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Saturday, 6 October, 2001, 14:06 GMT 15:06 UK
How do we cope with bereavement?
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Weeks after the terror attacks on New York and Washington, the families of the victims are struggling to come to terms with the tragedy.

More than 6,000 people are believed to have died in the attacks - most of them are still missing and many bodies may never be recovered.

Counsellors, including some from the UK's largest bereavement charity, Cruse, are working around the clock to help the families of the victims deal with the trauma.

What is the best way to start coping with grief and bereavement? How can bereavement counsellors help?

A BBC One programme "Terror in America: the British Victims and Survivors", talked to the British survivors, the victims' friends and families, and heard about the aftermath of the attacks on America.

Tor Docherty, bereavement supporter at Cruse Bereavement Care answered your questions in a live webcast.


Hello and welcome to this live webcast. I'm Christine Stewart and today we're going to be discussing bereavement, particularly following on from the atrocities in America and also last night on BBC One there was a television programme that discussed many of the issues and spoke to families and friends of those who lost their lives - how they are dealing with the situation and very, very different ways of handling it.

We're joined today by Tor Docherty - hello. You're from an organisation called Cruse. Can we, first of all, start with you describing what is Cruse and what do you do?

Tor Docherty:
Yes Cruse is the UK's largest bereavement charity. We have more than a 170 branches across the UK and those branches offer people counselling, support groups, they work with children, they offer a whole range of support for bereaved people. In addition to that we have publications on different types of bereavement and we can offer advice, practical advice, on welfare issues, those sorts of things. So Cruse offers a very wide range of support.

Now you have actually sent a number of people to America to help the families - the British families - who've been bereaved. Was their task slightly different this time given it was such an enormous international event, we all saw it played out live on our television screens and it affected so many thousands of people - do you have to deal with that slightly differently at all?

Tor Docherty:
There are some different issues in bereavement of this type and on this scale. The counsellors that flew out to New York were very experienced in dealing with, what you might call, traumatic bereavement - so bereavement that took place on a large scale in traumatic circumstances in an unexpected way. They worked with the people out there offering not counselling as such but much more, what you might call, hand holding support, so they were there with them, they listened to them but it wasn't counselling in a sort of formal or therapeutic sense. They were just being with them, allowing them to be upset if they wanted to talk if they wanted to and then they'd pull back when that was necessary.

There seemed to be very much an anxiety with lots of people that felt they needed to be there, they needed to go, particularly to see the debris that was left from the World Trade Center. Do you find that is quite usual that people need to go to see where the loss actually happened?

Tor Docherty:
Yes people often look for focus for their grief and in a more ordinary bereavement that might be the funeral, it might be the body, it might be a grave. In this case so many of those are absent, a lot of families won't get a body back, there won't be a grave with the body buried underneath it, there won't be a funeral with the body involved. Those people are trying to find a different sort of focus for their grief and for some people that's become what's known now in New York as Ground Zero - they want to go to the site and see where their loved one died because it's a focus, because they can go there, think about what happened and it takes on a ritual quality so that they can there and experience all the feelings that they might have felt at a funeral.

Now also there's lots of people who couldn't get to America but have been phoning your helpline here in Britain, what sort of calls have you had there and what sort of help and advice have you been able to give?

Tor Docherty:
Yes people have been ringing who've lost someone in this disaster and also people have been ringing asking how they support someone who's been bereaved in this disaster. The ones who've lost someone in the disaster are asking questions about how am I ever going to come to terms with this, some of them are clinging on to the hope their loved one might still be found - no matter how unlikely that seems from a rational point of view - they're hoping that perhaps their loved one is unconscious somewhere still to be found. So some of them are finding it very difficult to believe that the person they love is actually dead.

Some of them who are believing that they died are now going through wondering what happened in those last minutes. I spoke to a caller who's lost a friend and she was very upset about how that friend actually died, what happened, she believed that she survived the impact of the aeroplane but doesn't know what happened in the following minutes - she's now gone - and she might never get the answer to those questions. She also accepts that even finding those answers might not make her feel any better, it's the feeling to be doing something, for that particular person it was the need for information.

Well we can give out the Cruse helpline number for people who would like it and also we will be repeating the number a bit later on as well, but that number first of all is: 0870 167 1677 and as I say we will be repeating that number at the end of this broadcast.

