Ten Practical Ways to Help Your Friend Through the Death of a Loved One
The fire in Oakland touched many in my circle, either through their direct losses or through knowing those who lost people. So many lives gone. So many people now dealing with the aftermath.
Others have lost people recently in unrelated events. As someone who’s been dealing with the death of my life and film partner, Aaron Aites, for seven months, I’ve learned a bit about dealing with loss and grief.
One thing I’ve learned is that death separates us into two camps. Honestly, I feel like a different species from most of the people I once knew. A lot of people can’t handle it when death rears its head. So many of my friends have disappeared, and according to something I read recently in the Washington Post, it’s actually normal to lose about 75% of one’s support network when an untimely death or serious illness occurs.
Wow, right? We are such an emotionally fragile species. If you’re going to be part of the 25% that sticks around, good for you. You’re a better person than most. I hope this list can help you support your friend in the way you’d want to be supported if you were going through the same terrible thing.
Those in mourning may just find it helpful to post or reference this or another list like it on social pages, as it’s often hard for us to ask for what we need.
1) Reach out, often and repeatedly, to the person experiencing grief. Take the initiative. People experiencing loss are not generally proactive. They may be in a fog, they may have a hard time just coping with what has to be done. They may not even know what they need. They won’t themselves reach out, because grief is disabling. Don’t just tell people that you’re there for them or thinking about them if you don’t then actually, repeatedly, reach out. People in mourning are not suddenly psychic. The fact that you’re thinking of them literally does nothing to help them. You’ll have to actually be willing to engage with them if you want to actually help. Don’t be one of the people who says “If there’s anything you need, just holler.” It’s empty. We hear it as “I don’t know what to say and I’m not actually going to do anything or offer any real support.” Trust me on this. I attend a grief support group and we speak with derision of all the ex-friends who said to let them know if there was anything they could do — who then, themselves, did nothing.
2) Don’t ask them how they are unless you are prepared to hear the answer. In general, it would be better to ask them how they are today: it acknowledges that overall, they’re feeling really bad. Our society reinforces the idea that we should all maintain a fiction of doing well. A person who just lost a loved one is not well and won’t be for a very long time, if ever. Don’t make them consider your feelings before answering. The first few months after I lost Aaron, this question seemed so grossly insensitive that I felt anger every time I heard it, even though I knew the asker meant well. It’s just practical advice to tweak it with the word “today” to acknowledge that a gaping hole of sadness has swallowed up their life.
3) Be prepared to hear about their unbearable pain. If you do ask them how they are, please be willing to hear them talk about their pain. It’s not easy for you to hear it, but it’s necessary for them to express it. It is, again, socially weird, so just try to be totally nonjudgmental. Grief takes many forms. That five stages nonsense we were all told? It’s garbage. And that’s according to the author (she didn’t say garbage), who has made it clear that she was actually talking about the stages that a dying person goes through. And also that it’s more like a tangled ball of string than any sort of orderly progression. You can be distraught one second and furious the next, then doing ok then crumpled in tears. It’s an exhausting roller-coaster.
4) Grief is exhausting and debilitating. What practical things could you do to help? When I lost Aaron, cooking was way beyond me. (In fact it still is.) Take them out to eat. Send them food deliveries. Go to their place and cook for them. Invite them over for meals. If they lost a partner, money may be an issue. Send them a gift card. These may be the small bright lights in the fog that get your friend to the next beacon. Besides food, what else could you do? If they have kids, perhaps you could babysit them so your friend can take care of things or go out with another friend. Or help her or him clean up, or pay bills, or organize arrangements, or go to the doctor, or offer to walk their dog, or shovel snow, or any number of basic life things that may suddenly feel impossible. Like laundry. Imagine your friend has a broken arm and leg, and needs that much help with everyday stuff. You can’t see the damage done to a broken a heart, but it’s just as debilitating. These small everyday things are acts of love.
5) Don’t disappear after a few weeks or months. The death of a loved one is destabilizing. The world doesn’t feel safe anymore, the ground doesn’t feel solid. Be there. Keep reaching out. Call your friend once a week. Why not? Are you really too busy? Because trust me, they notice, and they either feel cared for or not. Better yet, see them in person. Make frequent plans with them, even if it’s just coffee or a walk. Invite them to events. Include them in life. Give them companionship. And do it consistently so they can start to feel that life still has structure, and that there is still a support network there for them. Your friend is not going to be better in three months. That’s just the beginning, and some people will actually still just be in shock or denial at that point. Don’t disappear.
6) Talk about the person they lost. Say their name. Share stories and memories about them and ask your friend to do the same. Losing a loved one is a strange experience in that they remain the most important person in your life, yet they become a taboo topic for most around you. It can create a schism and is very isolating. Chances are, your friend would be thrilled to talk about the person they lost. Obviously don’t force it if they are reluctant, but the overwhelming majority of people I’ve encountered who are dealing with loss want to talk about their loved one.
They may also want to talk about the actual death itself. This is a tragic moment that people struggle with, whether or not they were even present. Many imagine what their loved one must have gone through, and it sears its way into them. Others will never be able to forget what they saw and experienced. Be patient if they want to keep talking about it, if they repeat themselves. They are processing the trauma, and talking about it helps. Talking about the lost loved on also lets your friend know that you understand that they are still a huge part of their life, and that they still deserve to be talked about. They’re still real and present in some way. Your friend probably needs that aspect of their experience to be validated.
