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Connecting Over Grief

Blog posted by: , 21 April 2021 – Categories: A Brilliant Civil ServiceUncategorized.

In loving memory

The death of a loved one is always tough, leaving a void for loved ones left behind. Keela Shackell-Smith channelled her pain to found the Grief Café and support bereaved civil servants to help them overcome isolation, connect and move forward.

The first National Grief Awareness week (hosted by The Good Grief Trust) was held in 2019. I joined a group of volunteers in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and BEIS to host events and raise awareness of the event. 

We held a series of events, posted blogs and designed a presentation. I heard about Grief Cafes from The Good Grief Trust and decided to try it. 

In the Cabinet Office, I hosted a short 30-minute lunchtime cafe where we talked about grief. I wasn’t sure if anyone would join me, how it would go, or even whether I could cope talking about grief. But it was a success and the participants asked for it to continue. 

Keela Shackell-Smith

Author Keela Shackell-Smith founded the Grief Cafe to support bereaved colleagues

Every few months, I hosted the Grief Cafe. We would grab a hot drink and talk about loss. We chatted about our various coping mechanisms and shared specific events over the year that we dreaded. At the time, I was going through the first year of Mum passing suddenly and unexpectedly from an Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm. 

Struggled in shock

You don’t know you have the condition, which is why we struggled in shock for so long, as it caused a near instant death. The first year of dread typically includes birthdays, Mother’s Day, Easter and Christmas. The build-up to the event is much worse than the actual day, as I felt constantly cheated out of time with Mum. 

Covid hit, and I plummeted into grief again. The reason was exacerbated because all around me, I kept hearing about people dying. I also felt that death was being widely reduced and trivialised as mere numbers and statistics instead of real, loved individuals, so my grief opened up again. 

Grief Cafe

I knew that others would be feeling the same so I reached out to Grief Cafe and started running the sessions on a monthly basis. My aim was for us to support each other, for those who have experienced grief during the Covid crisis or for whom grief has resurfaced due to Covid. 

The format of the Grief Cafe is very simple – there is no agenda. 

I’m not an expert in grief or bereavement. I am just someone who experiences it – and who continues to be impacted. 

Remembering loved ones

We grab a hot drink, I give an intro on bereavement and types of grief and set the safe space. The cafe is a trigger for people, so I need to state that there are no judgements in the Grief Cafe. Some people speak, whilst others just listen in companionable silence. Your grief could be years ago, or it could be recent and feel very raw. No judgements are ever passed on another person’s grief, but the cafe is a place to share and connect with others in the same boat. 

Say their name

We end the Grief Cafe by inviting people to say the person’s name for whom they are grieving. Too often, friends are scared to utter your loved one’s name anymore for fear of upsetting you. Or you find that you haven’t said their name for a long time. Grief Cafe is an apt time to talk about the person who has died to acknowledge what you’re feeling, say their name aloud and why they remain so important to you. 

My tips on coping with grief: 

  • Never tell someone how to grieve because grief is unique and individual. 
  • Don’t try to ‘fix’ it – the only fix is for my loved one to be alive. Try to not to jump to solutions. 
  • Remember the loss – put a flag in your diary for key anniversaries where an individual may need a quick ‘thinking of you’ message on their loved ones birthday or at Christmas
  • Ask for permission to talk – don’t assume people want to talk about grief, just say that you are here to talk, but equally here if someone just wants to reflect in silence. 
  • Trust me – Trust my self care. What I’m doing right now is right for me.

My wish is that others set up Grief Cafes in your own organisations following this format to connect with others who are grieving to support each other. 

Want to find out more? The Cabinet Office Grief Café is open to all Civil Servants. If you're a civil servant and would like to attend the next Grief Cafe, you can find out more at


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