How to support a friend in grief.
I am one of the lucky ones. I was 22 the first time I had to stare at a hole cut evenly into the ground. 22 when I was first surrounded by small piles of concrete and marble, a delicately carved angel statue stood to my left as the slowly corroding crosses and memories slept in the field to my right. Not quite the Taylor Swift song about 22. Death punched me in the face, hitting me with blow after blow of missed conversations and instantaneous crying in grocery store parking lots. My life was split into two parts; my life before my best friend died and my life after.
In the after, I found a job working for the nation’s largest bereavement camp, where I heard thousands of death stories from the thousands of children in grief that I served across the country and the volunteers that I trained. Every story was unique, but the common thread was the presence of grief and the lasting impact of loss. I was privileged to be given the opportunity to hold the grief of others, protecting their stories by providing the environment to share their feelings and experiences, as well as connect with others.
I have seen how grief can manifest on a larger scale. I have been witness to the long-term impact of grief on social interactions and education, how discomfort with loss from others can lead to isolation, and how a community can come to grieve a common loss in different ways. But there are some things we can do, as friends and lovers and peers, to support the people we love who may be hurting.
Short-Term: Things to do or say following a loss
“I’m so sorry for your loss.” So simple. So small. But so important.
Ask the follow up questions. Right after a loss, people tend to begin conversations with, “How are you?” Oftentimes, people who are grieving will say they are fine so as not to make others feel uncomfortable. So ask the follow up: “Are you actually fine or just saying you’re fine?”
“I would like to bring you dinner this week. What day would work best for you?” Show your friends that you are willing to do something, but give them the choice of when they want it. If you just tell them to call if they need anything, they will be less likely to call for support because they may feel like a burden. Be open to providing company when you do a drop off, or just dropping it off and leaving, whatever works best for your friend in that moment.
“What is one of your most favorite/funniest/kindest/most significant memories of the person who died?” Let them tell you about the person they lost from their perspective. By asking these questions, you’re letting them know that it is ok to share stories with you. And if you have a story about the person who died, share it with them too!
Let your friend define what grief means. Everyone grieves differently, and everyone will grieve differently for different losses. Don’t assume that you know what is best. Ask your friend what grief looks like for them.
“I know you feel like you have to be strong for other people, but if you ever need to talk to someone, I’m here for you. Day or night.” Remind them that you’re there for them. Continue to remind them. Tell them over and over. And when they say that they know, tell them you know they know, but you want to keep reminding them, just in case.
If you can go, attend the funeral and/or memorial. Physically show up. Be there for reals.
Long-Term: Things to do or say as time passes
Say the dead person’s name. Don’t let the name become taboo or the elephant in the room. Make the person a normal part of conversation. If you don’t know their name, ask.
Put important dates in your calendar. Birthdays, anniversaries, death anniversaries, significant holidays: all of these days will be significant to your friend. As an example, since one of my best friends lost her mom a few years ago, I have her mom’s birthday and the death anniversary in my planner so I don’t forget, because I know my friend never will. This is a reminder to me to send her a text, give her a call, or put a card in the mail letting her know I’m thinking about her and that I remember her mom too.
Holidays can be hard, especially the first year. Whether they had a good relationship with the person who died or a negative one, holidays still remind us of family and people who are no longer there to celebrate with us. Send them cards. Send them texts. Invite them to participate in your holiday celebrations so they don’t have to feel alone. Don’t forget to include days like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.
Milestones can be big reminders of the people we’ve lost. As your friends approach milestones after a loss, (i.e. graduation, new jobs, weddings, babies, etc.) they may grieve in new ways. Listen to what they are feeling, what they are telling you they need, and what they are showing you they need.
Share resources. Support groups, books (I recommend Wild by Cheryl Strayed and The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion as great starting points), coping skills, whatever you can think of.
Grief is a lifelong process, not something someone can just “get over.” But also remember that your friends are not broken, they’re grieving, which means it is not something for you to try and fix. Someone with a loss will have that loss as part of their story for the rest of their life, and some days will be harder than others. Offer your support. Offer your love. Offer nights of wine and pizza and Pretty Little Liars marathons. Showing up will make all the difference.
Melissa Gillespie is a high school counselor with a background in bereavement, Harry Potter marathons, and tutu dance parties, with an affinity for all things pizza and Disneyland. She lives in Los Angeles, CA with her husband and can be found online at melissaleegillespie.wordpress.com.