We've got some e-mails too that have come in from people that are struggling really with their own experience and how to deal with it. And there's one here from Sandra Marcy from Manchester and she says: "I'm luckier than many. I was on vacation in New York, less than a mile from the World Trade Center, at the time of the attacks and witnessed much of the horror first hand. Another half an hour and I would have been on the 102nd floor. No one I knew was in the buildings at the time and I'm not personally bereaved and yet weeks on I have dreadful nightmares, for the first time in my life I am fearful of aeroplanes, loud noises, tall buildings and elevators." She says here: "Is there anyone I can talk to in the UK who can help me work through my feelings and start to put this behind me? Any advice would be most gratefully received."

Tor Docherty:
Ok, what Sandra's talking about are feelings that a lot of people are going through at the moment. She was nearly there and so I imagine that a lot of things that she's thinking about are "it could have been me". Her response to that might be a mixture of relief, of course, that it wasn't her, but there might be some guilt in there as well - Why was it those people and not me? Why did I survive?

Other people are questioning themselves about - Could I have done more? Perhaps I should have rushed towards the scene instead of away from it - those kind of questions, and it's throwing up so many different emotions for people. If Sandra wants someone to talk to then the Cruse helpline will be able to put her in touch with an appropriate agency that can help her work through the feelings that she's got. I think it's perfectly reasonable to be feeling all that and perfectly normal, there are people who will be able to help her.

The programme on BBC 1 last night obviously dealt with a number of issues, one of them was that people kept saying they can't feel any closure and it's a little bit about what you mentioned, because lots of people now realistically accept more bodies won't be recovered. How do they deal with that, if people are feeling that they just cannot move on?

Tor Docherty:
I have spoken to people who, in their own minds, have drawn a bit of a line for themselves about how to accept that they're dead at this point. So one person said, "I will accept they're dead once I have a death certificate." So that might be a way that people begin to understand that the person has gone and isn't coming back. Some people may set themselves a deadline like that but it may keep moving. So still saying - I'll accept it once I have death certificate - but then there's still that hope - it does make it very difficult to believe that the person's died. Some people are going to choose to mark the death by having perhaps a memorial service and that might be with a group of other people or it might be solely focused on their loved one - a little bit like a funeral but without a body. So they might want to sing songs, have readings, things like that to mark the death. They also might want to create some sort of place, like a memorial or plant a tree or all these different things that people do to have a focus for their grief, somewhere they can visit afterwards.

There was another point brought up where one little girl who was featured in the programme. She was being comforted by an adult, she was clearly very upset and the adult was saying to her: "Be strong, show strength." And how important is it to show strength, do we have to keep a sort of stiff upper lip? And one other thing was mentioned there was: "You have to be strong, don't let them think they've beaten us." And presumably they were meaning the terrorists there.

Tor Docherty:
Some people might find some comfort in "being strong", some people can begin to find that a strain and a lot of people that called Cruse are saying: "I'm being strong for everybody, I'm supporting my friends, I'm supporting my family, I daren't show them how bad I actually feel." And that's why they're approaching an agency like Cruse, someone that they don't have to protect from those very desperate feelings that they have. When supporting bereaved children, either bereaved in this disaster or bereaved in other circumstances, it is important to be honest with them and give them as much information as you feel that they're ready to hear. So children will ask questions to give you clues as to what they're ready to hear - What happened? Can you tell me more about how my dad died? - those sorts of things. In being honest with children one of the things that you need to be honest with them about are your own feelings as well. If all that children see are people being strong they perhaps begin to think that they have to always be strong as well and can't show how they feel. So it's important for children to see a more rounded picture - that sometimes we are strong, other times it's fine that we show how upset we are, how desperate we are, how frightened we are.

And also these feelings can take some time to come out presumably and there again on the programme it was mentioned a couple of the British wives who've been bereaved were saying - We appreciate it might be a year before this hits home - should people be worried if there is a timescale, they're dealing with things differently to other people?

Tor Docherty:
No people often want timescales - How long am I going to feel bad for? - and it's different in everyone's circumstances. People will find their own way through this. What people really need is support and that can come from friends and family, it can come from organisations but they will find a way through this. It can take a long time, for some people, like those women on the programme, it might take - it might take a year before they begin to really accept that this has happened and begin to try and rebuild parts of their lives. Some people might feel that they're moving through the bereavement process a bit quicker than that. Others will move a certain amount and then feel like they're just not moving any further, almost like they've become stuck. Cruse can help with those sorts of things and will be happy to speak to anyone who's got concerns like that.

