Assisting bereaved families

Consuls attended a specialist seminar on bereavement counselling at the Supreme Court, hosted by repatriation specialists Rowland Brothers International.

One of the most difficult aspects of consular work is assisting bereaved families following news of a sudden death abroad – yet consuls report that it is an area where they seldom receive specialist training.

At an earlier seminar hosted by Rowland Brothers and the Cyprus High Commission on the role of police Family Liaison Officers following a mass casualty event, such as the London Bridge attacks or the Grenfell fire, consuls said that guidance on communicating with bereaved family members was often lacking in their crisis planning.

Therefore Rowland Brothers International took the initiative to host a follow-up ‘Lost for Words’ seminar with an experienced bereavement counsellor, Peter Wood, who has worked with grieving families for 14 years and has travelled to 120 countries. Consuls also received a Lost For Words booklet, which provides useful guidance on how to assist someone through the grieving process.

Bereavement do’s and don’ts
Mr Wood outlined to consuls four areas consuls should bear in mind when assisting a bereaved family. Firstly, he counselled them on how to react towards a bereaved person. It is important for consuls to convey that they care, and to be calm and sympathetic, and to give them their full attention.

Secondly, Mr Wood said consuls should try to understand the state of mind of the bereaved. He outlined the “bewildering array” of reactions and emotions consuls may encounter. The bereaved will be in a state of shock, whether the death was from a long-term illness or if it was sudden. Therefore they may not be coherent or logical.

This is important to bear in mind when consuls are gathering the required information. Consuls should take the time to follow the correct procedures, even if it means repeating the same question a few times in a patient yet persistent way.

Other information that may have a bearing on burial and funeral arrangements must also be considered, such as the faith of the deceased person. According to ritual, some faiths may require the burial within 48 hours; in cases of repatriation, it is almost impossible to achieve that so try to find a compromise solution to the satisfaction of the family.

Managing expectations
The bereaved are likely to be confused because few people have encountered the many procedures required when a person dies. This sense of confusion is compounded when a person dies abroad, where there may be different local protocols, paperwork and sometimes language differences. Consuls need to try to put the person at ease and reassure families that they understand the procedures and offer practical support and assistance. But they should also manage expectations, he advised: “Even if it’s tempting to comfort a family, don’t promise any more than you can reasonably deliver but always try to deliver more than you promised.”

He also cautioned that quite often family members would react to the death with anger – and often consuls may be on the receiving end of abuse, even when they are trying to assist the family. So it is important for consuls to remember that the anger is never rational and it’s never personal.

Mr Wood counselled consuls on what to say to the bereaved person – and how to say it. Keep the tone of voice steady and reassuring which is a comfort. Always have your facts straight, such as the correct name and spelling and the relationship of the deceased to the bereaved. Getting this wrong can cause huge offence.

Finally, he advised them on what not to say: never refer to the deceased as ‘the body’. Always refer to the deceased as if they are still alive, and ideally, if the bereaved agrees, by name. As far as possible, avoid clichés, which give cold comfort.

The seminar concluded with a an engaging question and answer session and a fascinating tour of the Supreme Court.

To receive a copy of the Lost For Words booklet, or if you would like to participate in future seminars organised by Rowland Brothers International, contact Sue Ackerman on