Support – or the lack of it – lives long in the memory

When I was 12, one of my schoolfriends died. In the immediate aftermath, our teachers (no doubt grieving themselves) were unfailingly kind to us, giving my class the space we needed in lessons to cry, reminisce and process what had happened. The school also held various memorials, including the planting of a tree in the school grounds.

About three years later, the tree was moved to another site. The first my class knew about this was when we walked past the old location and saw a large clump of roots abandoned by the hole. Over the next few days, the tree looked increasingly sickly in its new position – we worried it was slowly dying. We tried to ask our headteacher what was going on, but she refused to see us. So one afternoon, we held a sit-down protest at the tree.

As Becca Muir discusses in her article looking at the support on offer to bereaved students and academics, grief isn’t a one-time-and-done thing. It can be renewed by a passing comment, an anniversary, a smell – a tree. Its unpredictable nature makes it difficult for employers to come up with a bereavement policy that fits everyone, especially given the different types of loss someone might experience. But that doesn’t excuse how difficult it is for many grieving employees to find and negotiate such policies. Where they exist at all, those rules are often buried away at the back of employee handbooks and company intranets, as if hidden to reflect society’s general squeamishness around death.

The heightened emotions of grief can create strong memories of how people treated you. Twenty years later, I still remember the kindness of the teachers who came out to our protest, who listened to us, sympathised with us and understood when we refused their gentle suggestions to go back to lessons.

I also remember how our headteacher refused to come out to speak to us – on that day or any day afterwards. Maybe she was struggling with her own emotions. But from a leader – from someone who we needed to hear from, and to act on our behalf – that lack of engagement came across as cold. That coldness is all I remember of her now.

Hardly any of us will make it through our working lives without someone close to us dying. For that reason, all managers and leaders should receive bereavement training. Even small things like knowing what the bereavement policy is, or listening to what a grieving team member says they need, can make a big difference.

Our protest ended when another teacher revealed to us that he’d been caring for a second tree in his garden for the last three years. He’d realised that seeing the memorial tree die would reignite our grief, so had procured a backup to replace it with if it did get seriously diseased or damaged. That generous, thoughtful action went far beyond what we can reasonably expect from employers. But that spirit of compassion – of the invisible support that is offered when needed most – ought to be better reflected in our bereavement policies.