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How to Help Our Friends Grieve

What does it look like to show up for one another right now?

This article was co-authored with Erin Hill, an incoming Ph.D. student at The University of Maryland who researches grief responses.

Teddy Rawpixel/Rawpixel
Source: Teddy Rawpixel/Rawpixel

John’s wife is in critical condition in the Intensive Care Unit. She’s a healthy 35-year-old, yet her organs are failing. Doctors aren’t sure exactly what’s wrong, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, John can’t visit his wife in the hospital. John opened up to his friend Milly, and Milly feels like she’s not doing enough to help. On the verge of tears, she told me, “I have no idea how to comfort him.”

“What could I possibly say to him if his wife dies?”

Most of us struggle to know what to say to a friend experiencing a loss. With the COVID-19 death toll climbing, many of us will be faced with not only our own losses, but the losses our loved ones experience as well. Grief also looks different right now; funerals are limited to small groups of people and our typical means of processing loss, like support groups, seeing loved ones, and attending one’s place of worship aren’t available, at least not in-person.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the idea of talking about death with your bereaved friend, you aren’t alone. Here are some ways that you can support a grieving friend amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Check in with your friend. Even if we don’t know what the “right” words are, just reaching out is meaningful. Shooting your friend a text and seeing how they’re doing is so much better than not saying anything at all. Because grief is ongoing and dynamic, check in regularly with your friend. Maybe find a weekly time where you both are free to catch up, or just send them a song that reminds you of them. The National Center for Grieving Children and Families emphasizes that showing up for your friend can mean the world.

Example: “Hey, I saw your Facebook post about your Dad and I’m thinking about you. How are you feeling today? No need to respond, but I’m here to talk.”

Actively listen to your friend. Grief can come with a range of emotions. Someone may experience much more than the sadness we often associate with loss, such as guilt, numbness, anger, or even relief. There’s no wrong way to grieve. Reflect on what your friend is experiencing. What they’re going through is normal, but also unique to them. Focus on their emotions, and don’t compare your own experiences of loss to theirs, because everyone grieves differently.

Example: “It sounds like you’re feeling overwhelmed. That’s so understandable. You can talk to me about anything you’re feeling.”

Offer specific forms of help. Your friend is probably juggling a lot right now on top of their grief, whether it be children, working, or just processing their new “normal.” Try to find ways to make their day easier. Maybe that means offering to go shopping for them and drop groceries off, contact-free. Maybe it means offering to walk their dog (if possible within CDC guidelines). Maybe just offering to treat them to coffee via a delivery service would be a sweet gesture.

Example: “Hey, I know you’ve been working really hard lately trying to make time for work at home. I just shipped you the game you mentioned that your daughter likes. I figured it’ll give you some time to work. I hope this helps!”

Provide resources. The internet has many amazing resources for people who are grieving. The Dougy Center has tip sheets about grief and Facebook offers dozens of grief support groups like this one. If they are interested in therapy, they can search for therapists on Psychology Today. If your friend might benefit from help beyond you, send them a resource.

If you’re still lost: Of course, everyone’s grief is unique. Some people may want to talk, some people might prefer to be alone. Grief also changes over time. If you’re truly unsure as to how to be there for your friend, it might be useful to ask, “How can I best support you right now?”

Helping your friend may be daunting, but you can do it. We can’t fix the loss our friend experiences and we can’t make grief go away. Milly doesn’t have to say the perfect thing to John; perfection doesn’t exist when grief is involved. We can only be present in any way that we can, even if it means through a screen. You can’t heal your friend's grief but you can make sure they know they’re not going through it alone.

Note: This article is also featured on my website where you can take a quiz to assess your friendship skills.

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