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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 August 11; 335(7614): 306.
PMCID: PMC1941877
The Bigger Picture


Mary E Black, public health physician, Belgrade, Serbia

This June, the 21 year old son of our closest family friends was stabbed to death as he slept.

The next days were a blur. Friends, neighbours, and relatives gathered around and stayed close to the family. Everyone brought gifts; the fridge was kept full, the house swept, cold water kept ready for the hot, hot days. My husband rigged sails up to shade the veranda and the visitors. Black clothes were bought, chocolate and coffee stacked high. An elderly neighbour dropped her longstanding feud over something trivial and turned to sweeping the shared yard, cutting her best roses to lay in tribute. The funeral was huge. The press kept away as the family had asked them to. As the father of the young man said, “ It took my son's death to create a perfect society”.

At times like this, everyone brings gifts—of their time, their tears, their labour, their cars for the funeral, anything at all. As doctors, nurses, health workers we have additional gifts to offer, either in our professional roles or as friends who know that little bit more about morgues, autopsies, police surgeons. We can be called upon to identify bodies when relatives cannot face it. Or to explain yet again how the deceased may have felt in those last moments. We are fortunate that we can offer these special gifts.

There is a code among the bereaved; after a loss, they seek the eyes of someone who has walked that path before. It therefore helps when strangers as well as friends can see the status of mourners. All religions mark the bereaved and accord them special status with ceremonies, mourning garb, and rituals, and civil society marks them too with notices in the press, black ties, and condolence letters. The bereaved are given dispensations from everyday life. They serve as a reminder to us of how unimportant all else is save our beliefs, our core values, love, and life itself. They allow us to pause, to drop pretences, to pray, to go home and treasure our own families, to do better in future.

How then can we be so blind in our modern, hi-tech world? What must it feel like, your emotions like a peeled egg, walking away from a deathbed in some intensive care unit through the bustling wards of a hospital, into some anonymous city street; death can be just an end point or a failed intervention and the bereaved so rarely have a special place, or a sign on them, or special ways of behaving that set them apart. By failing to honour or recognise the bereaved among us, we may miss the most important gift of any offered after a death: the great gift that the bereaved offer of themselves.

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