I would like to take you on a journey through the first few weeks following the death of my spouse. I will focus on the phone calls and offer some suggestions that you may find useful when reaching out to someone mourning the death of a loved one.
I hope this post serves as a framework to help when next you find yourself in the position of speaking with someone who is newly bereaved.
Let's set the scene. Imagine we're back on the evening of Monday 30th March 2020, the day my world was completely turned upside down in chaos. The hospital had rung me in the morning to inform me that my wife, Chidinma, had died.
Visualise me as a glass cup and the news about my wife's sudden death as a train travelling at a speed of 186 mph (300 km/h). Hearing this news made me feel like my life had been shattered into many pieces. I saw my life crumble and scattered in different directions.
I was mentally and emotionally searching for the shattered pieces while also being pelted by a range of emotions I can describe as terror, helplessness and perplexity.
Okay, let's introduce the next element, the constant phone vibrations because of the many calls and messages pouring in.
Now, I am not suggesting that you should not contact someone grieving the loss of a loved one. I am only sharing how I felt; I panicked each time the phone rang. I had phone anxiety.
I felt further withdrawn when I was informed someone had called perhaps more than twice in the same day. I honestly felt pressured and wanted to smash my phone.
I usually return missed calls, and the thought of calling back all the missed calls was overwhelming and frightening. My brother had taken my phone and supported in filtering the phone calls I responded to. I found the phone calls I responded to equally as daunting.
I would mentally brace myself for each call, like how you prepare yourself when you're about to pour a bucket of cold water over your head.
You may wonder, what it feels like when the phone keeps going off, and messages keep coming in?
I’ll tell you. Each phone call meant I had to share some details about the events that led to my spouse's death, making the reality of her death more real than I was prepared to accept.
I felt like the walls were closing in on me, and I was suffocating. At times, I could feel it gently squeezing up against me. The more the calls came in, the more anxious I became. I felt relieved as close family and friends assured me I didn't have to pick up or return the calls.
I remember one afternoon about two weeks into mourning my wife's death when I was simply tired of the rapid and varied intensified waves of emotions that I was experiencing. I was very irritable and frustrated. Words can not describe the discomfort that I was experiencing.
I had had several conversations to the extent that I could predict what the flow of questions was going to be. I vented to those around me, asking to record answers to the frequently asked questions and play when next anyone called. I also volunteered to update it too.
Looking back, I can group the phone calls into two categories:
Some of which brought comfort with a hint of hope
Some unintentionally left me stunned and helpless
I suppose the question that you are asking is, what is the difference between the two categories?
Below are extracts of some questions I wrote in my journal six months after my wife died.
What questions were on your mind when you heard about the death of my loved one?
What emotions did you feel?
What was on your mind before, during, and after the call made to the bereaved person?
Was this call genuine, or was it a tick box exercise?
Why did you call?
Why did you feel the need to rush off the phone?
Who felt better or relieved after the call? You or the bereaved person?
I hear what you are saying (YBH) - Yes, but how do I practically apply what you're suggesting?
I felt sorry for my brother, who had to manage both my phone and his phone. It felt like he was constantly repeating the exact thing with slight variations.
Some people who had called my phone with no response would immediately call his phone. Some expressed (covertly or directly) their frustration or irritation to him because I had not picked up the phone or responded to their message.
I shared this with our Pastor from Coventry, who we fondly refer to as our third mum (Chidinma and I have four mums, n case you're wondering how many mums we have.) I felt a massive weight lifted from my shoulder as she reassured me I didn't have to respond to any message and should not feel obligated to speak.
I also found it helpful that some people called and followed with text along the lines that I didn't have to return their calls.
Remember my analogy of a shattered glass hit by a fast-moving train and how I was trying to pick up the shattered pieces of my life.
One key question I had on my mind was, how do I navigate this dark path that grief has forced on me? Does anyone have a roadmap to help me?
The following are the major differences between those who brought comfort and those who didn't.
Acknowledged the situation, expressed their concerns. Some word that struck a chord in me was, "Tolu, I heard Chidinma died. I am deeply sorry to hear that this happened to you."