7) There is no timetable for grieving. Don’t put pressure on your friend to get better. Don’t make assumptions based on their appearance that they ARE doing better. We fake it in polite company. Don’t say things like: “You look so much better,” or, “you’re so strong” because all this does is make us feel unseen and pressured to get better or to fake it more. People who have lost a close loved one may never be “better.” My own experience is that life has been divided by a line: on one side, my old life, my old self. On this side, the new normal, which is awful. I’ve spoken with others who lost life partners and in particular, we seem to feel that life is irrevocably changed and darkened. The life we thought we were leading has been snatched away, and its replacement really sucks. I’ve heard from people 15 years down the road that they still feel sorrow and pain all the time. Everyone is different, every relationship of every kind is different, but the fact remains that there is absolutely no timetable for grief. Be there for the long haul, and don’t make assumptions or pressure your friend to get better. You don’t heal from grief, you grow into a different self and life. It is a never-ending process.
8) Offer extra support on special days. The holidays are hellish. Literally everyone I’ve encountered agrees on that. Birthdays are no picnic. Anniversaries, special dates: reach out. Invite them to join in your holiday celebration or at the very least actually call them. Texts are… the barest of the bare minimum. Do better, if you care. Even if you’re uncomfortable. Our culture doesn’t know how to deal with death, so most of us just avoid it. If you do that, you’re also avoiding your friend on the days he or she may be feeling most vulnerable, lost, depressed and unable to keep going on. Many suffering from grief think about suicide regularly. It’s so common that almost all online support groups bar people from talking about it because it’s a trigger.
*Edit: Also, is there something you could do to show care for your friend on birthdays (theirs AND their loved one’s), anniversaries, death dates, etc? Take them to brunch, to get nails done, for drinks, dinner, send flowers or small gifts if not local? This makes a HUGE difference. I can not tell you how much I see people on grief boards talking about how uncaring their friends are. And I know from my own experience that I miss feeling the coziness of someone taking care of you. It would probably be so little for you, and so much for the person feeling so bereft of that.
Now that I’ve gone through two years, I’m adding that the lead-up to significant days is often worse than the day itself. Start checking in early. A week before, a few days before, the day before. This really helps.
9) Ask your friend if they have any particular triggers. After Aaron died, and continuing through the present, ambulances and sirens almost always send a pang of pain coursing through me. Aaron died in our living room, with the paramedics working on him. I accompanied him on several ambulance rides over the course of his fight against cancer. But there are other things. There are actually more things than it’s remotely possible to list. Here are a few things I’ve cried at in the last few days:
- A review of a band he loved
- While washing a mug we bought on a trip to Vienna
- After taking a picture of our cat, that I wanted to show him
- While flipping through channels and seeing the names of shows we watched together
- When seeing a post someone made on Facebook about a video game that Aaron had been excited about playing
- While walking our dog, something I do three times a day, and almost every time flash back to us walking her together, or me walking her while he was sick
- While at a show he would have gone to
- When seeing men who vaguely almost barely (not really) look like him.
- While listening to music
- While working on a script and feeling inadequate and lost without him.
The list could go on and on.
10) Please respect that not everyone shares your religious faith. I’m agnostic, and I don’t want to hear your certainty about Aaron being in a better place, or being here with me in some form, or whatever your particular beliefs dictate. That’s great that you think whatever you think, but your certainty is extremely irksome to someone who is consumed with the uncertainty of whether he still exists in any way, whether I’ll ever be with him again, and whether he is, in fact, still present in some way. Your certainty just reminds me of how torturous it is not to know. Please respect that different people have different religious thresholds. And there is no silver lining when one is dealing with traumatic loss and grief. The “at leasts” are awful to hear.
I know that last one may make it all feel like a minefield that prevents people from reaching out, what with their being do’s and don’ts, but it’s pretty simple: Ask your friend how they’re doing today and be prepared to hear the painful truth, do talk about memories of the person who died, be proactive in reaching out, offer to help with practical matters, provide food and company, and let your friend lead on all spiritual matters. Or just ask them if it’s ok to talk about that or anything else. And forgive them if they are short-tempered or angry, because grief is consuming and tumultuous.
Final note: While this list will hopefully be helpful, grief is not one-size-fits-all. Think of this as a way to start. What we’re really talking about is a three-way relationship between you, your friend, and the person they lost. That’s complicated. Their grief is also extremely complicated and everyone experiences it differently. So just be their friend, whatever that means to you, and knowing that the friendship may very well change now that their life and relationship with the deceased has fundamentally changed. They will need other relationships to help fill the void of love and support that the death of their loved one has left in their life.
A couple practical tools:
https://www.mealtrain.com/ organize meals for a friend among a group
Crisis helpline: text 741 741 to text with a crisis counselor. Just give the number to your friend and tell them that while you preferred they would call you, they should have that number just in case.
Your friend will probably find it helpful to speak with others who have experienced loss. There are many bereavement groups on facebook, available with a quick search. If the person who died was very close, it may be helpful for you to look up a couple grief counselors in your area and give them a call, find out if they’re taking patients, and help to liaise for your friend. Again, keep in mind that losing a close loved one renders the one left behind quite debilitated. While you can’t do the actual intense work of grieving for them, you can help with logistics and practical matters that may just feel beyond their ability.
Thank you for reading this. Anyone with other suggestions, feel free to add them in the comments.
My most recent piece, on the two-year anniversary of Aaron’s death is here: https://medium.com/@AudreyEwell/aaron-aites-two-years-gone-7fbc7af911f8
You can see more photos of Aaron, our life together, and my life now at https://www.instagram.com/audrey_ewell
I’m on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AudreyEwell