Supporting people after sudden death including COVID-19

Advice if you are caring for someone suddenly bereaved at a time of COVID-19

covid 19 bereavement logoIf you are caring for someone suddenly bereaved at this time of pandemic, whatever the cause of death, or want to provide this help, it is important to know how to help them as best you can, and how to look after your own well-being too. This guide helps you do this. 

Whether you are a family member, friendly neighbour, charity volunteer or a professional, you are undertaking an important role that is very helpful and rewarding. The good news is that straightforward kindness at this time can be a big help. It isn't always easy to help, but you do not need to be a professional, nor have significant training, to assist someone suddenly bereaved right away, even if they have been bereaved in a very shocking way, such as by COVID-19 or any other cause, medical or not.

Caring for someone bereaved in a sudden and shocking way is likely to bring challenges. This page helps you to meet challenges you face.

If you are a family member or neighbour or community group such as a mutual aid group, you may find the below guidance particularly helpful. You may also want to consider joining a volunteering organisation that can give you more help and support, day to day, or call Sudden on 0800 121 6510 so we can support you. 

If you are a professional or volunteer working for an organisation, use that organisation to help you further. Ensure you have enough contact numbers within your organisation in case you face an emergency situation, including an out-of-hours number.  

Helping someone during social distancing

If you are not self-isolating with the person or people you are helping, and they have agreed to have your support, you will face practical challenges during times of social distancing. Many people who are bereaved, although not all, value face to face support, and hugs from people they love. In a situation when this is not possible, providing support by phone, video call and messaging may be the only option. It can be very comforting and prevent someone feeling isolated. What method of communication you you choose will depend on what the bereaved person is most comfortable with, and what you both have available to you. 

  • What method of communication you choose will depend on what you both want, and are both comfortable with. 
  • As well as phones, video call systems such as WhatsApp or Skype often work well, using phones or laptops.
  • Such systems also have messaging services, and there are many other messaging services available that work well.
  • Try to arrange more than one way of talking to each other, in case one method doesn’t work.
  • Try to arrange particular times to talk, and how long you will be available for. Then it doesn’t come as a disappointment when you don’t call, or have to leave a call.

When supporting someone

It is important to remember that you are not a counsellor or therapist. You are there to provide reassurance, empathetic warmth and help someone feel safe, supported and connected to their community. You are there to listen, offer practical support, and seek help from others if needed too.  

  • If you are supporting someone remotely, do it somewhere quiet you will not be interrupted.
  • Tell them that their welfare matters; and you are there for them. Ask what they need.
  • Ask them gentle questions that help you to check they are safe and shows that you care.
  • Focus on practical questions that are not invasive. ‘What have you eaten?’ ‘Did you manage to get some sleep?’ If there are particular questions you want to ask, write them down before the call so you do not forget.
  • Let the conversation flow naturally. Save some questions for later in your conversation so the person you are helping does not feel interrogated, and they feel a sense of control.
  • A person you are supporting may want to talk about their feelings. Or they may not. Both are ok. Ask questions that give them the choice. ‘Would you like to tell me what you are feeling right now? Or how you felt today?’ ‘I am here to listen if you want to talk to me.’
  • Give the person time to speak, or just be quiet. Both may help. Tell them there is no rush. You have time.
  • Pauses in the conversation are OK. They help someone to catch their breath, think about something, or have a cry.
  • Be supportive by reflecting what they have said back to them. This helps you show you have understood. Avoid interrupting or talking without need.
  • You are part of the conversation, and you are a supporter, not a therapist. However, avoid talking about yourself or your own problems. You are supporting them, not the other way around. Their experience is unique and not yours.
  • It is important not to judge, nor impose your own beliefs and values. For example, if you have religious beliefs someone else may not share, do not impose them. If the person you are supporting says they believe in an after-life, and you do not, try not to express this. The way someone identifies is important to support. 

If you are supporting someone over video call:

  • Make sure you are in a quiet room and will not be disturbed by people or pets.
  • Make eye contact with your camera and remember you are on screen; it can be easy to forget. You are using video so they can see your warm eyes as well as your warm voice.
  • You may want to think about what is behind you. For example, a nice picture, or a plain wall, or something else that is calming at this difficult time.

If you are supporting someone by messaging:

  • Use simple language that can be understood easily.
  • It is difficult to sense someone’s tone of voice over messaging or know their emotional state. Do not make presumptions. Ask if you need clarification about anything.
  • Be aware that your own tone may be open to misinterpretation too. Keep things very simple.

There are also professional bereavement helplines run by charities that can help people at this time, including Sudden's helpline, 0800 121 6510.