I felt a great deal of healing, like when a balm is poured on you and accompanied by a gentle massage on an aching muscle when the person who called was emotionally present and listened compassionately. The opposite is true when I felt the call was rushed or mechanical.
I didn't feel forced to open up. They spoke about my spouse, Chidinma, and used her name.
I suppose they took a cue from me and knew when it fitted to ask sensitive questions that invite me, the grieving spouse, to share my feelings freely. One question I noticed they frequently asked was, "Do you feel like talking?"
They informed me that there was no right or wrong way to grieve and that it was okay not to be okay. They reminded me that everyone grieved differently and advised me not to rush my grieving process. There is no set timetable for grieving.
They were authentic in their communication and accepted my raw feelings. They made me feel like I could say anything and anyhow. They encouraged me to feel free to express my feelings—no matter how irrational—without fear of judgment, argument, or criticism.
4 Wonderful Traits That I Observed in Those Helping Me as I Grieved the Death of My Spouse, Chidinma
Chidinma died during the pandemic. The UK had just gone into the first lockdown. I understand why the volume of calls was significantly higher because they couldn't visit.
After my rant with those around me about how I felt, we thought it best to batch the calls and go one step ahead by making them video calls through zoom.
I always felt like going to the toilet before each zoom video call. I wasn't sure what to do or what to say.
At times I was confused and would give myself pep talks. I didn't want to project my emotion that I was feeling at that moment because the emotions of grief changed rapidly without warnings most times.
I don't remember what we shared in the zoom video calls, but I remember how I felt afterwards. I watched as they stared at me with sadness in the eyes. Sometimes it felt like they were analysing each move that I made.
I saw how much my spouse, Chidinma and I were loved as those on the other end poured their love on me.
Could it be that they had been coached before each video call? Is there something about mourning together as a community? In this instance, a community enabled by technology.
Grief is a highly emotional experience. Sometimes, it may come across that those of us grieving may be irrational or don't appreciate the call.
In my experience, there were times that "I didn't know and couldn’t explain what was doing me", and in those moments, it was challenging to think about other people.
I found this great comfort in knowing that people extend lifelines to me and permit me to feel and express whatever emotions of grief I was experiencing. I regard them as God sent angels in my most desperate and trying times.
I hope I haven't discouraged you from attempting to reach out to someone grieving the death of their loved one by my personal story.
I would like to suggest guiding principles to help you reach out to someone grieving the death of their loved one, especially in the early phase of their grief journey.
Try not to avoid the grieving person altogether. Also, sharing your condolences only on social media doesn't count, especially if you have their contact details.
You may want to start by texting, especially in the first week following the death of their loved one, depending on your relationship with the bereaved person or the person who died.
When you call, may I suggest you call once? You can follow up with a text message informing them you're not expecting a response. (please be genuine about not expecting a call)
If you know who the lead support is or people close to them, reach out to them and enquire when may be the best time to call if it's possible.
You may suggest a group audio or video call.
Please be patient with the support groups, too, because they are delaying their grief so that the bereaved person can be okay.
Remember that the phone call or reaching out is not about you or how you feel, be careful not to dump your emotion. Please remember that it's about the person grieving who
May I encourage you to use the points discussed earlier about the major differences between those who brought comfort and those who didn't to guide your conversation?
It's challenging to know what to say and do when someone you care about grieves the loss of a loved one.
I have hidden little from you about grief's many intense and painful emotions, including deep sorrow, guilt, envy, anxiety, loneliness. I know that these intense pain and difficult emotions can hinder some people from reaching out, let alone offer support.
I imagine that some of your reservation is because you are afraid of intruding. After all, you may not know the bereaved person well enough, making the person feel worse during this challenging period or saying the wrong thing.
Or perhaps you think there's nothing you can do to help make things better. That's completely understandable. But don't allow the discomfort to discourage you from reaching out to someone who is grieving.
You don't have to have all the right answers, offer all the right advice, or say and do all the right things.
The most important thing you can do for someone who is in grief is to simply be there.
Your presence and support will help your grieving friend or family member deal with the pain and eventually heal.
Your grieving family or friend needs your support now more than ever. I hope the framework I have suggested helps you.
Please let me know of anything I may have missed out on that's worth adding to the framework. Also, please forward this to someone who may need this too.