We all want to be good friends to the people whom we care about, but one of the biggest challenges that can face a friendship is how to help someone who has lost a loved one. Death is a taboo topic to discuss in our culture, which has resulted in a lack of understanding about how to cope with it as well as a bunch of unhelpful myths. In this article I will first seek to dispel some of those myths so that you can understand more easily what your friend is going through. I then will offer some practical tips about how to help them out.
1. It can take a person years to feel “normal” again.
Your friend will not feel kind of better 3 months later, then even better 6 months later, then totally healed 1 year later. Or maybe they will. There is no timeline, no due date for normalcy. Furthermore, the notion that “time heals all wounds” is problematic- if they are not doing anything to address their grief, no amount of time will make it go away. It is not uncommon to see a person go to a grief support group whose loved one died ten years ago; during those ten years, they may have tried to stay as busy as possible to avoid their feelings, but eventually realized that the feelings were never just going to go away on their own. Thus, don’t expect that your friend will be “cured” by a certain date.
2. Grief is not a linear process.
Just as I stated above, your friend will not incrementally feel better; each day is not always easier than the last. For one day, one week, maybe one month, your friend might feel totally fine- and the next day, week, or month, they might feel horrible again. Grief is more of a roller coaster than a straight line, and that is normal. There is nothing wrong with your friend.
3. Grieving people are kind of like children.
They are a lot more sensitive and fragile than usual. They may forget to do things like shower or brush their teeth. They may get exhausted or sick easily. Handle them with care.
Now, here are some tangible ways to help your dear friend:
1. Cook or clean for them.
With grief, basic functioning can go out the window. This can happen immediately after the death or even months or years later when the person is on the low end of the roller coaster. So consumed by such heavy emotions, the last thing that a person has energy for is cooking a meal or taking out the trash. People often say, especially right after the death, “Let me know if I can help you in some way!” That enthusiasm is great, but sometimes the griever doesn’t know what they want or need, and delegating tasks can be stressful. Volunteering to do a chore or make a meal is immensely helpful- oftentimes more helpful than bringing flowers or writing a card (though those are, of course, always nice too).
2. Call them.
People oftentimes think that grievers need space. They don’t. Maybe they want a little alone time, but they definitely don’t want to be lonely. However, they frequently end up isolating themselves anyway. This can be due to a fear of being vulnerable in front of others, a lack of energy, or a general loss of interest in doing things that they typically enjoy, such as socializing. Whatever the reason, in their heart of hearts they do not want to be alone; your presence is probably the most comforting, helpful thing that they could have. Loneliness only compounds grief.
3. Ask them to do relaxing activities.
And by relaxing, I don’t mean going to a bar/night club/party/large group hangout. Ask them to watch a movie, get pedicures, or take a walk. Bars and night clubs are draining for obvious reasons, and parties can actually be the worst; what person in mourning wants to go to a house full of acquaintances or people whom they don’t know when the expected behavior of a party-goer is to be “fun?” Furthermore, constantly answering the questions, “Hey, what’s up? How have you been? What’s new?” to acquaintances or strangers is one of the most uncomfortable endeavors that your friend can encounter: do they lie? Do they tell the truth and kill the mood of the party? Hanging out with just you, doing something relaxing, is so much more helpful.
4. Don’t try to fix them.
Trying to make someone laugh can be very healing. However, remember that it’s okay and normal for your friend to feel sad, and trying to force them to be happy or feel better about it isn’t healthy for them. The only way that a person can get through grief is by feeling their feelings. Additionally, you might feel like you don’t know what to say or like you have to say something, so you throw out a cliché statement such as, “He/she is in a better place.” These statements tend to be more harmful than helpful; to your friend, maybe their loved one would be in a better place if they were here on Earth with them. Instead, just listen and reassure your friend that you love them.
5. Don’t peer pressure them into going back to work or school when they are not ready.
No one (in the U.S.) likes a lazy person, and we oftentimes look down upon those who don’t fill up their schedules with demanding classes and a job and an internship and clubs and extracurriculars and so on. It is a sacred value in our culture to be “so busy.” We frequently tell grievers that staying busy will, in fact, help them. However, remember how I mentioned that grievers are like children? Having too much outside stress makes coping with a death exponentially worse. Those in mourning need more balance in their lives: they need time to feel their feelings, time to relax and self-care, as well as, eventually, time for responsibilities. Additionally, staying busy to avoid one’s feelings is an unhealthy coping mechanism.
It might be tempting to abandon your friend because you can’t handle their emotions- or you become burdened by the fact that it takes them a long time to feel better. Don’t. Make sure to take care of yourself as well, but don’t abandon your friend during their most vulnerable time. Be patient, be loving, and remember that your friend will do the same for you when you experience a loss.