Another point that's been brought up in our e-mails is the situation where people have not been personally affected by this particular tragedy but the enormity of the event have brought back their own personal feelings about recent bereavements. There again is that usual and what can people do to try and deal with their own personal feelings that are bubbling up again because of this incident?

Tor Docherty:
People who have been bereaved will know that sometimes things can set you off and make you feel again and it could be something like discovering a photograph that you haven't seen since the person died or just some days you feel that way. And one of the triggers has been this incident, people have seen death on a massive scale over the last few weeks and of course if you've been bereaved recently or even a very long time ago it can bring to the surface all those feelings again. It doesn't mean you've gone backwards in the process that you've been going through to come to terms with the bereavement that you went through yourself, it just means that something's triggered all these feelings, you might feel like this for a little while but it's perfectly normal, it's nothing to worry about. Get some support, talk to people, tell them how you're feeling and let them be with you.

Is one of the issues as well that's come up here that people are struggling to cope with because I've heard lots of people say - We all know we're going to die - but the added tragedy, if you like, in this case was that so many of them were so young and of the people that were listed at the end of the programme last night most of them were in their twenties and thirties, does that make it particularly difficult for people to cope with too, with the young age of so many of the victims?

Tor Docherty:
There are some big issues around unexpected death. When someone is very old or perhaps been ill for a long time you can almost begin your grieving before they die, you begin to come to terms with what's going to happen - it doesn't make it easier by any means but there's some knowledge of what's coming. With this the people went to work that morning had no idea and that was the end, so for the people around them they haven't had a chance to say goodbye, they haven't had a chance to come to terms with what was going to happen. There are feelings of shock and it can sometimes take a while to believe - like the woman on the programme last night - to believe that the person's died.

Also it does seem that some people seek comfort in a common purpose - that once people have been bereaved they then go on to form support groups or they'll campaign for justice or they want to be involved in doing something to get involved. Does that help?

Tor Docherty:
Some people find meeting with others who, like the two women on the programme, the two wives who both lost their husbands, both find comfort in spending time with each other. For other people that can actually be a strain because they can feel like not only are they coping with their own grief they're coping with someone else's as well. People will generally know what's going to feel right for them and may seek other people, if they want to do that then there are support groups being set up for people in the UK who lost someone in America.

A little bit like the woman with her fiancÚ who said that she feels that now she wants to perhaps get involved in work - voluntary work - or make her partner feel very proud of her, that this will be life changing for her but she wants some good to come out of it so her partner didn't die in vain. Is that something you hear quite often too?

Tor Docherty:
Yes some people do seek a purpose out of bereavement and it can give someone something to focus on and almost a way of remembering the person that's died - you know, I remember them by doing this work. It's important that people don't see that sort of work as a way of running away from the feelings that they have to feel. Sometimes people can fill their lives so absolutely full that they're not allowing themselves any space to grieve and it is important you have that time.

I think another point where lots of people are concerned about how to deal with it and would like advice is the sense that those of us who haven't been involved in any way personally and haven't lost anybody personally you feel you want to help but you don't quite know what to say or how to approach a bereaved person for fear of being insensitive or saying or doing the wrong thing, so we tend to shy away and keep our distance from people. And then sometimes you hear the bereaved saying - If only someone had spoken to me, I needed my friends to assist me, the friends are staying away - how do you hit the right balance in those circumstances?

Tor Docherty:
There are no magic words that's going to make a bereavement better, there's nothing that you can say that's going to make it ok but the important thing is to be available for someone, be there for them, offer help with practical tasks but not force it upon them and to really listen to what it is they're asking for - they might want you pop in once a day, they might want you to pop in once a week, they might want the occasional phone call - but it is important that you feel able to go and see them, to talk to them, to be available for them. What people say after a bereavement is that the most important thing was the people who were there, rather than the people who said the exact right thing because there are no exact right things to say, just be there for them.

Tor Docherty thank you very much for joining us today and we'll give the Cruse helpline number out once more for anybody who might need to use it. It's 0870 167 1677, repeat that once more: 0870 167 1677, thank you very much for joining us.

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