One of the joys of friends is getting to experience life with them — we’re with them to cheer on their successes and share in their happiness. That also means one of the less fun parts of friendship is being there when our friends are in pain. And when a friend loses a loved one, that pain can be deep indeed.
As humans we sometimes have a hard time supporting others who are grieving the death of a loved one. For one reason, because it’s one of those life skills we’re never really taught. Somehow, most of us are expected to figure it out on our own. For another, it’s hard and painful and complicated. Death, as a friend once commented at a funeral, is never convenient.
We’re avid followers of Refuge in Grief, where Megan Devine talks all things grief — whether you are experiencing it yourself or helping someone else grieve. She offers advice about what not to say, what not to do, and the truth about the stages of grief or any kind of roadmap that tells you what to expect. It’s a treasure trove of compassion and useful information.
Everyone handles grief differently. Some people cry a lot. Others would never cry or never let you see them cry. Some people want to talk about it, others don’t. Some people care about the anniversary of their loved one’s death; it doesn’t mean anything much to other people. Of course, the fact that it is so individual makes it harder to know how to help. Luckily, there are a few key things to keep in mind when you want to be helpful. And it all comes down to one thing: Be present.
- Be there for your friend. Call or email or text to say “Hi”. Let her take the lead about how to share her experience and feelings. She may want privacy. She may want to share everything. If she does want to talk, be ready to listen.
- While people grieving often do need real help, let them take the lead in deciding the help they will use. As much as you might want to drive someone kids to school to ease the burden, that task may be very important to your friend, to help her feel normal or to be close to her children at a tough time. If there is something you think they could or should get help with, ask. There may be times you need to assume some control or make some decisions, for safety or health reasons, if they’re talking about self-harm or harming others, for example, but it’s important not to take more control than absolutely necessary.
- Also, whenever possible be specific about help. Saying “I can help” puts the burden on your friend to figure out how you can best help, at a time when she is not in a place to know what she needs or to make decisions. It is usually more helpful to offer specific help: “I’m on my way to the store and can pick up groceries for you.” “I can drive you to that appointment.”
- Say their loved one’s name. Talk about their loved one or shared experiences or memories. They haven’t forgotten their person, so you aren’t going to hurt them by saying their name.
- Let them be sad. This can be a hard one. So many of us are wired to help and want that help to be taking away someone’s pain or drying their tears. But those tears and sadness are a part of healing.
And yes, it is possible to say the wrong thing. All of us have done this at one time or another. If you catch yourself saying or doing something that turns out not to be helpful, acknowledge it (to yourself and your friend, if appropriate) and then move on. You’ll have moments where you’re feeling awkward. Or scared. Or just don’t know what to say. It can be hard to feel raw and vulnerable. But it’s ok to admit these things.
Lead with compassion and love. And know that if you’re present for your friend, you are helping. Your friendship matters.