Be the light for those who are bereaved and in a dark place
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It was early in the evening on Easter Eve 2002 and the hospital room was peaceful. A single lamp at the nurses station just beyond the door was a symbol of light shining in the darkness.
My great aunt had just died and, looking at the frail mound of bones under the starchy bed sheets, I was struck by two thoughts: the first was that she would now know first-hand whether heaven existed and, if so, what it was like; the second was that the world already seemed an emptier place without her, this wonderful person in my life.
I was blessed: I had family and friends who, I knew, would be scooping me up and looking after me in the days to follow; the funeral would be a celebration of her long life, attended by people who shared something of the sorrow I was feeling; I would be cared for emotionally, physically and, yes, mentally.
Over the past 18 months, there have been thousands upon thousands of people who have not been as blessed as I was back then in that darkening night. Covid has had a devastating impact on the bereaved. The newspapers have been full of desperately sad stories of relatives being unable to hold the hands of their loved ones as they faced their last moments and of them being denied the chance to say goodbye in an appropriate, comforting way.
At the peak of the pandemic, I officiated at funerals with only a handful of mourners present, all hiding their tears and emotions behind masks and being guided to the hand gel dispenser instead of a warm, empathetic embrace. The widow or widower returned to an empty house, leaving what passed for human contact in the crematorium car park. What loneliness, what emptiness, in the wake of already shattered lives.
These have been hard days indeed.
This Sunday is World Mental Health Day and it has never been more vital in its 30-year history as it is today. A survey carried out by the Daily Mirror this week found that one in four adults confessed the state of their minds was worse than before Covid struck. One in 12 people had experienced panic attacks and one in 15 has battled suicidal thoughts. Within the group who said their mental health had worsened, one in eight has even tried to take his or her own life.
These are shocking figures. But what can we do about it? How can we steer people to some sort of help? Many funeral directors have support for the bereaved on their websites. I work closely with Shoobridge Funeral Services, who have branches in Honiton, Exmouth and Exeter. On their website, they have a ‘grief chat’ service so that people can ask questions and get help around the clock.
Paul Shoobridge, director, said: “We recognised the link between bereavement and fragile mental health, and knew that we had to have a facility in which to give support and advice. Our grief chat facility enables people to access a bereavement counsellor 24/7. I would urge anyone devastated by the loss of a loved one to seek further support and advice.”
On Sunday, the mental health charity, Mind (www.mind.org.uk), is asking people to ‘do one thing’ to add their voice to start a conversation about mental health equality. Their website encourages people to ‘speak out, spread the word and make change happen.’
So, let’s ditch the bigger picture and look, instead, at the pictures so small that we need to narrow our eyes just to see them. Let’s look at our family and friends afresh and not encourage them with big slogans and direct questioning but rather with simple attention and love. If you know someone who has been recently bereaved, give them a quick call to check in with them; if you have faith, hold them up in your hearts and say a prayer for them.
Let us ourselves be the light shining in someone else’s darkness.