Grieving can be a terribly lonely, isolating, confusing, foggy journey, one that can be made infinitely less awful by thoughtful friends. It can also be made far, far worse by people who don't know what it's like and who may mean well but end up being, well, mean.
Grieving is an intensely personal journey. There may be stages but they don't often come in order or stay in a neat line. They leap around in surprising and unpredictable ways. Friends want to help and to say the right things but often end up feeling they can't get it right. As someone who recently went through the horror of the sudden and senseless death of my brother, I remember the well-intentioned and loving ways people reached out. Our responses and needs are different in the first mind-numbing days and months. Here are a few tips on how to be a good friend to somebody in the early fog and pain of grief.
In his thoughtful Psychology Today post, "Grief does not come in stages and it's not the same for everyone: Why we're wrong about grief," George A. Bonanno, Ph.D. offers an explanation of the process that makes more sense to me. I highly recommend reading it. Bonanno is a clinical psychologist at Columbia University and author of The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Can Tell Us about Life after Loss.
I also recommend work by Russell Friedman, Executive Director of The Grief Recovery Institute, and co-author of The Grief Recovery Handbook. His post, "Broken Hearts: Exploring myths and truths about grief, loss, and recovery" offers excellent advice and is full of great resources.
What I'm offering here is not from books or research, but from living through it. So far, here's what I know.
Ask: Do ask what they need and follow their request. If they say they need to be alone for a while, that's what they need.
Food is love: Do speak with food. Even if the grieving are not eating, they have guests who will. And at some point, they will eat a bit and how lovely to have a line-up of frozen meals and other necessities during the days and weeks of numbness that follow.
Send help: Do contact other friends and religious or community organizations close to the family that might create a regular list of people who bring over food, who help write thank-you notes, who offer to do errands or grocery shop or organize bills. Life stops entirely for grievers in those early weeks and months but, alas, it does not stop for the world. Help them navigate through the bleak upcoming weeks and months in practical ways.
Listen well: Do read their emotional signals. If you come by and she just wants a hug and cannot speak, don't push to her speak. Just sit with her. Don't grill her with questions to fill the awkward, aching silence. Be still. Be there.
Pain and the brain: Do respect her boundaries. If she starts remembering something about her loved one and speaks it, then shuts down immediately from overwhelming pain, never push or tell her, "It's important that you talk about him and remember him." Her brain can only process this sensory overload in its own time and pace. Don't make her feel guilty that somehow she's doing it wrong.
Think of your friend first: Do not launch into your own grief story unless you sense that told gently, sensitively, it will offer something worth hearing. You may have to wait months or years for it to be useful to your friend. Remember, this is about your friend's needs and story, not yours.
Grief's maid of honor: Do not get sucked into some weird high schoolish competition about who's staying at her house, who she's calling back, who she's letting take the kids out. Different friends offer different strengths. Let her decide which ones to take from you and don't let your own insecurities get in the way.
Suicide alert: Do push if you feel she is sinking into a dangerous abyss of isolation and depression. If she doesn't return your calls and you are close friends, go over there and knock until she lets you in. If you had a good relationship before this loss, and she knew and trusted you before this, lean on that. If she's not talking to anybody and nobody has seen or heard from her, get in there.
Building a foundation: Do ask if he/she would like you to help set up a foundation or fund or scholarship in the loved one's name because people will want to contribute in some way and for some, writing a check is the way they feel most comfortable helping. If someone dies young, setting up a scholarship or fund in their name can feel comforting to the family. Or you can ask people to donate, in lieu of flowers, to a charity chosen by the family.
No giving up: Do not give up on her. Do not call three times, e-mail four times and assume, "Well, she'll call when she's ready." There's a balance you must strike between respecting her boundaries and abandoning a friend in desperate need. Use your instincts to figure it out.
Even though we know you mean well and are genuinely trying to help and that in fact, many of these sentiments may be true, they're just not helpful and worse, can cause real pain. So please, do not say the following:
- "He would want you to ..."
- "It was her time."
- "It's been a year; you should be over this by now."
- "She's in a better place."
- "Time will heal this."
- "He lived such a full life in the time he was given."
- "It's time for you to move on."
- "I know a woman who lost her husband and within three years she was happily remarried and ..."
- "Don't you think it's time you got over this?"
- "You must be devastated! If I lost my son I would kill myself!"
- "At least you had the chance to say goodbye."
- "At least she went quickly and it was painless."
- "God wanted him back."
- "It's just a part of life."
- "His/her work here was done."
- "When you're ready, I have a great guy/gal for you."
- "Your mom/dad would not want you moping around the house like this."
The spirit of what your friend needs to hear is simply this:
Hang in there. You are brave. You are not alone, although this journey is deeply lonely. You are loved. You will not always feel this way. We honor the pain and memory and life-altering experience you are having. We are here to help you. We are not mind-readers so we need to communicate if you need something. Nobody is judging you. We are heartbroken for you. No matter what, we will walk beside you.
And this lasagna will keep beautifully in the freezer.