A few tips for helping a grieving friend (or, at least, how you can help me)
Everyone is different in how they grieve. Yes, this is true. And yes, it is so hard to know what is needed by someone who is grieving. But that is no excuse not to try. Because it is hard to know and everyone is different, a safe bet is to keep it simple. Short, sweet, and above all else, sincere.
Yes, everyone is different, and so take these and use your own judgment and knowledge of your friend. I have had quite a few big losses in my life and read quite a lot on grief and loss (the week my cousin died we were just starting the chapter on Death, Grief, and Loss in my masters Human Development class, if you can believe it) and here is what I have learned.
- If you say you are going to do something, do it.
If you say you’ll call, you better call when you say you will, or at least at all. If you say you’ll send a card, donation, or condolence, I’ll be looking for it. If you can’t do what you say you would, then at least let me know. A quick text, a short email, just something so that the already abandoned-by-the-deceased me doesn’t feel more abandoned.
- Minimize (or eliminate) small talk.
When conversing with me in the weeks during and after, know I can’t do small talk. I’m sorry, the biggest event in my life just happened, and you want to talk about the weather getting cold? I’m standing in front of you with my heart ripped open and you want to tell me about the traffic you hit getting to the funeral?
Ask me about my lost loved one (she’s all I can think about or want to talk about right now). Ask me about my experience surrounding the loss. At least ask me what I would like to talk about. For me, I never would have expected that I’d want to talk about how it all happened, but it was key in my processing of the event. In this time, only very meaningful things are of interest. “Life is short” is the reason we are meeting or having this conversation in the first place, so let us not waste that time on unimportant topics.
At least ask if I’d like to change the subject or talk about something like that, and look for signals that I’m uninterested since I won’t be able to tell you. These signals include one word answers, feigned enthusiasm, looking around the room. I get that you are uncomfortable with my puffy eyelids and waterworks ready to burst at any moment, but that is all part of what I need to do right now. I’m sorry you are “uncomfortable.” I’m “heart-ripped out of my chest and stomped on.” Consider. Get comfortable with silence and please don’t fill the dead air with your hot air. It’s exhausting for me. I’ve already gotten little to no sleep and therefore I have little to no patience.
- Don’t say nothing.
If you think we are at all friends, don’t say nothing. And try not to say only one “I’m sorry” though this is certainly all I ask and better than nothing. Check in on me again in a few days or a week. Just because the funeral is over, my mourning is not.
Here are some suggestions for good things to say when you aren’t sure what to say and you are using that as an excuse to say nothing:
“Let me know if there is anything I can do.” It is more than likely I won’t hit you up, so don’t stress about offering, but think about how much it means to me to have that offer extended and follow through if I do ask (see #1). Better still, suggest something you can do, or just do it. Here’s more on that: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/megan-devine/death-and-dying_b_4329830.html.
Another favorite: “Thinking of you. No need to reply.”
The best, and this one is for all of you who say “Well, really what can you say to someone who just suffered such a loss (which just sounds to me like ‘so why try?’)?” – “There are no words.” I know you think it might sound cliché and that everyone else is saying it, but this isn’t about how unique you can be. Everyone is sincere in their sympathy, because everyone has been or will be touched by death. This isn’t about how you can stand out from the crowd. In fact, this isn’t about you at all. This is about supporting me, your friend. If you feel the need to impart more sincerity, send a private message (instead of posting on my Facebook wall), or send a card, or give me a call, or ask to visit.
Just because you are uncomfortable with the idea of death or loss, that doesn’t get you off the hook. I have no room for sympathy for your issues right now. I barely have the emotional room left to have sympathy for my own family members who have suffered the same loss, but I do have it, and that’s something else I’m grappling with right now. It is also something else to talk to me about, in case you are struggling to find something: how my loved ones are doing with the loss. But don’t immediately change the subject to them, please. I’m here, too. Just because it was their wife or their mother who passed, and in your mind I’m less affected, doesn’t mean I’m not feeling like I need support.
Above all with each of these, just ASK. Ask what I need, ask how I’d like you to help me or handle it.
If you’ve committed one of these “grievances,” pun (not?) intended, know that a simple apology would suffice. I’m not looking to hold a grudge, I’m just looking to be understood, to be supported, to feel validated. Don’t tell me why you did what you did, either. Don’t make excuses because they probably aren’t good enough for having ditched or dissed me in my time of need. Just say “I’m sorry.” A simple I’m sorry (for your loss) from the very start could have saved you from the need to apologize now. So just remember those two simple words.
Two simple words from me: Thank you. A special thanks to those of you who showed me during this time how to do sympathy right. You are the model upon which I’m basing these tips. I only hope I can be there for you the ways you were there for me.