This is a topic that hasn’t just been on my mind lately. It’s catapulted itself into my brain with the force of a sledgehammer and then set up camp like a troop of Girl Scouts looking to earn an outdoor survival badge.
Because when you are grieving you think about grief a lot. Maybe not specifically or in a way you always understand as being about grief, but you’re still doing it. All. The. Time.
I have had many people reach out to me during this time (thank you all very much). Some have really helped, and others have left me feeling a bit hollow. Immediately after my dad died, I noticed a pattern. Those who had lost someone close to them tended to say the thing I needed to hear at that moment, and those who had not parroted clichés I most definitely did not need or want to hear at that moment or any other moment.
No, I didn’t believe my dad was in a better place. He was 66 years old with a wife, two kids, a daughter and son in law, and two grandkids plus one on the way. His better place was with us. But life isn’t fair and it’s unpredictable and unexplainable, and he isn’t with us anymore. But please don’t think I will ever believe “not with us” equals “a better place”.
And yet, here’s the wild thing: to some people the belief their loved one is in a better place is comforting and exactly what they want to hear.
Which makes this twisting and turning dumpster fire we call grief that much more complicated.
So, what do you do as a friend who wants to help? There are some right and not-so-right ways to go about it. Here are a few tips.
The sooner you understand and accept that the better. The way you would grieve or have grieved doesn’t matter. The way you feel about what has happened to your friend doesn’t matter. If you are reaching out in order to feel better about yourself as a friend or with an expectation of an acknowledgement of how great of a friend you are, don’t even bother.
There is only one person this is about and that is your grieving friend.
This is hard. As a friend or family member you want to do anything you can to take away this person’s pain. But you can’t. No one can. The one thing this person wants is to have who or what they lost back. You can’t make that happen. So please don’t even try.
There is literally nothing you can say that will make it all better. That doesn’t mean you can’t provide comfort, but comfort is what you need to strive for, not a solution. Attempting to find the bright side or telling them it’s all part of a plan can be hurtful and damaging. Understand that there is no “bright side” right now for your friend. All you can do is be there for them in the dark.
There is no one way to grieve. Your friend is processing her grief in her own unique way. You may not understand it, but the good news is that you don’t have to. Grief is personal and messy, and every single person has the right to do it their own way. That is, perhaps, the only compassionate thing about grief. It belongs to the grieving person and the grieving person alone. Even people who are grieving the same thing will process it differently.
Do not try to help your friend in the way you would want to be helped, or assume your friend wants to be comforted in a way that is comforting to you. Let your friend lead the way. This includes matters like religion. The last thing a non-religious person wants to hear is a religious person’s take on the situation, and vice versa. You don’t have to understand how your friend is grieving, but you do have to respect it.
Sometimes the simplest way to help during a trying time is to ask how you can best do it. You don’t have to try to be the hero and come to the rescue with the perfect thing to say or do at the perfect time. The truth is, you don’t know how to help. So, ask. Letting your friend know you are there, with no expectations, and that you are willing to help in whatever way she needs is often all you need to do. Your friend will let you know what she needs, if anything.
Remember, this isn’t about you. It’s about your friend. And it might just so happen that your friend isn’t ready to talk or be comforted. She may be so overwhelmed by circumstances and her own feelings and emotions that she has nothing left to give to anyone else—even a quick text reply. And if she does respond it's possible that response will not be what you were expecting. Accept it.
So, when you do reach out don’t apply any pressure for the type of response you think is appropriate. Be prepared not to hear back from your friend at all and know that is okay. Your friend will know you are concerned and will reach out when and if she is ready.
Sending an occasional text to simply let the person know you are thinking about them can be very powerful. Of course, don’t expect or ask for a response, but simply letting your friend know you care may go a long way. Sometimes people who are grieving can become so disconnected from everything that isn’t their grief that they stop reaching out to those they care about. So, receiving a quick note of support from one of those people could be a reminder they aren’t alone. Even if being alone is what they want right now.
Grief is unpredictable. It’s unique and deeply personal. How your friend is dealing with it could change by the day or the hour. One day they may respond, one day they might not, and all of that is okay. It is not up to you to save your friend. You just need to show you care and support them in their grief journey. Grief, or the event that caused the grief, may also change a person. Don’t expect your friend to be exactly the same now as she was before her loss. They are allowed to evolve with their feelings and emotions. Don’t try to hold them to something that may no longer work in their life. Be prepared to accept that and your friend’s wishes.
Remember there is no timeline on grief. There is no set point where someone should be “over it” or back to “normal”. Grief is an ongoing process that has no end point. The most important thing you can do is show empathy and kindness.
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