The Elephant in the room!
When I learned of my brother’s death, not only that he was dead, but already cremated and we didn’t know for 5 weeks that he was dead and gone, I went into a state of shock I am just now after almost 5 years coming out of slowly.
Those who know my story, also know that Pret A Manger, the company I worked for 7 years at the time, bullied me and under the watchful eye of HR very quickly tried to get me out of Pret.
Because I fought and kept standing up, Pret searched and found a way to gaslight me and finally get rid of me, as bereaved employees are an inconvenience for Pret, as they are for many profit-driven companies.
My full story is in the audio player interview at the bottom of this post.
But in all my shock, trauma and the complex turmoil I went into, I made the mistake most people make who’ve never encountered this kind of work situation: I kept giving Pret the benefit of the doubt. I’ve never experienced the type of toxic workplace, until I came to Pret. I blamed myself as I was also in deep shock over my brother’s death. A multi-million (by now billion) pound company that did not know, nor care what to do with me; a company that has the money and could get the resources to support an employee, especially a longstanding staff member with a good rapport at work. I even researched myself with ACAS and passed those resources on to Pret. Here I was, low-paid, bereaved, traumatized, in shock … and giving this rich company resources! Hello? But it took a deep, dark and long valley to finally wake up that Pret has no interest in truly helping people, but rather suck the life-blood out of them.
One of the many Tribunal cases Pret lost was after having fired a staff member, and the Judges ruled that Pret’s HR hearings are “fundamentally flawed” (I can verify that from experience) and further said, quote:
»We conclude that the respondent did not carry out as much investigation as was reasonable in all circumstances of the case … The respondent is a large sophisticated employer and there was no reason put forward why it failed to comply with the Code.« Tribunal ruling at the bottom of page 11 (at 15 and check mark)
And there are many, many other things Pret does which cannot be excused as they are this “large sophisticated” employer. And staff will always speak bluntly in anonymity and there is a reason why Pret and its leadership have such poor scores on Glassdoor & Co, and the legacy Clive Schlee, now former CEO leaves behind, with the new CEO Pano Christou not being better under private equity greed.
I collected a lot of staff reviews on the bullying culture in Pret and added screenshots with links, so that people don’t just need to take my word for it. I also continue to ask for independent investigation into Pret staff suicides, having survived myself. Link to staff reviews on the bullying environment including in head office.
But on helping the helpless, which often is the opposite of help, hence the “help less the helpless” wordplay, I want to briefly give some tips to people who care but don’t know what to do.
This is about help for people who suffer trauma, become bereaved, receive terrible health news, victims of crime and any other traumatic event that pulls the rug from under their feet.
I have had all the types of reactions we all experience in our lives when we go through painful times. And these painful times can also be divorce, separation, job loss, loss of status or reputation, or even that you are a teenager with lots of friends and your parents move you across the country to another state where you don’t know anybody! That will be grief as well! And the heavy events like trauma, accidents, victims of crime, grief etc.
Apart from the bullying from Pret that I write extensively about, I want to concentrate on two types of people. The one type are the people that are friends, colleagues, strangers, even healthcare professionals who turn their backs on you when you go through immense trauma. The people who feel helpless or even don’t care and you see a big dust cloud behind them.
The other type of people are those who care and who want to help, but they don’t know how. To these latter people I am writing.
One of the common things a bereaved or traumatized person hears from well-meaning people is: “If you need anything, let me know” or “Call me anytime if I can do something” or “I’m here for you”.
Those are truly well-meaning words, especially when they are authentic and people really want to help. The difficulty with this is, that the person who just got their rug pulled from under them does not know what help they need nor want. And if they know, they are too concerned to be a burden to ask for help.
I went through it all. I didn’t know and then didn’t ask for help, especially at the beginning. Other times I was so in pain and grief that I screamed out, and still do today at times. Other times I was angry and pushed people away because of the bullying in Pret on one side and being abandoned by friends on the other side. I couldn’t see straight ahead anymore nor distinguish real helpers from those who tricked me (again, my story in below audio player).
And those I pushed away or lashed out in anger, when they withdrew it’s completely understandable. I don’t blame those who tried to help and want to protect themselves from my anger.
I have also painfully found that some people just “offer” vague help like, “If you need anything, let me know…” and when I couldn’t verbalize what I needed because I was too broken, those people then would say things like, “Well, I offered help, but you didn’t take it” – (typical Pret response after I reached out for a year and Pret then started with support to just cover themselves).
If you want to help a friend or colleague who is suddenly thrust into loss, devastating health issues etc., the number one ingredient is: Do NOT be afraid!
I don’t consider myself a Believer anymore, not because I lost my brother or was bullied at work during the worst time of my life, I know bad stuff happens and will happen to all of us. But I lost my belief because those who claim to know God showed me that there cannot be a God. And no, if you are a Believer, don’t make it too easy on yourself by giving the usual one-size-fits all answer “trust only in God and not in people” bla bla! And the usual “we pray for you” bla bla. Yes, go away, pray and bla, and leave me the hell alone!
