I didn’t experience the death of someone really close to me in my adult life until I was 30. Until this point, I was woefully ill-equipped to support anyone who was grieving. I never knew what to do or say.
Out of fear of doing or saying the wrong thing, I often did or said nothing. In the past I’ve been an awful friend, simply by being absent. I was that person who was too afraid and too awkward to be with someone who had lost a loved one.
I know I’m not the only one. Here’s some advice the old me needed, and I’m sure it will shed light on the topic for all you other afraid-and-awkward folks too.
What to say
Let’s be honest, no words are going to make it better. But saying something is 100 times better than saying nothing. What is important is showing your support and care in a way that’s genuine. To help get you started, here are some examples of things people said to me that I found meaningful.
You don’t need to “be strong”. It’s OK to fall apart right now.
I’m really sorry you’re having to go through this.
I won’t understand what you’re going through but I’ll listen and still be here in the days, months and years from now.
Let your soul feel pain. When you are ready, and only when you feel ready, you can start putting one foot in front of the other again.
You’ve been in my thoughts and prayers.
It’s OK to miss them, to be mad, to be sad. Keep in mind they love who you are and you will always feel that love.
You are so brave and I know you’re dealing with this heartbreak in your own special way.
If you’re with them in person, be armed with a boatload of conversational content. They’ll probably ask about what you’ve been up to — a change from their world of grief is refreshing. Even if you haven’t been doing anything exciting, do your darndest to find something interesting to talk about, or just make it up! They’ll appreciate having someone else do the talking for a while.
Please don’t talk about the death of your great aunty when you were 10 years old (unless there’s a funny story in it — humour is an effective temporary salve), and avoid launching into a monologue of your pet peeves or day-to-day annoyances. They don’t need you dumping your emotional energy on them right now.
“How are you doing?”
May I suggest finding an alternative to the question “How are you doing?” It’s almost impossible to answer. They’ve probably got no idea how they’re doing and are merely just trying to get through each day. Be more specific with what you are actually asking. Here are a few suggestions based on what some wonderful friends asked me.
How are you doing on the inside? How is your heart? (It’s the same intention as “How are you doing?” but it will make them stop and actually think. I found this one truly powerful. It allowed me to go beneath the day-to-day stuff and tap into real feelings.)
How is today going for you? (Because they really are just taking one day at a time.)
What are your unmet needs? (This could be in the form of a hug, a babysitter, a gardener, or a secretary. It’s more direct and proactive than “Are you OK?” It also encourages them to think about what help they need to make each day a little easier.)
How are you doing… like really? (If anything else just feels too weird, use these words but make sure they know you really care about the response.)
Help in a way that is actually helpful
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do” is a classic line. Well-intentioned, but not particularly helpful. Often those in grief aren’t sure exactly what they actually want or need from you. See if you can be more specific.
What jobs around the house have you not gotten around to this week?
Is there any life admin I can take care of for you?
Can I come over so you’re not alone this weekend?
Be honest with yourself about the type of person you are and how you can help best. If being with someone who is vulnerable and emotional makes you uncomfortable, don’t offer to go and hang out with them regularly. It’s OK if that’s not you. You can offer yourself in areas where your strengths lie, maybe more practical things, like walking the dog.
Sometimes you’ll just need to take the initiative. Offer gently but firmly, and take as many decisions as possible off their hands.
Could you offer to take the children for a few afternoons?
Does the lawn need mowing or do the roses need pruning?
Be observant. Put yourself in their shoes and I’m sure you’ll come up with at least one way you can help that is actually helpful.
Decadent treats like chocolate and home-baking are great, but a real meal will be all the more appreciated. They probably don’t have the brain capacity to decide what to cook, the composure to enter the supermarket, nor the energy to prepare a proper dinner. Turning up on the doorstep with a hearty meal in hand is one of the most useful things you can do — bonus if it will last a few meals, meets any dietary requirements, and can be frozen if need be.
When researcher and best-selling author Lucy Hone tragically lost her young daughter Abi in a car accident, the local community organised to have home-cooked meals delivered to the Hone family, every single day, for four months following Abi’s death. An incredible way to provide meaningful support.
Be with them in person if you can. To listen, to talk, to walk, to potter around, or to just sit in silence. You’re not there to *fix* anything. Simply be present with them. Your time is precious. Everybody’s time is precious. Which is exactly why spending time with them is utterly priceless.
Go to the funeral
Let’s face it, funerals are never held at a convenient time. They’re often in the middle of a busy weekday afternoon, or at a time that clashes with the other three things you need to do on a Saturday morning. But suck it up and get your butt there.
Yes there’ll be oodles of other people there, and no you’ll hardly get a chance to speak with the grieving family. But just being there, showing up, giving your friend a hug … that action says more than words ever could. Several very special people attended my father’s funeral — some I hadn’t seen in years, some totally out of the blue, and others drove seven hours to be there. My eyes are hot with tears writing this and my gratitude for them, their friendship, and their presence will never, ever fade.
It is also interesting to note what renowned researcher Brené Brown said about funerals in her talk ‘The Anatomy of Trust’. Based on her research on trust, one of the most common things that makes someone say “I trust this person” is when that person attends an important funeral.
Keep in touch
The weeks and months after the funeral, after the sympathy cards and messages cease, are particularly tough. Their world has shattered, but the earth itself keeps on turning, and life limps on. You’ll probably think of them and wonder how they are getting on. Take the next step and send them a quick message to say so. It only takes a moment.
Give them a call every couple of weeks. Send them a message on the anniversary of the death of their loved one. Do you know the dates of other important events like birthdays, or a wedding anniversary? Let them know you’re thinking of them then too. It will mean a lot, trust me.
“How are YOU coping?”
In the weeks and months down the track ask your friend what is going on inside their head and heart. Many people tend towards the still-caring but less confronting questions of "How is so-and-so doing?" or "How are your siblings / friends / partner doing?" and then move one to the next topic of conversation.
But, in the words of the Moving Pictures/Shannon Noll song … “what about ME?”
These queries are always well-intentioned, and I know they care, yet it’s only rarely that someone will ask point blank “and how are you doing…really?”
Sometimes a griever's soul is yearning for a tender listening ear. It’s truly meaningful to me when somebody asks how everything is in my world; asking the question, knowing full well that the response could make for uncomfortable listening, takes courage.
Sharing these things does not make me the perfect grief-handler. I’m still fearful, more than a bit awkward, and often need to take my own advice. But there will be a gold nugget here that helps you to be a more supportive friend to someone who’s lost a loved one.