How Can I Help My Grieving Friend?
Your friend has suffered a loss and you probably have a lot of questions that are causing some anxiety. What am I supposed to say? What can I even do for them? Are things going to change dramatically?
Grief can occur like an earthquake, dismantling your friend’s daily life and upheaving certain habits and lifestyles, only to create what feels like a permanent mess. And grief is very disorienting, so reorganizing this mess is going to be a real chore.
It’s not your job to clean up the wreckage, but rather to help your friend navigate through the chaos.
What should I say?
Once upon a time, Frank had a friend whose wife suddenly died, and Frank was so afraid to say the wrong thing, he didn’t say anything at all. Don’t be like Frank. It’s okay to feel awkward when you approach a touchy subject, like a death. Your friend probably doesn’t expect you to be a certified grief counselor, so if something simple slips out like, “I’m sorry for your loss”, it’s okay.
Try saying, “I’m here for you. I love you. You aren’t alone. I will help you as much as I can.” And don’t be afraid to ask questions too. “Is it okay if we talk about her, or say her name?” Some people find it healing to speak about their loved one, while others find it too painful or difficult.
Don’t assume “he’s in a better place” or “she lived a full life” or “it was their time” because we can’t possibly know that, and those assumptions can instigate anger. Sally Field’s dramatic demonstration of grief in Steel Magnolias is definitely not an unrealistic representation. So I humbly suggest avoiding the provocation of existential grief-fueled anger.
What should I do?
Above all, be present. Remember Frank, who said nothing to his grieving friend because of his own insecurities? There are a lot of people like Frank who drift away from their friends to avoid mistakes. Try to be present. Attend the calling hours with your friend, sit near them at the funeral, and don’t run off afterwards if you can help it. Many people assume grief somehow ends right after the funeral, but oftentimes, this is when it really starts.
If your friend’s spouse died, they might feel worse at night, so perhaps you could stay over with them a few nights.
Set a reminder or alarm on your phone to check in with them daily or so, even if it’s just by text (which is sometimes easier for them). And don’t stop doing this after a month or two. Grief outlives sympathy.
Grief also has a weird way of making daily tasks monumentally impossible, so you can step in and walk the dog or clean the litter box, grocery shop or pack the freezer with food, help with laundry (if they’re okay with that), and other simple things. Buying toilet paper and paper towels is a huge help, and maybe even switch to using paper plates for a while to avoid making dirty dishes.
Your friend may not be aware of what they need, so try to be one step ahead of them, and avoid asking them to call you if they need anything. Odds are, they won’t want to ask for help or might not even know they need it.
*Don’t clean anything without permission from your friend. When someone dies and no longer resides in the home, small things become representations of them. Laundry that smells like them, a stack of messy books and papers they left on the coffee table, shoes they had kicked off by the front door—all of these might hold sentimental value now.
Things to be prepared for:
Your friend is experiencing serious pain, which is going to be hard to watch. People often flee from their grieving friends because it’s just too hard watching them suffer. Be strong, but be ready.
This process will be emotionally tasking for you too. Think about it, you’re ramping up your efforts while your friend is seriously slacking on theirs (not their fault). You might feel used or underappreciated (not your fault). Lean on your own support system and remember that all of your efforts are incredibly appreciated and will most likely strengthen your friendship in the long run.