But I have studied the Bible for years, and I do say, that a lot of the verses in the Bible make much more sense now after having gone through my own darkest and scariest valley. One such verse is: »There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.« – 1 John 4:18 (NIV)
Of course I cannot compare a “love” for ones own child to the love towards a friend or colleague. And yes, I know the difference between eros, phileo and agape and all the other types of “love”. But to zoom in on what I mean, any good parent knows that they would go through fire if they have to save their child from pain or harm. When you love someone and you see them in pain or danger, you forget fear, fear doesn’t exist, you are only focused on getting some kind of relieve for that person. In a bereaved person, not getting a solution or answer to their loss, but some tiny bit of relieve of the chaos and utter darkness. In Biblical terms, the famous cold cup of fresh water to a burning soul (Mt. 10:42).
This reminds me of a nurse in A&E (ER), when I dragged myself early one morning during a panic attack, thinking I’m having a heart attack. My heart was racing and my chest felt like a balloon that was filling up with water, about to burst. After registering with a nurse, she pointed me to a seat to wait. She was kind, but as a nurse I was gobsmacked when she offered me coffee!!!! In disbelief I mumbled to her, “My heart is racing and you want to give me caffeine???” She quietly went and brought me some water. I felt ashamed to have had an expectation that a nurse should be aware of these things.
That is why I am weary of “friends” who claim to care or love, because the next moment they blame me for being distraught, helpless and angry. And if anyone who claims to be a friend is afraid of me, then they never knew me. I don’t fear people anymore after what I’ve been through, but if I do fear someone from time to time, then only because I don’t know them.
Since my brother died and then my father and the chain reaction of losses that death sparks, I love Elephants!
I have always loved these gentle giants, but now even more learning how they grieve, how they come together to help a fellow Elephant, very actively, very passionately. They also help a weak Elephant that got in trouble. In the first video though, I wish they would have either put a different song and raised the volume of the moderator, or not put any music at all and maybe try and get the Elephant sounds if there were any.
But Elephants are “hands-on” in their grief and investigating!
This second video is precious!
This third video is heart-breaking but incredible where Elephants desperately try to help a dying calf, trying to lift it up again and again. This will break your heart, but please watch this!
At around 1:05 minutes when one Elephant gently puts its left leg on the little one, as if to feel if it’s still alive or to give it a warm touch to not give up! So heartbreaking! The commentator sounds Swiss and I can pick up her saying “the elephant is still alive, but it doesn’t get up…”
I can’t help but always emphasize how we human beings SUCK at grief, how we suck at helping others, and how we suck at letting others grieve! We humans have all the technology, knowledge, even money, but we often turn our back and in Pret’s case, even step on bereaved and sick people! I was STEPPED on in Pret when I was already on the ground! We can learn from animals like these grey, dry, thick-skinned, sensible and sensitive giants!
But to lift everyone’s spirits again, even the birth of an Elephant is a community effort and event!
So, I want to give some bullet points of how meaningful and effective help and support can look like. Keep in mind this may vary from person to person, but I found that a few similar things seem to help most people. MISTAKES allowed! But no blaming of the person who is paralyzed in grief and trauma! Don’t even dare to blame the person! You better run away with a big dust cloud behind you, then to blame the traumatized person!
- ASK questions, DON’T make assumptions! Don’t give bullshit solutions as to why someone’s loved-one died if you don’t know. Rather ask what may have happened. For example, when we learned of my brother’s death we had no cause of death, not even an autopsy, no answers.
Bad scenario: In the early days when I flew back and forth from London to Germany to run errands and support my family, my mum one time was extra distraught and silent. I asked her what’s going on and she said that an acquaintance of hers said to my mum that my brother probably ended his life, suicide. I became so angry and told my mum to not listen to people who make assumptions that the police didn’t confirm.
Good scenario: One person who supported me early on (the ONLY line manager to support me) took me out for a drink on the second day of having met me to just speak, and she inquired about my brother. She ASKED a question after listening to what happened: “Do you think he got murdered?” For some this very direct question seems shocking, but for me it was okay, because it was a QUESTION, not an assumption! And it was a direct question that didn’t talk around the bush. Other good and safe questions, if you don’t want to be as direct can also be “What do you think happened?” … “Did anyone else say/see/hear anything…?” Neutral questions… you can never be wrong with honest QUESTIONS, but you can almost always be wrong with assumptions!
- Don’t offer vague help like I mentioned above, “If you need anything, call me” etc. Tell the person what kind of help you can give. Be specific!
– If you know legal help, tell them, “If you need legal help, I know an organization, a website, a person etc. that can give good advise.”
– If you love cooking, offer the person food, and plainly cook for them, bring it over EVEN if they lost appetite. I worked in Pret, surrounded by free food every day, but I lost 35kg (25kg in the first 6 months of bereavement). My friends were just amazed at my rapid weight loss, but no-one was alarmed. My fridge was empty, not because I had no money for food, and I certainly had an abundant amount of FREE food at work, but I was exhausted, traumatized to go shopping. My fridge was empty. On my free days I couldn’t go shopping or cook! I was paralyzed in grief and shock. Cooking a meal for a bereaved person, or inviting them to a meal with friends has more to do with not leaving that person alone and having fellowship rather than just eat. A bereaved person WILL say no to invitations, but keep inviting them, keep bringing food unless they make it VERY clear that they do not wish for you to bring any more food etc.
