Supporting a Friend after a Loss
by Litsa Williams
Your friend has experienced a significant loss. You want to help, but you’re not sure where to begin. My guess is there is a flurry of questions running through your head: what can I possibly say or do that could help? On the other hand, what might I say or do that could upset my friend or just make me seem like an insensitive putz?
After a death, people often feel their friends feel totally uncomfortable around them or, worse, avoid them altogether. And they’re not wrong – many people do give their grieving friends way too much space simply because they have no idea what to say to them.
What could be scarier than the idea of trying to help your friend in their darkest hour, only to put your foot in your mouth and upset them? I guess only the thought of your grieving friend going through the pain of grief and loss ALL ALONE.
Before we go any further, let’s get one thing straight – life sucks sometimes. There are no “right” words that will take away your friend’s pain. It’s not your job to swoop in and make things better. Your first step in supporting your friend is coming to terms with that.
You are not there to find a silver lining, give advice, or fix things. Grief is a long, ugly storm. You can’t slow the rain for them; you can’t stop the wind or the lightning; you better not even think of looking for a rainbow. You can settle in nearby, grab your umbrella, and share it with your friend if they are willing to use it. No more. No less.
Okay, now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk nuts and bolts.
Disclaimer: everyone is different. Painfully obvious, right. We cannot give you a checklist of what will work for your friend or family member because we don’t know that person. But you do! You probably know them really well. So read over our suggestions, and then use your judgment.
The questions we get about helping someone after a loss are broken into two main categories: (1) What am I supposed to do immediately following a death (cards, flowers, service, etc.)? And (2) What do I do to help a friend in the weeks, months, and years after a death?
If you are interested in question #1, take a look here. We have some advice on the days immediately following a death. If you have sent your sympathy card, made your casserole, attended the wake or memorial, and are left saying, “what now?” then you are in the right place.
When it feels like everyone else has moved on and forgotten, sharing your stories, photos, and memories of the person who has died can go a long way. If you didn’t know the person well, ask your friend to share their memories or pictures with you.
Remember significant dates.
Holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays can be the worst of the worst for grievers. You can’t change that, but you can check-in and let your friend know you are thinking about them.
Make a conscious effort to remember important dates. In fact, get your phone or day planner out right now and write down the following dates (if you know them): their loved one’s birthday, death anniversary, wedding anniversary, any others. Also, make a note to check in when the first Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, or other holiday is coming up.
Comfortable? Yes. Comfortable. Comfortable with anger, comfortable with tears, comfortable with unreturned phone calls, forgotten obligations, existential crises, cigarettes, crises of faith, junk food, no food, dirty hair, sweatpants, a messy house, and anything else your grieving friend may throw your way.
Get comfortable with the fact that you may not be the one your friend wants to talk to or spend time with. Get comfortable with the fact that you can support them, but you can’t fix anything.
Get comfortable with the fact that they might not want your advice. Get comfortable with the possibility that they may not say thank you or be sensitive to things you are going through. Grief makes us selfish, so get comfortable with that too.
Offer to help and be specific.
Start by offering to help and asking what your friend needs, so they can tell you what would be most helpful. When they say “nothing,” or that they don’t know don’t let that stop you.
When we are grieving just figuring out what we need help with can feel impossible. So look around at what your loved one needs, consider what skills you have to offer, and start making suggestions like – “I can watch your kids any evening this week”, “I can mow your lawn Saturday”, “I can help you sort through bills, insurance paperwork, social security information, etc”, “I can make dinner”, “I can take the kids to school, church, soccer, etc”.
Pick up on their cues.
Be an ear when they need it, but don’t force it. Some people on some days may want to talk about their pain and their hurt. If they do, let them. Some people on some days may want to sit quietly, watch a movie, and pretend everything is okay. If they do, just be there with them. Some days they may just want to be left alone. If they do, go home! If you’re not sure, ask.
Keep the invitations coming.
Invite your friend to do things – go to lunch, to the movies, or to do whatever else you used to do. Let them know it is fine to say no, but also let them know you are going to keep the invitations coming unless they ask you to stop.
It is surprising how far an invitation can go, even if someone is not ready to take you up on it. It shows your loved one that you are not scared off by their grief and that you want to spend time with them.
It is probably a struggle for your friend to drag their grieving butt out of bed, much less get through a day. When you start to see progress, tell them. There is a good chance you will be the only one who does. Don’t be patronizing or insincere. Just be real. “Life sucks right now. I am so impressed you found the energy to clean the house”, “I know selling your mom’s car was really tough. I am really proud you got through it”.
Let them vent.
We have said it before, and we will say it again: grief makes you feel like you’re going crazy. You start to hate people, places, and things irrationally. You become angry at close friends and well-intentioned church-members, coworkers, and neighbors. So if your friend needs to vent, just sit quietly and let them.
Help them get help.
Most grievers make it through, one day at a time, with the help of friends and family. But every now and again people need more than that.
If you think your friend needs the support of a support group or counselor, help them in getting it. Find some grief counselors and support groups in your area. Pass along the information and offer to watch their kids, give them a ride, or go with them for support.
If your friend is not receptive to the idea, just leave the information with them and let them know if they change their mind you are there to help.
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