When you're not there when someone dies

by Annie Hargrave
Posted on 1st December 2008

When someone you love dies you feel the loss of them. Everyone responds in their own way. There is no right or wrong way to respond. Your loss is like other people's losses, just as your fingers are like others' fingers; but your loss is your own unique experience just like your fingerprint is different from everyone else's.

There are good web sites which tell you about loss and grieving. You could try the Cruse site; www.crusebereavementcare.org.uk which gives information about how bereavement often makes people feel and there are links especially for young people as well as opportunities to chat with others in similar circumstances if you want to.

The people you will most likely want to talk with will be your own family members and close friends. This is not true for everyone however particularly if family relationships have been difficult.

But what should I do if I'm on assignment away from home?

People make their own choices. Again there is no right or wrong thing to do, only the thing which seems best in the circumstances.

If the person who died is someone close, like your mother or your husband, and especially if the death is unexpected, it is likely you will want to go home. If you feel you want to go home don't try to fight the feeling. People will understand and want to do what they can to support you in your decision.

If the person who died is not quite so close, like a more distant uncle or an old school friend, and especially if you were aware when you went away from home that they might die, you might decide to stay rather than going home.

  • Talk it over with your family and friends and your manager, team leader or pastor to help you decide.
  • If you decide to stay on the field consider how you might mark the death in a way that is meaningful to you. You may want to ask for a copy of the funeral service or the memorial tributes.
  • Remember, if you stay, that you may experience some delayed grief later on.

How long should I stay at home?

Again there is no right or wrong answer to this question. Many people want to get back to work after a week or two at home and that is usually fine if you have the energy and enthusiasm for work.

Don't rush back to work:

  • If you were very close to the person who died.
  • If s/he was your partner or your son, daughter or grand child.
  • If the death was complicated such as a suicide or in a traffic accident.
  • If your work is in a conflict zone or an area of natural disaster.
  • If your manager or field co-ordinator advises against it for now.
  • If your personal doctor advises against it for now.

And when I go home at the end of my assignment?

Very often the person who is working away from home after a death will be concentrating on the task in hand, as is appropriate. When you go home you may experience some of the following:

  • Unexpected feelings of grief.
  • Anger or pain with other people who seem to have settled back into life and appear 'normal' again. They have been grieving whilst you have been thinking about other things. You have some catching up to do.
  • A greater sense of loss than you anticipated - a sense of the empty space the person who died used to occupy.
  • Someone to whom you have always been able to turn such as your dad or your sister is now emotionally distant or needy and cannot support you for the time being whilst they are still preoccupied with grieving themselves.
  • You may wish to visit a grave or place where the ashes were scattered or other place of memorial. You may wish to remember the person who died in a service or ceremony of remembrance, or by planting something or donating to a favourite charity of theirs.
  • You may find yourself caught up in decisions about what to do with property or what to do on the first birthday after the death and many other practicalities and unanticipated things cropping up.

Many people who are bereaved recover over time through the emotional unpredictability of grieving. Do seek help through one of the organisations specialising in bereavement care or your personal doctor or a counsellor if you need to do so; especially if any of the following apply:

  • Your relationship with the one who died was problematic.
  • It was a young person who died & particularly if it was unexpected.
  • The person who died was someone who sexually abused you.
  • The person who died caused divisions and problems in the family.
  • The death leaves you with unexpected financial demands or other responsibilities which impinge on how you live your life now.
  • The death was complicated such as a suicide or in a traffic accident.

If you're not there when someone dies, take the time you need to grieve when you can so you come to terms with your loss

Annie Hargrave is a UKCP Registered Psychotherapist and MBACP Senior Accredited Counsellor/ Psychotherapist. She was Coordinator of InterHealth's Psychological Health Services Team. Annie spent ten years in Latin America and on returning to UK she re-trained as a Counsellor and subsequently trained as a Psychotherapist. She first started working at InterHealth in 1995. She is trained as a specialist in trauma psychology and psychotherapy at the Tavistock Clinic. As well as working with people after serious incidents she offers both therapeutic and professional support to people working with traumatised populations and disturbing material such as human rights monitors and journalists. Annie also has a special focus on work-life balance and stress management in the international aid and mission sectors, particularly with people who are frequent travellers. She works with a small number of people in personal therapy and occasionally takes on consultancies overseas.