting him know you are aware there may be another side to him will be supportive.
If you have a question for Annie to answer in this column, you can write to her at DearAnnie@funeralguide.com
Annie Broadbent is a trained psychosynthesis counsellor, with specialist experience working with the bereaved. As a therapist she explores the mind, body, feelings and spirit, working with individuals in a way that is most appropriate for them.
She is the author of bestselling self-help book We Need to Talk About Grief, inspired by personal experiences of living through bereavement, including her own. Whilst writing her book, Annie volunteered at St Christopher's Hospice and has given a number of talks on issues around grief, bereavement and mental health.