How to Actually Be There for a Grieving Friend
(with love, support, and editing by her sister, Rose)
Feature Image: Suhyeon Choi
There are three things I know to be true.
Grief is painful. It’s so painful. My mom died of breast cancer 3 years ago, and I’m still in the thick of it. Shortly before she died, I thought I would never be able to survive without her. I thought that when she died, I would, too … or at least that part of me would. Well, here I am—still alive, and still grieving. When someone close to you dies—whether that be a parent, a spouse, a friend—you might wonder how, and why, everyone else in the world is able to go about their day when your life has just been forever altered. As the world keeps turning without your loved one, the pain still shows up like a brick wall of depression, wave of rage, or quicksand pit of anxiety. The metaphors are endless.
Grief takes time. As I said, I’m currently in the midst of grief, and I suspect I will be for quite some time. It’s a long process that cannot be explained, and one that is rarely understood. However, I’ve realized that, with time, grief can also inform our lives in meaningful ways.
Grief is overwhelming. The unpredictability of grief can leave one feeling depleted of the internal resources needed to get through the day. Grieving people might be overwrought with sadness one day, consumed by rage the next. And some days, those grieving might feel ‘normal’ — whatever that means for them. Regardless, love from friends can serve as a buffer between the griever and the intensity of their emotions.
So, though processes of grief are complicated and, at times, unfathomably painful, what has become increasingly clear over the years is the importance of having a supportive inner circle. Friends can play an active role in the grieving process, or show support by simply existing in the same emotional space as the griever. But, showing support to a grieving person can be a huge undertaking. Is there a way to be there for a grieving friend if you haven’t experienced that loss yourself?
From my personal experiences as both the griever and as the friend, here’s how to actually be there for a grieving friend.
BE THERE, IN SOME WAY OR ANOTHER.
Grief is numbing. The world moves slowly while your thoughts race. It’s as confusing as it sounds. So when it’s time to show support for a friend going through grief, it’s important that you literally show up. Be there. Sure, it’s easier to avoid the uncomfortable situations that come with supporting a grieving friend, especially if you’re unsure of what to say to or do around your friend. But, it’s better for your friend if you go ahead and try. And it’s my firm belief that it’s better to say something than nothing. Remaining silent might make your friend feel like his or her grief is a burden on you, and your friend should never feel that way. Of note, ensure that what you’re saying to your grieving friend is an attempt at making them feel loved and supported. Saying “Your (loved one) is in a better place” does not make a friend feel better, nor does “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle.” Saying one of those stale phrases is a way of disengaging from and avoiding the situation, and saying something like that to a devastated friend is far from validating. Instead, consider saying something like, “There are no words to make you feel better, but I love and support you.”
If your friend wants to be alone, respect that. If you’re unsure whether your friend would like company, ask. Instead of saying “I’m here if you need me,” a phrase that should be eliminated from our vernacular entirely in my opinion, offer to do something specific for your friend. Pick up groceries, or bring your friend a cup of coffee. Consider sending flowers, writing your friend a note with your favorite memory of the loved one that died, or inviting them out for an activity you think they’d love and be able to handle. There are many ways to show support, and it’s making the effort that brings hope to people during dark times.
OFFER MOMENTS OF LIGHT AND FUN
It’s common for the bereft to alternate between avoiding their grief and actively dealing with it. Yes, grief can be all-consuming at times, but taking breaks from grief is an act of self-care. As a friend, you have an opportunity to facilitate an emotional release. Depending on your friend’s emotional state and place within the grieving process, take your friend for a fun outing—one that you’re certain he or she would enjoy. But, be mindful that your friend’s emotions could resurface or change. This is OK. During those moments, allow space for all emotions at whatever intensity they present. All you need to do is provide your friend with a brief distraction.
BE PATIENT, AND RESPECT THEIR PROCESS.
Because grief is an arduous process, it’s important that you remain patient with your grieving friends and quickly recognize how they want to be cared for. Do they want to be left alone? Do they want to be surrounded with company for hours on end? I know I wanted a combination of the two right after my mom died. I wanted space from people, so that I could unapologetically feel sad and pissed off at the world, while also craving those texts, emails, and phone calls. Find out what your friend wants and needs from you, even if that means asking a family member or mutual friend, and then plan accordingly. As time goes on, you might assume that your friend is ‘done’ grieving. It’s been 6 months—are they done yet? No, they’re not done yet, and they appreciate you sticking it out with them.
Sprinkle your love around spontaneously. Send them flowers or a sweet card at least throughout the first year of grieving, when the pain from a loss is the most unbearable. Your friend won’t see it coming, making your gesture all the more special.
BE PRESENT, EVEN WHEN IT’S UNCOMFORTABLE FOR YOU.
When you’re spending time with a grieving friend, take comfort in knowing that your primary role is that of a listener. Those who have just suffered a great loss do not want to listen to you talk about your problems at work or the date you went on the weekend prior. Trust me. As much as they love you and care about your life, grief is selfish because it demands so much emotional energy and drains one’s internal resources. So just listen—a lot—even when it’s uncomfortable for you. Because it’s not about you. If your friend cries in front of you, hold their hand. If they talk about their loved one, listen closely to the stories and anecdotes they share. If you feel like your friend would be okay with it, and if you knew your friend’s loved one, share your own memories. Always be open and ready to talk about the person who died, but resist the urge to offer advice or problem-solve. You’re not in a position to be giving a grieving friend advice or solutions, and as much as you think you’re helping, you’re not. You cannot take the pain away, so don’t take on that responsibility. Instead, give them a tight hug, because that might help—even if for a minute.
Hug your friend tightly.
Listen with empathy.
Reflect their feelings.
Validate, don’t avoid.
Send flowers and cards, even as time goes on.
Remember important dates (birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays).
Ask questions and be ready for the answers.
Invite your friend to do things they’d love.
Respect your friend, always.
How have you felt supported during your process of grief? And how have you supported friends during their process?