Advice for the newly bereaved in France and English-speaking help

When the worst happens, how do you cope in France?

What support can the bereaved get in France?
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How do you deal with the death of a loved one in France? From the admin and practicalities to coping with grief, we talk to experts from the English-speaking Bereavement Support Network to find out some of the best advice. 

Find a good funeral director 

France is renowned for its admin, and dealing with a bereavement is no exception. But much of the heavy lifting can be done by a competent and kind funeral director. 

“Getting yourself a good funeral director in France is one of the most important things in those early days when you’re just trying to figure it all out because they know the system,” says Sarah Delcourt, president of the Bereavement Support Network, which has helped English-speaking bereaved people across France with free emotional and practical support since 2006. “A good funeral director holds your hand.”

A funeral director who speaks good English can help guide you through the system, which is different in France to many other countries. Many people are surprised, for example, that in France, a burial or cremation must take place within six days of death. This can make everything more stressful and rushed – so seeking support is essential. Ms Delcourt suggests asking around for personal recommendations. 

Read more: Explainer: burials, cremations and funerals in France

Sally, a trained volunteer for the BSN, who moved to France five years ago and lives in the Var, said finding a good funeral director was “invaluable” when her father-in-law died last year. 

She suggests looking for a funeral director who is tech-savvy and can deal with admin over text and email. 

Read more: What are the immediate steps to take after a death in France?

Reach out for help 

Dealing with the admin of death when you are grieving is incredibly difficult, which is why people should not hesitate to ask organisations in France for help. 

“Reach out to us. Not only do we give that emotional support, but we also have a lot of practical information,” says Ms Delcourt. 

Children based abroad with parents living in France can also contact BSN for help navigating the French system. 

“Getting support can be very helpful as the administrative side can be overwhelming.”

Read more: Ways to cope with bereavement when living in France, away from family

Talk to someone 

“You’re not alone,” says Ms Delcourt. “It can be a very lonely thing, especially if you don’t speak the language well and you don’t know what is going on. When you feel like you are ready, reach out and talk. Sometimes, talking to a stranger can be easier than talking to your family, who are also grieving,” she says. 

Volunteer Sally says while many people feel they do not need to talk to somebody and go “gingerly” into the first couple of sessions, “they get a lot more out of it than they thought they would”. 

“They really open up because I don’t know them, I’m not going to judge them, I’m not going to be talking about them to anybody because it’s confidential and I don’t know them,” she says. 

Talking to people outside of your immediate family and friends can also allow you to be honest about your feelings. 

“Often people don’t want to have to censor anything they say, the sadness… the anger, sometimes the guilt – sometimes it can be things they don’t want to talk to family about because they’re worried that might upset them too… we’re neutral in that way,” says Ms Delcourt.

Everyone's grief is unique 

It is important to know that everyone’s grief is different and “has its own rhythm and time”, says Ms Delcourt. 

She says people often reach out to the organisation after some time has passed “because they think it’s been six months, it’s been nine months, sometimes it’s been a year or more and they still don’t feel like they are coping that well… we support them and try to help.” 

“You can’t say that any one grief is the same because it’s not,” says Sally. 

Take care of yourself 

Take small steps to look after yourself in the first days and weeks following your loved one’s death. 

“Be patient and take care of yourself,” Ms Delcourt says. “Don’t forget to eat, drink lots of water and move your body in some way as much as possible, especially in nature. It will also help you sleep (a bit) better.” 

“Be kind to yourself and get support from BSN or another organisation or grief counsellor, if you feel you are not coping or need to talk.” 

Give yourself time 

It is important to remember that grieving will take time. 

“Don’t think oh I should be doing this, and I should be doing that. Grief is very difficult to explain to people who haven’t had a significant loss themselves. It’s a kick in the guts and you’re not really functioning properly and even more so when you’re living in a country where most of your family are somewhere else,” says Ms Delcourt. 

Grief can also take time to fully hit you. 

“For my mother-in-law, for the first year she was gung-ho – “I’m ok, everything’s fine” – and it’s the second year that it’s hit her, and she’s now getting help” says Sally. 

Get support from French friends 

Volunteer Sally advises leaning on French friends, and asking for their help with administrative tasks.

“Try to get the support from friends, particularly French friends, that may be able to help if you can’t speak the language, to help with the various paperwork, because there’s so much of it here. If you’ve got somebody that can help you with that, that is really helpful for you to move forward with your grief.”

Allow yourself to say no

“The advice I give to my clients is to allow themselves to say no if they don’t want to go somewhere or if they don’t want to do something,” says volunteer Sally. 

“A lot of people just feel like they have to say yes, they have to go when someone invites them, they have to do things when they might not feel like doing them, and it’s just knowing that it’s ok to say no, I don’t fancy doing it.” 

Do not isolate yourself 

Ms Delcourt suggests reaching out to local English-language organisations, such as the British Association of the Var in the Var, where BSN is based. They will have large networks of contacts and resources that could be helpful. 

Facebook groups such as Widows and Widowers in France Together are a place to connect with people who know what you are going through. 

“Sometimes people aren’t at a stage when they feel like they can do that, but as time goes on there are organisations out there,” says Ms Delcourt. 

If you are struggling to find a local British association, BSN can help put you in touch with one. 

Get your affairs in order 

No one likes to think about death, but consider writing down your wishes ahead of time so your loved ones can do exactly what you would have wanted. 

Do you wish to be buried or cremated? Do you want to be returned to your country of origin or remain in France? Questions like this can be difficult for loved ones to answer once you are gone. 

“For people who are living here, who’ve come from a different country, sometimes having a little bit of awareness beforehand is really helpful,” says Ms Delcourt. 

Read more: Key financial steps to take after the death of family member in France

You can contact the Bereavement Support Network on its website or by calling 0033 (0) 6 24 50 22 74 to speak to a trained volunteer. Lines are open from Monday-Friday 9:00 - 17:00. All calls are confidential and all help and advice is free. 

You can find a list of English-language grief links and contacts here

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