My first year of motherhood happened to coincide with the most difficult year of my life so far. My family and people I love dearly suffered an immense, immeasurable and completely unexpected loss. My brother who was 31 years old and who was 3 weeks away from marrying the love of his life died suddenly.
In many ways, experiencing motherhood of a growing baby during this tragedy helped me cope. I had a tiny, 6 month old human who still depended on me completely for her care and survival. Focusing on her and learning how to best care for her almost felt like an escape from the reality of the gaping hole that had been ripped into our lives. In other ways it made the grief more difficult. Being a new mother, I could now truly empathize with what my own mother must be going through. And that is indescribably painful.
I’ve learned over the last year that without having been through something like this, most people just don’t know what to say or do. If you’re otherwise having a good day, they fear by asking you how you’re doing; it could get you emotional and turn a “good” moment into more sadness. They don’t think they can say or do anything to help, so they simply avoid the conversation. They might even think that by NOT talking about it, it’s good for you, that it’s good for your mind to be occupied by other “normal” things. They may see you on a good day and think “she’s good.” They get busy in their own lives and check on you less and less.
I truly get this because I’ve felt it all myself. Even being in the middle of this, I’ve struggled with being there for my own family and people I love. And now, I think a lot about how I likely didn’t say or do the right thing for others in my “past life.”
I truly don’t believe people have bad intentions. I believe most people just simply don’t know what to do. I’m not writing this post for sympathy or to make anyone in my life feel like they haven’t done enough. I’ve been surrounded by love and comfort, and I know that “my people” have done and offered what they thought I needed or what they were capable of offering, and I truly appreciate them for it.
What I am trying to do is help others in a way that would make my brother proud. Patrick was a fierce friend. I’m hoping that through this pain, I can at least deliver something useful to others, and in doing so, a little of Patrick’s spirit can live on in many other friendships. I genuinely hope no one in your life has to go through anything like this. But in the event it happens, here are some practical ideas on how to be there for a grieving friend.
Show up. And keep showing up.
It’s simple and perhaps the most obvious, but show up. Show up for them not just early on for the funeral or memorial service, which is when their heart is the most raw. Those are the things most people DO get right. But what’s more challenging is to keep showing up for them, 6 months and even years down the road.
Showing up for them months later means simply calling or texting to check in. Genuinely ask how they’re doing when you have a quiet moment. Send them a text to let them know they’re on your mind, without expecting a response. My mom’s friend would send her very simple texts like “Tell me about your day.” Don’t ever feel that a simple outreach has to include some perfectly crafted message or prayer. Sometimes, what they need is just to know that others haven’t completely forgotten.
Do something, anything you think would be helpful. Don’t expect them to ask.
If it’s your friend who is grieving, you can probably think of a few things that might be helpful to them. It could be as simple as bringing over a hot meal that accommodates their dietary restrictions, walking their dog, cutting the grass or weeding the out-of-control garden. It is the simple things that typically go undone for someone who is grieving, and having a friend just do those things without having to ask is incredibly helpful. If your grieving friend is the parent of small children, I can tell you this adds a certain complexity to their emotional state. While they are grieving and likely struggle with talking to their children about death, they also don’t have a choice but to get up each day, get the children shuffled around, get them fed, make sure they’re healthy. Life keeps moving, and in many ways their grief is left behind. An obvious do in this situation: insist on babysitting and give them a break.
If you knew their loved one, talk about your memories.
When grieving the loss of a loved one, all you really want is for them to be back, for it all to be undone, and for them to live on. One way you can help with that is to talk about your memories of their loved one, sharing how they impacted your life if you can. No matter how small or seemingly insignificant your memory is, I guarantee you, they want to hear it.
Don’t avoid the subject. Silence can be hurtful.
For many of us in my family, this came as such a shock that it was difficult to even accept it as reality. One of the only ways to come to terms was to talk about it. So, whatever you do as a friend, please don’t try to ignore it or completely avoid the subject. Just simply asking periodically how your friend or their family is doing is enough. Silence or the lack of acknowledgement can be hurtful, though you might think you’re sparing them pain. Finding a way to communicate to your grieving friend that you are simply aware of their struggle means a lot. You don’t have to explore it, or have the perfect words to say, but just acknowledging it helps the griever feel that they’re not alone.
Let them be sad, and keep the cliches to yourself.
Sit with your friend and allow them to just be. Be whatever they are in the moment; fearful, anxious, angry, terribly sad. Just simply be with them while they ride the rollercoaster of grief without offering cliched musings like “he’s in a better place,” or “it’s going to be ok.” This can be so uncomfortable for you the friend, but I guarantee it’s more uncomfortable for the griever. Your simple presence can fill a void even if only temporarily.
This month marks a year since Patrick’s death and it’s still completely surreal and raw. I’ve tried to live my life in a way that would make him proud; being more adventurous, standing up for myself and others, and helping others when and where I can. I hope these practical tips are something you can use to be a fierce friend, like the friend my brother was.