The more vague and chaotic the traumatized person is, the more specific and consistent you need to be. The traumatized, bereaved etc. person is on a free-fall without the bottom in sight. Those who are in a good place mentally can bring stability within a hurricane.
– Offer to clean their house if you see that their surroundings become unusually chaotic, anything out of the ordinary, again offer stability and NORMALCY as best as possible. In 2015 I only cleaned my apartment 3 times, whereas before I cleaned my floors every 2 weeks at least (I don’t wear shoes at home to avoid the dirt from outside, keeping the apartment longer clean). I am known for being very clean and tidy, but that year especially you could SMELL the dust in my apartment! You could literally smell dust and see the footprints like in the snow! But those who came by, either didn’t notice or didn’t know what to do. If you are a good friend and know the person well, just grab a broom or the vacuum cleaner, offer them to walk their dog or babysit their children, especially when they need to run errands and have to work.
– Offer other bureaucratic help where they are overwhelmed with the paper work that accumulates when you lose someone.
– Anything you can help with, even the smallest of support, a listening ear, BE SPECIFIC in which area you can help, but be realistic in what you know you can do. Don’t promise something you can’t live up to, don’t say to call you anytime and then get upset when your phone rings at 10pm on Sunday evening. Switch the “If you need any help, call me” to “I can help you with such-and-such, do you want me to look into this? It’s very easy for me as I know this area very well…” etc. If the traumatized or bereaved person senses that this is NO problem for you to do, they will feel much more comfortable to accept help and ask for it.
- Longevity: Do NOT give up. If the bereaved or traumatized person says “no” to an invitation to a Christmas dinner or other support you are specific about, don’t assume they say “no” to next year’s Christmas dinner or birthday party etc. And if they say “no” to the second Christmas dinner, ask them for the third year again, especially if before their loss you celebrated Christmas or Birthdays together every year.
- DON’T TAKE THINGS PERSONAL!!! You are dealing with a person who lost someone, or experienced a traumatic event like rape, a criminal offense, break-in, robbery, injury, grief etc. Trauma is messy and there will be incidences where the person may lash out. This is no excuse and it is okay to tell the person that this hurts you, and to withdraw. But if you know the person usually to not lash out, it’s an indication that they are in a terrible place they don’t know how to get out of.
- Avoid saying things like “You need a therapist”… I was told this many times by friends and strangers, but they told me this in their own anger. And many again did NOT ask questions. If they would have asked if I sought help, they’d know that I went through a dozen counselors since my brother died, but even 5 years later I still haven’t received a diagnosis and because I cannot afford a trauma specialist, I am being passed on from counselor to counselor, many of whom were in training. In England it is not that simple to get help for mental health. Anyone who’s been through this will know.
- RESEARCH for professional help. If your friend has been raped or robbed or bereaved… research those events for help. But keep an open mind as every person is different and grieves differently. Don’t give solutions or answers to their grief, but support and practical help surrounding all the things that loss brings.
- The main important thing, DON’T give up, don’t abandon your friend. Yes, withdraw for a while to refuel or protect yourself, pass on the baton to other friends who may have more strength. But if this is your friend, don’t give up.
There are countless other things that can be added, especially from an individual, subjective point of view, but the above I find are a core list of support. I am looking into research of different cultures, how they deal with trauma, grief, death, illness etc. I am aware that I live in the “wrong” society, where individualism is a big one, and most don’t know what to do with the subject of death and grief and tragedy in general.
Grieving parents Jane Harris and Jimmy Edmonds who lost their 22 year old son Joshua in an accident on a trip in Vietnam, started The Good Grief Project to openly work through their loss and also help other parents through their grief. They make documentaries with and for other grieving parents to start the conversation about death and grief. They work to raise the subject out of the taboo realm.
In 2018 they toured the UK with their film “A Love that Never Dies” and did Q&A at the end of each screening. At the London screening, Jimmy Edmonds said in the Q&A, that in Victorian times people openly spoke about death and grieving. But it was taboo to speak about sex. And today it’s the complete opposite. And I agree, I am really tired of being thrown images and comments about sex in its most detailed form, in its most intimate acts people so flippingly share today with the whole world! Yet, the very subject we all face at any moment: death, dying, grief, loss, we avoid like the pest! We silence death to death!
Let’s talk about sex death, baby!
In memory of my big brother Thomas.
I worked at Pret A Manger and survived systemic workplace bullying during bereavement that involved HR, the top leadership, HQ and even the now “retired” former CEO Clive Schlee. I declined 4 settlement offers if I am silent about my ordeal. But I rather starve and speak out to help others. For an overview of important blog entries of my experience with Pret, please visit “My Ordeal with Pret A Manger”. The little arrow to the right next to each heading will lead directly to the post.
I tell my story for the first time verbally in below audio player interview on a podcast by The Adam Paradox, and wrote two articles in the Scottish Left Review: 1. “Late Night Girl’s” Story with Pret and 2. Pushing Back Against Pret.
Thank you for reading/listening.
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