How to Help Your Grieving Friend
By Jessica Fein
“I don’t know what to do.”
“I don’t want to bother them.”
“I feel so awkward.”
Sound familiar? Unless we’ve personally experienced grief- and sometimes even then—we often feel uncomfortable around grieving people. We tell ourselves they need space or that there are people who are better suited to provide comfort. We drop them a note and tell them to let us know if there’s anything we can do.
Our discomfort can make them feel even more alone.
So what can we do? How can we prioritize their needs over our own apprehension and show up for our friend (literally or figuratively)?
This is number 1, 2, and 3 on the list. If your friend wants to tell you the same story about her person for the eighth time, listen. If he wants to yell and scream and cry, don’t try to cheer him up; listen. Don’t check your phone or your watch. Instead, listen attentively, validating your friend’s feelings. You can’t fix their loss, but by listening, you can help them process it.
Talk about their person.
We might not want to bring up the person who died because we “don’t want to remind them.” Here’s a fact: They haven’t forgotten. If you knew the person, tell your friend a story about them or share the memory in a letter. If you didn’t, ask questions. “What was her name?” “How’d you meet?”
Your friend doesn’t get to make any new memories with her person. Sharing old memories is one way for her to feel close to them and maybe even learn something new. It also shows that your words aren’t merely perfunctory. It’s the difference between saying you’re sorry and showing you care.
But always follow the griever’s lead. If she says she doesn’t feel like talking or shuts down, don’t take it personally. Your goal is to be there for her in whatever way she finds useful.
If you have pictures or videos of their person, by all means, send them along. When my daughter died, a friend sent me a 3-minute video of her taken a decade before. I’ve watched that video approximately 752 times, and it’s made me smile every one of them. It also pierces my heart, but my heart is pierced anyway. Send the picture or the video. It’s never too late. Even if you find it a year or three after the funeral, send it.
Remember key dates.
Anticipate that birthdays, your friend’s and their loved one’s, may be particularly tough. The same goes for the anniversary of the person’s death. And then there are holidays, which can be gut-wrenching, too. Put a note in your calendar to remind yourself to reach out. As the years go by, the pain will probably take a different shape for your friend, but key dates serve as markers of time that’s passed since the death and can bruise in perpetuity.
Planting a tree or a flowering bush is a beautiful tribute to the person who’s died. If your friend has space, ask if she’d like you to do it for her in her own backyard. If not, see if there’s a community garden nearby or some other public place that allows planting. It’s not only a way to thoughtfully memorialize the person; it also gives the mourner something to care for over time.
Pay attention to their kids.
Don’t forget your friend’s kids, who may be overlooked in the chasm of grief. Even if it’s their loss, too, chances are people focus more on the adults.
The night my sister died, my mother’s best friend cornered me and said, “You need to take care of your mother now. Losing a child is too much for anyone to bear.”
“How can I take care of my mother?” I wondered. “Won’t she be taking care of me?”
Even if the kids didn’t know the person who died, they’re living with their parent’s grief and can use some extra care and attention.
If you feel awkward and uncomfortable, it’s because grief is actually awkward and uncomfortable. Accepting that and showing up anyway is the best way to help your friend.