Grief is so complicated. It rarely shows up announced and even if it does, it never behaves in the way you think it should. It’s too loud or it’s too quiet or you think it’s gone and it’s not. It treats you differently than it treats anyone else. And if you are lucky to have a community of people who love and care for you, it’s affecting them, too. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of having a kinship.
This coming October will be sixteen years since my dad passed away. At the time—and for years since then, I couldn’t imagine that this experience could have been of any benefit to my life at all. But then something started happening—people started coming to me and asking one of the most beautiful questions I’ve ever been asked, “how do I help my close friend who recently lost a parent/ partner/ friend?” It’s a strange and sacred feeling to be seen as the expert on this type of thing. It’s a type of skill you never would have asked for but as long as you qualify—might as well make good use of it.
Your friend is lucky to have people who want to love them well at a crushing time. A lot of times when the concept of death enters into a relationship, some people vanish. It’s loaded. If your friend’s loved one died, that means that your loved ones can die, too and you’re not at a place where you can deal with that. Or, you know, there can be a thousand other reasons that you don’t even understand to explain your instinct to run. That’s okay. The most important thing that I can tell you above all else is to remember that your friend’s loss and grief has nothing to do with you. I hope that’s freeing to you. I hope you’re able to swallow your fear and discomfort in order to be the kind of friend that you want to be. Not only will this deepen your relationship, but your friend will have a living example of love and consistency in hard times. She’ll be more ready to step up when you need a shoulder.
So what are some practical ways for you to be there for your friend?
If you are near by: step in—with consent. Right away after the passing of a loved one, there can be a lot that needs to be done and your friend can’t do it all. While she’s dealing with incoming family members and plans, take care of the things you know you can do. Does she need a babysitter? Is her laundry piling up? Get in there and do what you can. Ask permission but be specific. “How can I help” isn’t as helpful as it seems. Instead, try something like, “I’m available tomorrow and I’d love to help with the house/ take the kids for the afternoon/ hang out while you pack—if that’s something you’re interested in.” In that case, your friend only has to come up with “thanks” or “no thanks”. Don’t take it personally if you get a “no thanks”. Your friend doesn’t owe you anything and this is a prime time to remember it’s not about you, anyway.
Also, it’s an oldie but a goodie: consider food. Especially the extra delicious, comforting kind. Carbs, cheese, sugar. Some people eat their feelings and others lose their appetite—in either case they need a cherry cheesecake to entice them to ingest some calories.
If you are far away: never underestimate the power of a sympathy card. Cards are excellent for two reasons, it feels so good to have a physical memento of the way your friends were there for you in a dark time. Cards also don’t require an immediate response the way that a text or email might. There’s no pressure to reply and at such a time as this, your friend doesn’t need pressure. If you do send texts, leave them open ended in a way that doesn’t necessarily require a response. “Hey, I just wanted you to know that you’ve been on my mind.” can go really far.
Another thing for far away friends (and nearby friends, too) is to remember milestones. The first holidays, birthdays, celebrations of any kind after the passing of a beloved someone are some of the hardest. Don’t feel weird about acknowledging about how this first might be a hard time for them.
In the initial years after my father’s death, I was often curious about whether or not people even remembered. I wanted to actually ask people, “do you remember that my dad died and it’s a really messed up situation?” Sometimes it felt like everyone was trying to pretend like everything was fine when, to me, things were not fine at all. It felt weird because it made me wonder if people thought I should be over it by now the way they were.
Not just initially—but months and even years afterward, all I ever wanted was for someone to ask me about my dad—sometimes (though not nearly as often) I still crave it. I want everyone that I love to know him and to know this piece of me. His death is an enormous part of who I am. It’s been sixteen years but I’m not done grieving and I don’t think I ever will. I share this part of my story with you to remind you that your friend will never be done or over it. This is a part of her, now. There will be times when she wants to talk about it but feels weird saying anything about it. If you can find a low pressure way or you sense an opening, don’t be afraid to let your friend know that you’re happy to hear all about the person that they lost.
“You will lose someone you can’t live without and your heart will be badly broken and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” –Anne Lamott
Thank you for being a friend.
Do you remember something thoughtful that a friend did for you during a grief period or hard time? Leave it in the comments so that we can reach out to our friends in different ways.