“Unless you’ve experienced loss firsthand, you cannot possibly understand what it is like to battle with its overwhelming unpredictability.”
I have heard many bereaved people, including myself, say versions of this consistently over the past two years. Prior to losing my father, I probably would have disagreed in earnest, thinking that I could at least IMAGINE what it would be like. While it is possible to project imagined feelings of sadness onto a person in an attempt to empathize with their loss, the reality is that grief is an extremely complicated, nuanced, perspective-altering experience that imagination alone cannot traverse.
A common misconception is that because those who have not yet experienced a loss couldn’t possibly begin to understand the ins and outs of the burdensome, time-consuming grieving process, that there is nothing they can really do to help a grieving friend. I have heard many people say that they felt helpless in the face of a friend’s loss – not wanting to make things worse by doing the “wrong” thing. But the needs of the bereaved are much more practical and immediate than you think. If you have a friend who has experienced a loss, here are some ways you can help:
Be specific about the kind of help can you give
Don’t simply say something like “Let me know if you need anything.” It is a well-meaning statement, but it frees you of any responsibility or commitment to actually, you know do anything helpful. The onus to seek help is placed entirely on the person who has just been completely overwhelmed by loss. It is quite likely your friend will not be able to articulate what it is he or she needs. If you’d really like to make sure you’re there at the times when your friend needs something, decide on a specific task that you will help them with on a consistent basis. This might be as simple as bringing them a coffee every morning, calling to check in on them every day, or stopping by once a week with prepared meals. It doesn’t have to be a huge thing, but YOU decide what it is. These small and specific gestures go much further than you think.
Encourage the expression of grief, in ALL of its forms
I’d like to really hammer home how deeply personal the grieving process is. It varies drastically from individual to individual, and therefore it is impossible to anticipate how it will manifest itself for your friend. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve, so statements like, “you’re handling all of this very well,” are irrelevant. It is a difficult urge to quash, but encouraging our Western ideals of “positive” grief behaviour like keeping emotions in check can actually be quite damaging, especially to people who have been brought up to seek accolades. I can’t tell you the number of times I have harmfully suppressed the urge to rip a room apart in a wave of intense grief/sadness/anger/frustration because I wanted people to be impressed by my stoicism. Be present with whatever emotions your friend feels like sharing with you, and try not to encourage or discourage any of them.
Avoid platitudes (forever, probably)
Sometimes you just have to sit and listen and not try to fix anything. Platitudes like, “everything will be fine” or “it’s going to get better over time” are not helpful. Again, this is well-meaning nonsense that has been injected into our rhetoric by a society that discourages the expression of grief. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it is not up to you to ease your friend’s pain. The most profound thing you can do is bear witness to the suffering of your friend, and allow them to feel like the expression of their grief is not a burden for you. Trying to fix it will only make your friend feel like there is something wrong with feeling badly. There isn’t.
Think Long Term
Surprise! The grieving process lasts forever! Stick around after the funeral. Stick around after the first set of holidays. Stick around after the one-year death-a-versaries. Stick around after the two year death-a-versaries. Stick around, basically. Don’t assume that things are getting easier. Loss becomes more profound and palpable as reality sets in. Time does not necessarily heal all wounds. Be there for those times when everyone else in your friend’s support system has started to move on.
At times during his or her grieving process, your friend might seem awfully selfish, and you might find yourself resenting their inability to consider your wants and needs. Be patient. It is entirely within your rights to express any frustrations that you are feeling as long as you approach the conversation with compassion and an attempt at understanding, rather than placing blame. For the time being it is is wise and healthy for you to seek other friends to help you through anything important you are dealing with. We all need help, but this particular friend might not be capable of that for a time. This will not be permanent. Be patient.
Live your life
This loss is not yours, so do not allow yourself to become burdened by an attempt to be present for your friend. It is important for you to make your own happiness a priority so that you have a healthy mind and heart – tools necessary to be emotionally equipped to help when needed. Basically, take care of yourself—you’re important too.
It can be easy to become paralyzed in the face of a friend’s devastation. Profound loss is a deep and difficult reality that can quickly be pushed to the back of our minds when it is not happening to us or a person we care about. The best part about it, though, is that it has a way of separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, in terms of meaningful relationships. Being there for a grieving friend can be an overwhelming, unenviable position. Give yourself a break, there’s really only so much you can do to help, and if you’re doing it, then you’re already a great friend.