Responding to the death of a member

Responding to the death of a member

Originally written by Julia Wise, April 2018. Minor updates made in February 2023. Last updated: 4th October, 2023

1. General advice

Validate the fact that it's normal to have a really wide range of reactions to news of a death. People range from feeling basically fine, and maybe feeling guilty about feeling fine, to feeling devastated by it. All that is considered normal. (Abnormal grief would be having thoughts of wanting to be dead yourself, or being unable to keep up with basic activities like eating or getting out of bed. In that case a person should talk to their doctor, or go to a hospital if they seem in immediate danger.)

It’s ok to not have answers or not know what to do. You can acknowledge your own limits. “I really want to help right now, and I’m not sure what I can do. But I want you to know I’m here to listen.” Just listening is often the most important thing you can do to help.

Be extra aware of people who seem to be struggling themselves, and remind them the community wants to be there to support them too. Use this as an opportunity to talk about the ways all of us are vulnerable and sometimes in need of support.

2. Common feelings

Some common feelings people in a local community might have after the death of a member, or another difficult personal experience a member has experienced:

  • Sadness
  • Shock or disbelief
  • Anger at the unfairness of suffering and death
  • Reluctance to seek support for their own hardships, out of a feeling that their problems aren't as significant as the death
  • If they didn't know the person, feeling they are out of the loop or are expected to have feelings about someone that they never actually knew

a. After a suicide

All of the above, plus more.

I think it's appropriate to use this as a time to evaluate what we could be doing to better support each other, but not to feel that we're ultimately responsible for the choices other people make. Keep an eye out for members who may be feeling an undue sense of responsibility or guilt about the death.

After a suicide, be careful about incentives to those who may be considering it themselves. Suicide shouldn’t be seen as a way to become a hero or to get people to do things you wanted.

Some additional common feelings in cases of suicide:

  • Guilt about what they could have done differently
  • Frustration that their efforts to help weren't accepted or didn't go as well as they hoped
  • Feeling that they were the single point of failure and have responsibility for the death

3. Practical activities communities might do

  • Send a message to group members along the lines of "I know some of us have a lot of memories of [person] and feelings about the death. I'd like to offer to talk to anybody who wants to have a chat about what this has been like for them. Feel free to reach me at at [texts, email, calls, whatever.]"
  • Have a side conversation at the next meetup, where attendees can join a conversation about their memories of the person and how they're processing the news. Or if they'd prefer not to, people can take part in usual discussions or activities instead. People may just have a few minutes of sharing sadness, or may have a lot to say.
  • If you know that some group members had a strained relationship with the person, I suggest starting by laying a ground rule: "We ask that this time be for expressing positive memories about [person], and our own feelings about the news of their death. I know people have a wide range of feelings, and I want everyone to get to express what's on their minds, but I'm going to ask that we keep this group discussion kind and respectful. I'll be available to talk one-on-one afterwards if you want to discuss some of the parts that were harder." If the conversation veers away from "kind and respectful,” remind them of the purpose of this conversation and ask them to save those thoughts for one-on-one conversation later.
  • If you want to have a structured activity, perhaps have nice paper and pens available for writing a letter to the person with things you wish you'd gotten the chance to say to them. (People can write on their own devices if they'd rather.) Have a time afterwards for people to share thoughts if they want to, but the default assumption should be that people can keep their letters private. You might offer the chance for one-on-one conversations afterwards if people want to share thoughts without the group.
  • Put together a card, letter, or document with memories of the person to share with their family. It’s often meaningful to families to hear how their loved one was appreciated in other areas of their life.

If you'd like more advice, you can reach out to CEA's Community Health Team, such as via this form.