Ensuring basic care needs are being met

Be aware of warning signs that someone’s health is in danger because their basic care needs are not being met. It may be hard to know if basic care needs are being met if you are helping someone remotely over the phone. Gentle questioning may help you be assured or identify issues that need resolving. Consider:  

  • FOOD AND SHELTER: Do they have access to food and a warm, dry home? Do they have access to money to enable them to look after themselves sustainably?
  • LOVING CARE: Were they previously looked after by someone who has died; eg. if they are old, young or sick; and who is looking after them now? Do they have a network of family and friends living with them or over the phone who are able to provide effective support?
  • HEALTH: Do they say they feel well, unwell, or sound as though they are poorly (eg. with COVID-19 or for some other reason). Look out for warning signs such as confused speech or slurring words and remember to check whether they have symptoms of COVID-19 (dry cough, fever)?
  • WELFARE: Are they self-abusing through alcohol, drugs, or self-harming (for example cutting themselves or starving themselves)?

If something concerns you, then you should do something. If you are working for an organisation, report your concerns to your manager so they can help decide what needs to be done. If you are not working for an organisation, seek medical help or help from another relevant government agency, such as one providing social services. If you are not sure who to call, ring Sudden's helpline on 0800 121 6510 and we will find someone for you. 

If the person says they do not want help, but it is clear to you that they may need help, it is important to seek help. A person’s safety is the most important thing.

I am worried about someone killing themselves

You may worry someone may kill themselves. It is important to remember that most people do not kill themselves after a bereavement, but bereavement can be a trigger for suicidal thoughts and suicide. Be aware if someone has said that they:

  • are feeling much worse
  • would ‘rather not be here’
  • have considered suicide
  • have ideas about how they would kill themselves

Often, it is impossible to know if someone is planning suicide. Sometimes, however, there are warning signs. For example, the person stops taking your phone calls might be a sign.

It is important to remain calm and not panic if you are worried about someone taking their own life. Your role is to have all the necessary information and communicate it correctly.

  • If you feel that the person may be in immediate danger, contact an emergency service. You may feel you need to do this anonymously. If so, it is still better to report it, than not at all.
  • If you feel the person is not in immediate danger and you are working for an organisation, report your concerns to your manager so they can decide what needs to be done.
  • If you feel the person is not in immediate danger, and you are not working for an organisation, seek further advice from a professional agency, such as a charity caring for people who are suicidal (such as the Samaritans on 116 123) or caring for people suddenly bereaved (Call Sudden's helpline on 0800 121 6510.)

I am worried someone faces personal danger from another person

If, for any reason, you have information that someone is at risk of being physically hurt by someone else, then you have a responsibility to take action.

  • If you feel that the person may be in immediate danger, contact emergency services. You may feel you need to do this anonymously. If so, it is still better to report it, than not at all.
  • If you feel the person is not in immediate danger and you are working for an organisation, report your concerns to your manager so they can decide what needs to be done.
  • If you feel the person is not in immediate danger, and you are not working for an organisation, seek further advice from a professional agency, such as a charity caring for people suffering domestic violence. If you don't know who to call, you can contact Sudden on 0800 121 6510 and we will find someone to help for you. 

I am worried someone is suffering serious symptoms several months later

After a sudden bereavement, it is normal for someone to experience upsetting emotions and physical symptoms. You can read about some of these symptoms here.

Symptoms should subside over the first few months. However, if they do not, and are extreme, or are getting worse, it is time to seek help from a medical practitioner who is qualified to assess the person’s mental health and organise the necessary care to enable their recovery from any mental health condition they are suffering from. 

For example, here is a list of some symptoms that may be experienced by people who have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The person may:

  • re-experience what happened, through flashbacks and nightmares.
  • seem very angry and irritable. They are hypervigilant or jumpy.
  • have moods that alter a lot, in negative ways.
  • avoid talking about what has happened and appears numb or removed from things
  • seem to have difficulty with their relationships and other people
  • have physical symptoms that may be associated with their mental condition, for example a stutter or inability to speak

It is not your job to assess someone’s mental health. But you can help them to seek help from a medical practitioner who can arrange their assessment. The government is committed to improving access to psychological therapies and it is possible to organise a self referral online through the NHS. If you are not sure how to help someone do this, call Sudden on 0800 121 6510.  

Mental health conditions arising from sudden bereavement can often be treated through talk-based therapy by an expert in helping people who have been bereaved in this way. 

You are important

Supporting someone who has been suddenly bereaved can be upsetting, especially if it brings back memories of personal experiences of bereavement. Try to be aware of your own needs and feeling during this time. If you look after yourself, you can look after others, better.

It is important to:

  • Only offer what help you can reasonably give. You do not have to do more than you are comfortable with.
  • Consider in advance who can support you, if you need it, and when you may need support.
  • Know when to draw a line. Particularly if you are a volunteer, it is ok to gently end the support you are giving if it becomes too much, while also trying to ensure someone gets the support they need, elsewhere.
  • Create a self-care plan. Include doing your favourite things, such as reading, listening to music, or doing meditation or yoga. Make time to be by yourself, or with others you love who are around you at this time.
  • Access information on specialist support services that can help the person you are supporting further, allowing you to step back from supporting them when you need to. Call Sudden on 0800 121 6510. 

 Copyright Sudden 2020