This year the theme of Dying Matters Week is ‘dying to be heard’, encouraging people to talk more openly about death, dying and grief and making time to listen to others who want to talk it. This is an area that our Bereavement team specialises in, so I sat down (virtually of course) with our Family Support Coordinator & The Seahorse Project Lead, Ella Williams, to talk about how the Covid-19 crisis has affected the usual services the Bereavement team would offer, how families’ and individuals’ needs have changed and the best ways to listen to those who are grieving.

Before the pandemic, we could offer face-to-face counselling to individuals and families who had loved ones cared for by the hospice, in our Inpatient Unit or by our Community team. However, the current situation has affected our usual services in a substantial way.

‘We’ve never used telephone or online services before,’ Ella told me, ‘everything has always been face to face so we’ve been trying to replicate what we do, but in a different format.

‘We now offer a range of support from more informal telephone befriending to telephone and online support and counselling.’ The biggest change is that the service has expanded and is now available to families who haven’t previously been supported by the hospice. This community-wide bereavement service involved taking on 15 more volunteer counsellors.

How have people’s feelings and needs changed during this time? ‘The restrictions have upset people, because it’s not what they expected when it came saying goodbye,’ Ella said. ‘While we have tried to facilitate where we can, in terms of letting people come into the building to say goodbye to patients here, where this hasn’t been able to be the case, our doctors and nurses have been having to make those difficult calls and being the link between patients and their families, passing on messages.

We’ve been quite creative in the way that we’ve tried to be conduits between patients and families, so we’ve suggested link objects. For example, you might have a physical heart in your hand and I have a physical heart in my hand and we call it a continuous bond.’

Another way that needs have changed is that the team have had to make sure that people have a private and a secure space for talking, as they would have in the hospice, which has been quite tricky for some families. ‘Can you imagine if your husband died and you children are at home, because they’re not able to go to school? You want to support your children, but actually you need space for yourself. Where do you go? Is it the bedroom? Is it in the shed at the bottom of your garden? Or is it in the car? We’ve been working with people in lots of weird and wonderful places.’

With the theme ‘dying to be heard’ in mind, does Ella have any tips on the best way to listen and communicate with someone who is grieving?

I think time is important and silence is really useful, not trying to jump in, to empathise and not sympathise and acknowledging that the world is so different right now and how has it impacted their bereavement. For example, what normally happens is that people will have an opportunity to visit someone before they die, but that’s not always possible right now.

‘We focus on the here and now and then we offer some suggestions for when the pandemic is eased or over. For example, you might have a funeral now that you’re not able to attend, but have you thought about having a celebration of their life in six months time?’

Ella has also shared some things to think about when reaching out and listening to those who are bereaved:

  • They may not want to socialise right now, so text them a simple message to let them know that you’re thinking of them.

  • They may not have the energy to cook, so why not drop them round a dish of something tasty. You don’t have to stay, a drop off is often enough.

  • Pamper packages, which may include a facemask, some bubble bath (men like bubbles too!) and some chocolate, says ‘I care about you.’

  • Once we are able to, why not suggest a walk.

  • Mostly, people just want to tell you their story, without interruption, and you might find they need to tell it more than once. Listening is the greatest gift you can offer.

  • Try not to sympathise with your own stories, but emphasise - ‘I really don’t know what your feeling right now, I am just really glad you are sharing your story with me.'

If you have been bereaved and would like to access our support, please visit the Bereavement pages on our website where you can access further information, resources and the referral form.