Avoiding extra stress in a time of grief

Gillian McAinsh

WHILE the world has been watching the Mandela family disagree about where the family’s bones should be interred, a grandmother from Port Alfred is trying to show how to avoid this strife.

Bereavement counsellor Meryl Howes has written a practical guide for South African families aimed at helping those left behind avoid the extra stress which often surfaces at a time of grief.

“As a bereavement counsellor, I see people who have to deal with life after someone has gone and see how much additional and unnecessary trauma is caused because they don’t know where the documents are, what mum’s favourite hymns are, where to find this or that,” she said.

“The subject of death is taboo. On the whole, children avoid the subject because they can’t face the thought that a parent can die. Often when people start on the subject they say ‘no, I don’t want to talk about it’.”

The alternative, though, can be ugly, and she knows of one case where two sisters had a funeral fight over whether the coffin of their late mother should be kept in or outside the church.

Howes is grateful to one man who gave her pause for thought as he responded to her suggestion by saying “when I’m gone, they can all deal with that”.

She knows only too well that people tend to avoid discussing death – particularly their own, which they hope is still far in the future. However, apart from the selfishness of this attitude, “what if he had a stroke and he cannot speak or write? He will be giving himself so much more trauma. This is why the book is called Gestures of Love – you love them so you will do it for them.”

Howes does not believe these discussions need be traumatic and her book guides readers as to what needs to be done, legally and from the standpoint of the person’s religious faith, when there is a death in the family.

“If you were to say, ‘mum when the time comes and I need to do things, please tell me how you would like things done’,” is her calm advice. “She may have a stroke and you need to know where her medical aid card and ID book are, for example, so you can help her at that time.”

The idea to put this in writing came from her work as an agent for the Living Will Society, which educates the public regarding their right to refuse artificial life-support when dying.

“There was so much more than I needed to be telling people and my oldest daughter, bless her, said to put it in a book.”

Not only did UK-based daughter Robyn urge on her mother, but she also helped her to make Gestures of Love available as an e-book. It turned out to have 13 chapters, but is short, more like a long booklet than a full-length book.

From what age does Howes think people should make these plans?

“Look at Vuyo Mbuli, he was in his 40s when he died,” she said, referring the popular television presenter who died suddenly earlier this year. “I would like people to look at this from their 20s, and parents should get their children a copy. Somebody needs to know and it can happen to any family.

“If you tell people how and what you want, they know. It is up to them to carry it out, of course, but it makes it so much easier if you write it down.”

Despite the serious subject matter, there is still time for a light-hearted quip, though, from Howes: “Tell them if they don’t do it how you want it, you’ll come back and spook them!”

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