We must hold the bereaved close to our hearts

Julie Burchill has written movingly about the death of her son

Julie Burchill has written a powerful piece in The Times about the loss of her son Jack Landesman. Unfortunately it is behind a paywall, but one can read a report of what she has written in both the Telegraph and the Guardian.

Miss Burchill’s account of loss makes it clear to readers, if they did not know it already, that the effects of mental illness, drug addiction and suicide on survivors is devastating. Miss Burchill in fact feels what any mother would feel in these extraordinarily difficult circumstances, and, because she is a powerful and articulate writer (one of the very best), she communicates this sense of loss and grief in a way that we can all grasp.

One very much hopes that Julie Burchill is getting the support, comfort and love that she needs from those around her. She is religious, and one hopes that her faith community sustains her at this time.

We owe her a debt of gratitude for her article, as it highlights several pressing problems in our communities, problems that do not really get the attention they deserve.

First of all, bereavement. This is always a difficult process, even when the person who dies does so in the most natural way possible, as from old age. Those who die before their time leave a different type of loss, and those who die through suicide, even more so. Many parishes these days have bereavement groups, and that is a welcome sign that the pastoral care needs to continue after the funeral is over, sometimes for months, if not years. But the care of the bereaved is not only the job of a specific group: it is part of the mission of the whole parish. Parishes are judged, in my experience, and priests in particular are judged, by the way they care or fail to care for the bereaved. Those who have suffered tragic loss need to be held close to the heart of the parish, for many of them feel isolated by their experiences. Parishioners who say, in the face of tragic loss “I do not know what to say”, need some guidance in how to approach those who are grieving.

For what it is worth, I don’t think you need to go on a special course to learn how to speak to the bereaved. You just need to speak to them and show human sympathy. Often going up to someone and saying “I do not know what to say” is a beginning. Likewise, going round to their house with a cake you have made, is always welcome. (Frankly, I would give flowers a miss.)

Secondly, mental illness and its frequent companion, drug abuse. Here Julie Burchill is right to be angry in the way her son was allowed to fill himself with drugs, and at the same time allowed to refuse medication. This is quite wrong. We need a more robust approach, though it remains true that trying to cure someone against their will is pretty impossible. The way forward, I am convinced, lies in the Italian way, of dedicated communities for the rehabilitation of drug users. These have had some considerable success and provide a form of therapy that embraces all aspects of life.

Meanwhile, let us all pray for Julie Burchill, and the countless other parents who are undergoing the same grief, many of whom will be known to us personally. Miss Burchill is donating her fee for her article to a charity called SOBS, which stands for Survivors of those Bereaved by Suicide. This charity does great work, as I have observed, and deserves support.