A death outside the family: Too often when a loved one dies, friends are the forgotten mourners, says Su Newland

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Martin died two years ago and Hilary is still coming to terms with her loss. Martin was not Hilary's husband, father or son; he was not even a member of the family, he was simply a friend. But friends grieve, too, and it is often harder for them because they are less likely to get immediate support, or even be allowed to show their grief, in the way that families are.

'The death of someone who has come to mean something to you, however deep or superficial that relationship was, can affect you quite profoundly,' says Brenda Freedman, a bereavement counsellor. 'It could be someone you met just once a week at evening classes, for instance. You might have come to look forward to that meeting more than you realise. Their no longer being there leaves a hole in your life; you miss their warmth, their contribution, whatever. But you don't like to say too much because the rest of the group might think you are over-reacting and, after all, that person was part of their group, too.'

Sometimes, a friend or lover of the dead person will be confronted, the strength of their feeling challenged because they were not linked by blood. 'You couldn't love him as much as I did, you weren't family,' is a common accusation. Or, unaware of the hurt they might be causing or the insult to what was a deep but platonic relationship, other motives are imputed to the grieving friend.

'Martin was very dear to me,' says Hilary. 'And Diane, his wife, and I have been close to each other for years. In a way I was able to dissipate my grief by trying to shoulder some of her burdens and it was all right to cry because I was crying with her.

'But while people are still sympathetic to Diane when she talks about how much she still misses Martin, I get the impression that if I say the same thing people either think I am trying to 'muscle in' on her sorrow or, worse still, suspect I was having an affair with him. Nothing could be further from the truth and I can't help feeling how unjust it is. I still need to talk about him but nobody wants to listen to me.'

Professional friends, such as nurses, care assistants and others, also tend to be overlooked as bereavers. 'When you look after someone for a number of years, sometimes being their eyes and ears and attending to their most intimate needs, you become very fond of them,' says Iola Samuels, head of a residential home for elderly people. 'There is often a void, a vacuum, physically as well as emotionally. The resident's room, for instance, will have been Mrs X's room, and suddenly she's no longer there. And it's worse, of course, if the resident has died when the care assistant has been off duty or on leave.

'It is very important to allow the carer time out, to talk about their feelings and, of course, to cry. I would never stop any of my staff crying, either on their own, with me or with the family.'

In these sort of situations families can often be understanding and indeed welcome the carer's grief, allowing the staff to share their mourning, attend the funeral, help with the arrangements, dispose of belongings and so on. But what of less 'socially acceptable' friends or unacknowledged lovers, especially if the relationship has been homosexual or the lover has died of Aids? Friends often miss out on important rituals. It can be extraordinarily painful not to be allowed to contribute to the funeral arrangements, help choose the hymns, comfort the other mourners and so on. Often, the bereaved lover will have known the deceased better than the family, be more aware of his or her wishes, likes and dislikes, so the feeling of exclusion is even more acute.

This non-acknowledgement of a friend or lover's grief can be a form of 'pushing away', according to Brenda Freedman. 'The family might be finding it hard to come to terms with the death and by denying that part of the person's existence they are almost trying to deny the death itself.'

Society, too, can look askance at what is often considered excessive grief. Taking time off work to mourn the death of a husband, wife, parent or child is acceptable, but you do not get compassionate leave for a friend.

According to many professionals, death is still something of a 'taboo' subject, but there are more places now to turn to for support, and bereavement counsellors and support groups work hard at being non-judgemental.

Most welfare agencies will help. Local branches of Relate, for instance, will offer consultations if a relationship has been affected by a bereavement and local Samaritans will also be supportive.

Cruse Bereavement Care (081-332 7227) Mon-Fri 9.30am-5pm: direct link with a counsellor. Terrence Higgins Trust helpline (071-242 1010) noon-10pm daily: for Aids victims. Gay Bereavement Project helpline (081-455 8894) 7pm-midnight daily.

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