When a friend, colleague or family member loses a loved one, the tragedy presents a powerful opportunity for you to serve as an important source of emotional support. What 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 they want 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 an effective source of support.
After my father passed away, I felt heartened and disappointed by the reactions of my 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 crucial time of need.
When I received the tragic news, I felt like the world was crashing in around me. Shock, disbelief, devastation, and regret dominated my mind. I had obsessive traumatic thoughts 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 absence of some of my friends and family. I had been there in spades 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. It may help you to know that these disappointing experiences likely come with the territory.
How to Help
My experience inspired me to make a list of simple acts people can perform to provide comfort to a grieving friend or family member.
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 just because a week has passed. Don’t use outward appearance as a guide either.
Call, call, call. If the person doesn’t answer or the person doesn’t want to talk, respect their 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. People often need ongoing support. They may want to speak with someone. Make it you.
Send a book. I received a book on grieving the first day my father passed away. 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.
Send flowers or a plant. Receiving a flowering plant from a compassionate friend was a beautiful and meaningful gesture. 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.
Send a card or letter in the mail. Sending a letter or card shows that you took extra time to care. Email and texts, although the most common forms of communication today, don’t feel personal enough for condolence.
Ask a question. Show interest. Listen. Let them 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. 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? What did this person mean to you? 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.)
Recommend a support group or therapy. While I didn’t 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.
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 canceling 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.