Tuesday, May 28, 2013

How to help a grieving friend

Snark-lovers, be forewarned: for obvious reasons, this one isn't going to be funny.

All right, you're young and strong and even if you don't admit it, you may secretly believe you're invincible. But all that changes abruptly when someone close to you dies. Someone you saw all the time, someone you cared about, someone whose presence you probably took for granted is gone, and you will never see that person again in your life. Not only do you miss that person terribly, but you realize that if he or she died, then so can you. Suddenly your own mortality becomes very real. This may be the reason why so many people try to avoid someone who's grieving -- they're trying to evade the unsettling reminder that someday they, too, will die.

In the West our attitudes toward aging and death have grown increasingly unhealthy; we try to hide from death, box it up, pretend it doesn't exist. But death is a part of life. It can't be evaded, and frankly it shouldn't be. Yes, going through grief is indescribably painful. Yes, it's frightening to contemplate your own death and what may or may not lie beyond it. But it's healthier to face up to the pain and fear, to let yourself feel them, to walk through them, to accept them for what they are, and eventually to come out the other side. As with many other bogeymen, death can only hurt you with the tools you choose to give it.

With this in mind, what's the adult way to help a friend who is going through the aftereffects of a loved one's death? Well, everyone handles grief a little differently, so you'll need to adapt this list to individual circumstances, but these are a set of general guidelines.
  1. Listen. When someone dies, quite often a survivor wants to talk about it -- about shared memories of the deceased, about the circumstances surrounding the person's death, about what it's like to go through grief. Many people are uncomfortable hearing these things and will therefore avoid talking to the survivor, but providing a sympathetic, listening ear is one of the most compassionate things you can do for a grieving person. You shouldn't push the survivor to talk, but be comfortably open to conversation about the dead person -- don't shy away from mentioning him or her by name, or talking about things he or she liked to do.
  2. Be prepared for unpredictable emotional responses. Grieving people can be laughing one moment and crying the next; they can be numb or stoic for days at a time and then suddenly begin raging against the unfairness of a cruel world. Remember that these sudden storms of emotion are not to be taken too personally. Life after a loved one's death is like navigating an emotional minefield. You may think you're moving along just fine, and then a passing thought, a word or phrase, a particular scent or visual will trigger a memory that devastates you all over again. Expect these responses. Although they may seem unreasonable, they are a normal part of grief, and over time they will decrease in frequency and intensity.
  3. Bring food. Grief is a physical phenomenon as well as an emotional one. Survivors often feel dizzy, disoriented, physically cold and shaky, especially in the first few days after a death. They often remember events out of sequence, and may have trouble sleeping or eating. If you ask them whether they're hungry, they will often say "no" even if they really need to eat. So don't ask. Bring over something easy to digest, such as soup, ice cream, smoothies or gelatin, and hand them a serving. No need to force it on them; they will probably take a spoonful or a sip just to be polite, and often that's enough to stimulate the hunger response. A week or two later, if you wish, you may inquire about bringing over a more substantial meal -- comfort food is a good choice.
  4. Decide what you can do to help out. Survivors are often physically and mentally exhausted after a death, and have a difficult time making even simple decisions. Asking some variation of "Is there anything I can do?" isn't useful, as the survivor is usually unable to focus on the question and formulate an answer. Instead, make a short list of things you're willing to do, go to the survivor and present it like this: "I can drive you places, I can pick up groceries, I can take care of your bills, or I can watch your children. Which one would be most helpful right now?" When it comes to answering questions, multiple choice is always easier than essay. Then once the survivor has made a choice from your list, follow it up by doing what you offered to do. (This shouldn't have to be said, but I'm saying it anyway.)
  5. When possible and appropriate, offer financial help. This is sensitive territory, and it must be handled sensitively. In cases where the deceased was the primary breadwinner and there were no contingency plans in place such as a will or insurance, the survivor(s) can fall into financial trouble very quickly. But often a survivor is not comfortable asking others for money, due to a desire for self-sufficiency or simply an all-consuming exhaustion. You needn't wait for someone to ask, though. You can send money anonymously if you have the means, or take up a collection for the survivor(s) through a crowdfunding site. But before you do so, please take into account the feelings, needs and desires of the survivor. And don't use money as a substitute for engaging.
  6. Please, please, please, think before you speak. Sometimes people are so keen to have something to say to the bereaved that they put their feet in their mouths. Don't tell the survivor how hard this is for you -- share that sentiment with a friend further distanced from the tragedy. And even if you believe it, DO NOT tell survivors that the death was God's will, or that God must have needed the dead person. It's not comforting, and can actually create long-lasting psychological pain. My sister still has not made her peace with a God who she believes took her father away, because when she was a small child some well-meaning idiot suggested to her that God needed her daddy in heaven more than his wife and six small children needed him on earth. It's better to keep your comments simple. "I'm so sorry for your loss" and a gentle hug, if appropriate, are sufficient.
  7. Help the survivor find something to look forward to. One of the things my mother has often said about my dad's death is that, concurrently with her grief over his passing, she grieved over the death of so many of their shared goals and dreams -- the things they planned to do together. Many survivors, especially in the first few months after a loved one's death, have a tough time finding reasons to keep living. You can't just drag them here and there, but if you find activities you think they might enjoy, tell them. Sign up for adventures and invite them to come with you. Have them accompany you to a new restaurant for lunch. Your job is not to set the survivor up with anybody -- frankly, that's nobody's business -- but to provide opportunities once in a while for the survivor to develop new interests in the next chapter of his or her life.
  8. Be patient. Grief isn't like getting the 24-hour flu. It takes time; how much time varies from person to person. You can't expect a survivor to bounce back right after the funeral, or in two weeks, or even in six months. Grief is a journey taken on foot through an unknown wilderness. You can provide oases of rest and support now and then, but you can't hurry people through the process; trying to push them to be done with it only delays the journey. Try to show the kind of grace, patience and love you would want others to show you if you were taking that same journey, and have faith that your friend will eventually reach a point where his or her life begins to get better.
If you truly seek to be something more than a fair-weather friend, you should do what you can to support your friends in hard times. It will be difficult and emotionally wrenching to do so. But true adults are brave enough to undergo potential pain for the sake of the people they love and care about, and in so doing, will grow stronger from helping to lift and lighten another person's burden of grief.


  1. Replies
    1. It was difficult to write. I've not always been the best example of how to support grieving friends, so I'm still learning. I'm also not sure I've covered everything, or covered it as well as I could have. Still cogitating on this one, and it will probably undergo some more tweaks.