Death separates us. It’s unfortunate. But it’s true. Most people who’ve lost a loved one will tell you how many of their friends simply disappeared in the wake of the loss.
Friendships are not immune to grief. Despite what you may think, some friends will leave you when you need them most. Perhaps they don’t know what to say or how to act. Maybe they’re afraid to deal with your sadness and grief.
There are also those friends who don’t run away. And, if you’ve ever experienced grief, you know how important it is to be one of those friends who step up.
While there’s no single, perfect way to respond or support someone you care about when they’re grieving, here are some good starting points.
Take the initiative and reach out to them
When someone is experiencing grief, they’re generally not proactive. They may be in a fog and may be having a hard time coping. They may not know what they need. Their grief is so intense that it’s disabling.
Don’t just tell your friend that you’re there for them. Don’t just let them know that you’re thinking about them. Actually reach out. Do something and do it often. The fact that you’re thinking about them does nothing to help them. If you want to help, you have to be willing to engage.
Focus on how they’re feeling today
Society reinforces the idea that we should all maintain the fiction that we’re doing well.
If your friend has lost a loved one, they’re not doing well – and likely won’t be for a long time to come. Don’t ask “how are you feeling”. The last thing you want is for them to feel they have to stop and think before answering. How are they feeling? What does the future hold? Can they see an end in sight for their grief? The need to come up with the right answer can be overwhelming.
Instead, ask “how are you feeling today”. Adding one simple word – “today” – acknowledges that a gaping hole of sadness has enveloped their life and that, right now, they’re feeling really bad and it’s OK for them to express that to you.
Let them talk to you about their pain
When you do ask your friend how they’re feeling, you must be willing to hear them talk about their pain. While it may not be easy for you to hear, it’s absolutely necessary for them to express it.
Try not to be judgemental. Grief takes many forms. It’s not a clear pathway that we traverse in a number of linear stages. Grief is more like a tangled ball of string than any sort of orderly progression. Your friend can be distraught one second and furious the next. Doing OK, then crumpled in tears.
It’s an exhausting roller-coaster and you need to be prepared for it.
Provide them with practical support
Remember, small everyday things are acts of love.
Grief is exhausting and debilitating, so think about the practical things you can do to help your friend while they’re grieving. Take them out to eat. Send them food deliveries. Go to their place to cook for them. Invite them over for meals. Small things can be a bright light in the fog.
Besides food, what else can you do? If your friend has children, perhaps you can babysit them. Or maybe there’s an opportunity to help them clean up the house, pay bills, do the laundry, walk the dog or any number of other basic life things that can somehow now seem insurmountable.
Don’t disappear from their life
When someone you love dies, it can be incredibly destabilising. The world doesn’t seem safe anymore. The ground doesn’t seem solid. This is when you need to be there for your friend.
Keep reaching out. Call them often. Better yet, see them in person.
Make frequent plans with them, even if it’s just for coffee or a walk. Invite them to events. Include them in gatherings. Give them companionship. And do it consistently so they start to feel their life still has structure.
Talk about their loved one
Losing a loved one is a strange experience in as much as that person remains the most important person in your life, yet they almost become a taboo topic for those around you. It can be very isolating.
Chances are, your friend wants to talk about the person they’ve lost. Say their loved one’s name. Share stories and memories about them. By doing this, you’re letting them know that you understand that they’re still a huge part of their life. They’re still real and present in some way.
They may also want to talk about the death itself. This is a tragic moment that many people struggle with, whether or not they were even present. Many imagine what their loved one must have gone through. Others will never be able to forget what they saw and experienced.
Be patient if they want to keep going over about it and keep repeating themselves. They’re processing the trauma and talking about it helps.
Don’t count the days until they’ll be OK
Don’t put pressure on your friend to get better. And don’t make assumptions based on their appearance that they are better. They may be faking it. Saying things like “you look so much better” or “you’re so strong” can make your friend feel pressured to “get better” and fake it even more. People who have lost a loved one may never be “better”.
Everyone is different. Every relationship is different. But the fact remains that there is absolutely no timetable for grief. Be there for the long haul and don’t make assumptions or pressure your friend to get better.
You don’t “get over” grief. You grow into a different self. It’s a never-ending process.
Offer them support on special days
Holidays. Anniversaries. Birthdays. Other special events. Significant dates can be hellish, so reach out. Our culture doesn’t know how to deal with death, so most of us just avoid it. If you do that, you’re also avoiding your friend on the day they may be feeling most vulnerable, lost, sad and depressed.
Ask yourself: “Is there something I can do to show I care on this special day?” Take them to brunch or dinner. Send flowers or a small gift. Spend a day getting pampered. This can make a huge difference. It may be a small thing for you, but it will mean so much to them.
And remember, the lead up to the significant day can often be worse than the day itself. Start checking in early. A week before, a few days before, the day before. This really helps.
Your friendship is important
When you’re supporting a friend through grief, you’re really in a three-way relationship between you, your friend and the person they’ve lost. That’s complicated.
Their grief is also extremely complicated and everyone experiences it differently. So just be a friend. Their life has fundamentally changed because their relationship with their loved one has changed. They need other relationships to help fill the void of love and support that the death of their loved one has left in their life.
Being there for them can make all the difference.
Want to know more
For more information about how to support a friend through grief, please contact the Walter Carter Funerals team by emailing [email protected]