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Civil Service

Connecting Over Grief

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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  1. Comment by Nikki Doyle posted on

    Thanks so much Keela 🙏🏻

  2. Comment by Nikki Doyle posted on

    Hi there,

    Will there be another one of these Grief Cafe sessions coming up please?

  3. Comment by Shawn Turner posted on

    Fantastic initiative, thank you for sharing. I was too late to attend the session on the 27th as I've only just spotted this post. Are you running anymore as I'd be interested in seeing how it all works?

    Its more of a personal interest for me although its probably something I could implement in DWP to help others. I don't deal with loss at all and almost detach myself from the reality of it when things like birthdays and anniversaries come up. Its the traditional "I'm a bloke so need to be strong" but I'm learning more and more that this approach isn't ok!.

    Anyway, fantastic initiative, thank you for sharing your own story, and hopefully get to join another session if you run one 🙂

    • Replies to Shawn Turner>

      Comment by Keela Shackell-Smith MBE posted on

      Hi Shawn
      Let’s connect, the next session is 25 may at 11. I’ve written a guide to hosting a grief cafe and would love departments setting up their own cafes.
      Detaching ourselves is something we talk about in grief cafe, as well as delayed grief, anticipatory grief. It’s so complex.

  4. Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on

    Thank you Keela for sharing with us your personal experience concerning grief, I am sorry for your loss.

    May I also commend you for looking to use your experience is a positive way to support others and the grief café sounds like a great initiative.

    Whilst we all experience the passing of a family member, relative or friend, coping with the loss affects everyone in different ways. The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns has not made the experience any easier.

    Unfortunately, my father in law suddenly passed away in November, and trying to sort out the registration of his death and the arrangements for his funeral was both challenging and extremely stressful.

    I must admit that I felt quite exhausted, and once the funeral service was completed, I decided to take a few days leave just to allow me to manage my personal wellbeing.

    I really do hope that you café will inspire others to reach out for support, with the confidence that there is a safe space where they can share their sorrow, and need not feel isolated or alone.

    • Replies to Gavin Thomas>

      Comment by Keela Shackell-Smith MBE posted on

      Thank you for your message Gavin. I’m so sorry to hear of your loss.

      Grief during the pandemic is something we talk about at Grief Cafe. I hadn’t thought about the registration, arrangements etc and how had that must be right now.


  5. Comment by David Smy posted on

    Wonderful blog post and insight about grief. It is unfortunate that it will likely be applicable for everyone at one point or another, but always heartening to hear about support being in place for such times.

    • Replies to David Smy>

      Comment by Keela Shackell-Smith MBE posted on

      Exactly David, and we never know how we would react to the grief until it happens.

  6. Comment by Norah posted on

    I think this is great what you are doing. It is so needed in today's world. Well done.

    • Replies to Norah>

      Comment by Keela Shackell-Smith MBE posted on

      Thank you Norah

  7. Comment by Barry Snelgrove posted on

    What an excellent idea! Sharing feelings with others in the same boat is a tried and tested approach in so many situations, but people don’t know how to deal with grief despite it being a shared experience for us all at some stage.

    • Replies to Barry Snelgrove>

      Comment by Keela Shackell-Smith MBE posted on

      Exactly Barry. And no two react react the same. It’s so complex.

  8. Comment by Terry Hegarty posted on

    Thank you for sharing this. It is surprisingly difficult for people to often find a safe space to talk about grief and loss. I volunteer as a Hartlepool Town Pastor/Street Angel going out into the night time economy looking after people in distress or difficulty. What surprised me when I started was the fact that the underlying cause of a lot of people's distress was that they never got a chance to grieve, to mourn the loss of a loved one. Men in particular seem to get told to "man up", get over it, stop talking about it and so on. Grief is different for everyone and the opportunity to simply be listened to is an amazing gift we can all give each other. Well done.

    • Replies to Terry Hegarty>

      Comment by Keela Shackell-Smith MBE posted on

      Hi Terry, I wholeheartedly agreed. Everyone reacts to a bereavement in a different way.

      And what an amazing thing you are doing with volunteering. Best wishes.