When a friend or family member loses a loved one, the tragedy presents a powerful opportunity for you to serve as an important source of emotional support. But what exactly should you do? Should you text, email, call, or visit? How often should you make contact? What should you say? Will it be uncomfortable? Will it help? How do you know if your friend or family member wants to hear from you? The purpose of this article is to answer these questions based on my own experience losing a parent, provide comfort to people in a similar situation, and suggest tips to be a good friend or family member to a grieving loved one.
After my father passed away, I felt both heartened and disappointed by the reactions of my close friends and family. In addition to mourning, I wrestled with the confusion I felt over my experiences with people I thought would be more present in my most important time of need.
When I received the tragic news of my father’s passing, I felt like the world was crashing in around me. I felt shock, disbelief, devastation, and regret. I had obsessive traumatic thought patterns that haunted me. In the days that followed, I felt sadness, anger, confusion, gratitude, and love. I also felt disappointment. The disappointment stemmed from the response of some of my friends and family who were absent after my father passed away. I had been there extensively for many of them through death, job loss, divorce, and other hardships. Now, in my time of need, they were nowhere to be found. A few friends and family members sent me a text and then disappeared while others never even contacted me. Some called once, didn’t reach me, I returned their call and left a message, and I never heard from them again. While I couldn’t identify with such detachment and while I admit I was initially resentful and hurt, I learned to focus on the people in my life who were providing support. I must also admit though that I will long remember who was and was not present as I mourned and continue to grieve.
How to Help
My checkered experience inspired me to make a list of simple acts people can perform to provide comfort to a grieving friend or family member. I call them gifts because that’s how they will likely be received.
Gift #1: When someone is grieving, unless you’re told or sense otherwise, be present fast, often, and on an ongoing basis. Don’t assume someone is all right simply because a week has passed. Don’t use outward appearance as a guide either. You don’t need to say anything other than you care and that you’re there for the person.
Gift #2: Call, call, call. If the person doesn’t answer or the person doesn’t want to talk, respect his/her wish. In the absence of a refusal, keep calling. If the conversation goes well, call the next day or in a few days again. Grieving doesn’t end overnight. Your friend or family member will probably need ongoing support. He/she may want to speak with someone. Make it you.
Gift #3: Send a book. I received a book on grieving the first day my father passed away and began reading it quickly and often. It helped. I learned many of the emotions I felt were common and understandable but irrational reactions to death. It set me straight and helped me begin the healing process.
Gift #4: Send flowers or a plant. Receiving a flowered plant from my compassionate friends at Mercy for Animals was a beautiful gesture that meant a lot to me. I had created an in-home memorial for my father with some of his personal belongings and a photo of us. The plant they sent me still sits beside it and brings me comfort.
Gift #5: Send a card or letter in the mail. There is something about someone taking the time to send a card or write a letter in today’s age that means more than an email. Sending a letter or card shows that you took extra time to care. Email and texts, although the most common forms of communication today, simply don’t feel personal enough for a condolence. I can’t imagine sending someone a text alone to express my condolences over the loss of a parent.
Gift #6: Ask a question. Listen. Let him/her talk. Accept and recognize all feelings. One of my father’s most valuable traits was his listening skills. He never interrupted. He was an active listener too. He showed interest and asked follow-up questions. Try to be that person for a friend or family member. Here are some questions you may consider asking: Do you want to talk about anything? Can I help you with anything? Do you want to tell me how you’re feeling? And then just listen and offer support as the opportunity arises. (Saying that a person “lived a long life” or telling someone to “be tough” probably won’t help. Minimizing loss is not a good strategy.)
Gift #7: Recommend a support group or therapy. While I did not find a support group that interested me, there are plenty available. I relied on the support of friends and family who had also endured loss to walk me through the issues I faced immediately following my father’s unexpected passing. They told me there is no timetable on grieving, it’s all right to cry, and that my feelings were natural. A few friends shared the stages of their grieving process and I felt comfort realizing they mirrored my own. That helped.
Gift #8: Offer to assist with the aftermath. Depending on a person’s situation, the to-do list after a loss can be overwhelming from investigating what happened, speaking with doctors, notifying people, planning a funeral, emptying a home, saving personal belongings, selling a car, and cancelling accounts. Giving advice, making a call, or sharing previous experiences will be much appreciated.
The finality of death is shocking, depressing, debilitating, lonely, surreal, painful, and lasting. Being present to support your loved ones in their time of need will help them turn those feelings into gratitude, love, and positive memories. They will always remember you for it. Trust me.