We traveled to Florida as a family a lot when I was growing up. We were familiar with the area, as my grandparents had lived there for years before they passed away. Every time we went to Florida, a trip to the cemetery to visit my grandparents was inevitable.
My dad, their son, actually enjoyed being closer to them and he told me that he loved standing there, talking to them in his head about how I was growing up, how life was for us. To me, it was normal.
It wasn’t until some years later when my mom’s parents died, and she had a very hard time going to the cemetery, that I realized how very differently people grieve.
As I’ve walked next to friends who have lost husbands, babies, mothers, fathers and beloved pets, I have learned a lot about grief from a friend’s perspective. I wanted to share some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned, trial and error abound, and even though everyone grieves way differently, there are some universal things you can do to help your friend when grief strikes.
Don’t tap dance. Honestly, grief can be downright awkward when you don’t know what to say or what to do, and you think your role is to take the pain away. It’s not your role, and most of the time when we try it, we fail. A lot of that comes through when people don’t know if they should speak the name of the deceased, or talk about a time when they were here.
I’ve learned that it’s okay to ask if your friend wants to talk about the person they are grieving. Just asking “do you want to talk about him/her?” is a simple yes or no question that your friend can answer. It also sets the stage for later on, when maybe the answer changes. You’ve already put it out there that you’re not afraid of ghosts, and you’re ready to reminisce when your friend is.
Be really, really useful. If you can tell that your friend might not want to be alone, but you’re out of amusing anecdotes about your dog to make her crack a teeny smile, it’s okay to help in a different way. Sitting in silence may be awkward and hard for you, but this time is not about you and so, if your friend finds comfort in you sitting there with her, not talking – do it for as long as you can.
Helping your friend navigate the mundane tasks of life again – dishes, cleaning, walking the dog – is another option if you can’t sit in silence, or if you’ve tucked your friend in for a rest. I will throw a disclaimer in there to make sure it’s okay that you do those things – some people don’t want the last thing their mom or husband touched to be changed or moved.
Stay in the present. Another thing that is so wonderful about having a good friend is that they want to help their grieving friends push through hard times as quickly as possible. I’ll warn you that grief, as it’s so different for everyone, needs to be ridden like a wave and there are no shortcuts. There will be bad days, there will be good days. Your friend doesn’t need the affirmations of a cheerleader – she needs no judgment, lots of understanding and a whole heap of patience from her friend.
Don’t forget. A lot of people tend to drop off after a couple of months when the shock has lessened, or if your friend has picked back up on working or going out of the house. It’s still important to remember that your friend suffered a loss and a couple of months passing does not make a healed heart. Keep in regular touch with her so that she doesn’t feel abandoned. Make sure it’s something that fits into your life so you’ll be able to do it all the time – a quick text every week, a drive-by every other week, or sending a card in the mail once a month. Consistency is something that will help your friend grow to expect and love – so it has to be something you can do whenever you say you will.
Throw your general statements out. At this time, your friend needs to be certain of something – their whole world, after all, has been turned upside down. Do you know how many times a grieving friend has called with an idea of what they need after I’ve said, “call me if you can think of something you need?” Zero times. It’s because they don’t know what they need; their life is as uncertain as a candle in the wind (which is why Elton John is so prolific, but I digress). Instead of general statements, say that you’ll be there at a certain time with coffee each week, or each month. “I’ll bring your packages in, too,” is showing that you’re going to take care of something. Then, show up each time you’ve promised you will.
It takes a lot of strength to stand with your friend when they are at their worst. What are some things you have done as a friend that’s helped a friend who’s grieving?