Many of us want to be there to help a friend or family member who is experiencing a severe loss. Words often fail us at times like these. Some of us are so afraid to say or do the wrong thing, we end up doing nothing at all. Doing nothing is certainly an option, but it’s not generally a good one. There is no one perfect way to respond to or to support someone you care about, but here are some good ground rules:
1. Grief belongs to the griever.
You have a supporting role, not the central role, in your friend’s grief. So many of the suggestions, advice, and “help” given to the griever tells them they should do this differently, or otherwise feel differently than they do. Grief is a very personal experience, and it belongs entirely to the person experiencing it. This grief belongs to your friend; follow his or her lead.
2. Stay present and state the truth.
It’s tempting to make statements about the past or the future when your friend’s present life holds so much pain. You cannot know what the future will be, for yourself or your friend. It may or may not be better “later.” That your friend’s life was good in the past is not a fair trade for the pain of now. Stay present with them, even when the present is full of pain.
It’s also tempting to make generalizing statements about the situation in an attempt to soothe a friend. You cannot know that his or her loved one “finished their work here,” or that they are in a “better place.” These future-based, omniscient, generalized platitudes aren’t helpful. Stick with the truth: This hurts. I love you. I’m here.
3. Do not try to fix the unfixable.
Your friend’s loss cannot be fixed or repaired or solved. The pain itself cannot be made better. (See #2.) Do not say anything that tries to fix the unfixable, and you will do just fine. It is an unfathomable relief to have a friend who does not try to take the pain away.
4. Be willing to witness searing, unbearable pain.
To do this while also practicing #3 is very, very hard.
5. This is not about you.
Being with someone in pain is not easy. You will have things come up — stresses, questions, anger, fear, guilt. Your feelings will likely be hurt. You may feel ignored and unappreciated. Your friend cannot show up for their part of the relationship very well. Try not to take it personally, and don’t take it out on them. Find your own people to lean on; it’s important that you be supported while you support your friend.
6. Anticipate, don’t ask.
Do not say, “Call me if you need anything,” because your friend will not call — not because they do not have needs, but because identifying a need, figuring out who might fill it, and then making a phone call to ask is light years beyond their energy, capacity, or interest right now. Instead, make concrete offers: “I will be there at 4 p.m. on Thursday to bring your recycling to the curb.”
7. Do the recurring things.
The actual, heavy, real work of grieving is not something you can do for your friend, but you can lessen the burden of “normal” life requirements. Are there recurring tasks or chores that you might do, like walking the dog or refilling prescriptions. Support your friend in small, ordinary ways; this is tangible evidence of love.
But please try not to do anything that is irreversible, like doing laundry or cleaning up the house, unless you check with your friend first. That empty soda bottle beside the couch may look like trash but may have been left there by their husband just the other day. The dirty laundry may be the last thing that smells like his wife. Tiny little things can become precious. Ask first.
8. Tackle projects together.
Depending on the circumstance, there may be difficult tasks that need tending — things like casket shopping, mortuary visits, the packing and sorting of rooms or houses. Offer your assistance and follow through with your offers. Follow your friend’s lead in these tasks. Your presence alongside them is powerful and important; words are often unnecessary.
9. Run interference.
To the new griever, the influx of people who want to show their support can be seriously overwhelming. What is an intensely personal and private time can begin to feel like living in a fishbowl. There might be ways you can shield and shelter your friend by setting yourself up as the designated point person — the one who relays information to the outside world or organizes well-wishers. Gatekeepers are really helpful.
10. Educate and advocate.
You may find that other friends, family members, and casual acquaintances ask you for information about your friend. You can, in this capacity, be a great educator, albeit subtly. You can normalize grief with responses like, "She has better moments and worse moments, and will for quite some time. An intense loss changes every detail of your life.”
Above all, show your love. Show up, say something, do something. Be willing to stand beside the gaping hole that has opened in your friend’s life, without flinching or turning away. Be willing to not have any answers. Listen. Be there. Be present. Be a friend. Love is the thing that lasts.
This essay is copyright Megan Devine and Refuge in Grief; do not share without proper attribution. Find more tools to help support yourself and those you love at refugeingrief.com, and in Megan’s book, It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief & Loss in a Culture that Doesn’t Understand.
Facebook image: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Devine, Megan (2017). It's OK That You're Not OK. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.