How you can help your grieving friend
Grief is hard to talk about. It’s messy, complicated and intensely emotional, and all of those things can make people uncomfortable. We have a tendency to want to package difficult emotions up with neat little quotes and sayings. But trying to wrap up death with digestible narratives can mostly serve to give us more comfort than the person who needs comforting.
If we love, we are all destined to experience death and grief at some point in our lives. Grief is personal to everyone, and no grief will be exactly like another. So why do we find it so hard to confront death and grief in a way that helps the griever?
From my experience, I know how easy it to say the wrong thing. To alienate someone you were trying to reach out to. In this case, specifically, someone who lost a loved one before their natural time.
I wanted to write this post to share how you can really make a difference to a grieving friend.
The inspiration for this article is a book called “It’s Ok That You’re Not Ok” by Megan Devine. It has some of the best advice I’ve come across for those reaching out to a friend. I give full credit to her book for the below information. I’m going to elaborate on some of the points that she raises in her book in my own words – adding more and drawing from my own experiences.
Grief belongs to the griever
Everyone’s experience of grief is different, but it’s easy to slip into judging how your friend may be expressing their grief. Instead of pointing out to a friend what you think they may be doing wrong, or suggesting what they might do to feel “better” – let them decide.
Speak the truth, and focus on now
When Dad died, something people remarked on was how he “was in a better place”. They’d say things like “at least he wasn’t in pain” or even “this is a test the universe has sent you”. As Divine points out, no one can know these things, therefore they are simply not the truth.
Although people were only trying to help, these are vague platitudes, religious tropes and at best, simplistic interpretations of more complex theories. We’re just used to hearing people say them, so they’ve become part of the vague language of grief, oddly disassociated from the feeling of grief itself.
You can’t fix this
Nothing you can do can fix or rectify your friend’s loss. You can’t change how painful your friend’s grief feels to them. Stop trying to take the pain away with words and be there to support your friend, not heal them.
Bear witness without flinching
Grief is raw and uncomfortable, often making grievers feel so shameful and embarrassed that they work exhaustingly hard to cover their true feelings. “Searing, unbearable pain” is something that you may instinctively want to turn away from. If you can witness this pain, and stay put – you are a much-needed friend. Although, trying to do this, whilst not attempting to fix it (above) is extremely difficult. But sometimes words are completely unnecessary.
This isn’t about you
A few months after my Dad passed away, a friend messaged me asking to meet up and hang out. At that time, all the energy I had was being put into just getting through the day.
After declining, explaining I was exhausted, my friend became upset. She accused me of not spending enough time with her or caring that she was going through a hard time at work.
A grieving friend may say or do something that hurts your feelings. They may not be able to listen to your problems. But understand that someone who is grieving doesn’t have the energy, time or mental capacity to think about anyone’s feelings but their own. They’re in survival mode. If you feel ignored, unappreciated or hurt, don’t take it personally. Forgive your friend without question, continue to support them and find others to support you.
Don’t make them ask
“Call me if you need me” or “let me know if there’s anything I can do” is the single most popular but useless thing you can say. Although it may make you feel like you’re being useful – that’s all it does. Someone grieving isn’t going to call you and ask you for something. Why? Because (see above) they don’t have the energy to think about what they need, who to ask or how to ask.
Don’t say “let me know”, just – DO something, anything to help. Bring over some home-cooked food, pick the dogs up and walk them, deliver some groceries, take out the rubbish or recycling, pick up prescriptions. Show your support, don’t just offer it vaguely.
If your friend is talking about the person they have recently lost, don’t then bring up someone you have lost in the same conversation. Often you may wish to say something like “when my *person* died, I felt like…” try and resist this.
Allow your friend to talk without comparing, as although you may be attempting to connect with common ground, it can actually feel like you’re taking over to release your own feelings and memories about your loved one, brushing aside their feelings or experience. Although it’s understandably tempting, your friend’s grief isn’t an invitation for you to speak about your own grief. This is a time for them to talk, and you to listen.
Don’t expect a neat “end”
Although your friend’s grief may not always be so intense, they will need time to work through it and find a way to live with it. Don’t express impatience for them to “heal” – grief isn’t like having a broken leg.
Eventually, periods between intense pain will become longer, and less visceral – but grief will always live inside them. Be there at the times the pain resurfaces. Birthdays and holidays in particular. Years after losing someone, grief can resurface strongly and unexpectedly. Be an ear, don’t judge, and help your friend keep their memories alive.
If you’d like to read It’s OK That You’re Not Ok: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture that Doesn’t Understand by pioneering therapist Megan Devine, I highly recommend it. It’s a very good book to give to a grieving friend, although maybe not immediately.