Our culture here in the USA tends to be fairly removed from death, and as a result, we just don’t have much vocabulary for dealing with it. It’s sterile, and hospitalized, and we don’t often even see people again once they’ve expired. They’re taken away, processed, sanitized, and oft-times put in a fancy box or an urn, never to be seen again.
Because we’re so disconnected, it leaves a lot of us confused at how to behave or what to say during the process. We often just don’t have a frame of reference on how to act, or a ton of personal experience to offer. To that end, I’ve written this as kind of a basic care and feeding guide for those with a friend going through the grieving process.
1. Checking in — What to say, and what not to say.
For whatever reason, (you love the person, you’re worried about the person, you want the person to hire you on their next album shoot), you are checking in on a grieving friend. Remember that this is not about YOU. It’s about them. This is not the time to tell them about the bad date you went on or how you had terrible service at brunch (unless they ask. Otherwise, refrain).
Do not ask “How are you?”, or “Are you okay?”. They’re not okay. There’s your answer. If they hear “How are you?”, it can feel like pressure to assuage the questioner’s worries with something more pleasant than “I can’t stop crying and I haven’t gotten dressed in two days”. You’ll probably end up with an “I’m fine” and a Stepford-style shutdown, complete with a blank-eyed, frozen smile. Try “How are you feeling TODAY?”, or “How is today?”
Those options are less stressful and leave some room for dialogue like “Uh, actually…I feel tiny and numb”, or “absolutely empty.” or “really fucking sad”. If they cry, let them. Don’t tell them they have to cheer up. They don’t.
As a general rule, it is best to avoid injecting Your God into Their Grieving Process, unless they themselves mention it, IE: “They’re with God now”. Regurgitating copy/paste platitudes like “at least they’re out of pain” or “time heals all wounds” is also likely to land wrong. Grieving is a process that is different for everyone, and you (as a friend) are here to witness, love, and listen…not direct. Take your cues from them this time. If they say “Do you think they’re with God now?”, then that’d be the time to broach your thoughts on that subject. Not before, k?
If they don’t want to talk about it, don’t try to make them. They don’t have to talk about it.
General, “We all LOVED them” statements about the decedent tend to land funny as well, especially when the grieving party may have had a difficult or complicated relationship with the deceased. For example, for someone in the thick of the grieving process, hearing how “wonderful” and how “everybody loved” a possibly abusive parent can be pretty gnarly, so if you were well acquainted with the deceased, try sharing a specific thing you loved or will miss about the person. Genuine thoughtfulness rarely goes amiss, but one-size-fits-all platitudes often do.
If you’ve managed to get your grieving friend out and about, it’s even more important to be thoughtful about subject matter. It’s probably already fairly difficult to keep their game face on while out in public, so try to avoid rapid-fire questions about stressful, emotional landmine type-stuff: (funeral arrangements, work, money, crappy exes, etc) unless they bring any of it up. Nobody likes ugly crying in the middle of Starbucks. Just try to BE with them. Stillness is not a bad thing.
When they ARE out and about, just knowing you’re there with them to do normal stuff (run errands, grab coffee, eat lunch, have a drink, etc.) can be a great comfort, and much more helpful than you’d think.
2. Feed them.
Food is really fucking hard to organize for yourself when you’re grieving. It just is. The idea of cooking, much less dressing in actual, recently (or passably) laundered clothing and driving/walking/taking public transit etc to a grocery store to then come home, clean a possibly very disused kitchen, do dishes, remember how long things take or how hot they need to be … that shit is a lot.
There are apps (Postmates, Caviar, Instacart, Ubereats, etc) that help, and all of them offer gift cards. You can also BRING a grieving person food they love, or even just a bag of easy, no-prep groceries (fruit, cheese, crackers, microwave dinners, etc). You can call or text and say “Have you eaten? Can I feed you?” and then feed them.
Don’t force it. Appetites tend towards the pathetic during grieving, and some people self-soothe with lots and lots of food. Don’t judge at or pick on their food choices. The objective here? Make it easy.
Another thing that often suffers during the grieving process? Housework.
If you’re good at cleaning and want to, see if they’ll let you clean. A load of dishes done or laundry washed is a thing that’s nice to have off your plate when you’re sad.
See if you can get other friends to chip in for a professional cleaning, or team up to give the house a once-over.
4. DON’T GHOST.
If you offer to do a thing, don’t flake. Don’t be the person that says “Oh my god, I’m so sorry, is there anything I can do? You’re in my thoughts, I love you so much!!!” and then when the person says “Ya know, I really could use some company” or “Can you give me a ride to ______?” and you say OH MY GOD TOTALLY… and then you don’t show up, or you leave them on “Read” (or “Seen”). This makes you a DICK, and a self-centered one at that. Seriously. No judgement here, but be objective. If you’re asking or offering because you feel like you should, and aren’t confident you can or really want to follow up, then you should probably just refrain.
You can say something like “I’m thinking about you.” or “I’m so sorry for your loss”, and leave it at that.
5. When it’s Complicated (and it often is):
If you have a difficult history with the grieving person, it’s good to (carefully) express your condolences and back away. They may not feel safe enough to unload about what’s going on with them, but it may be nice to know that they’re being thought about, regardless of personal sentiment. Again, take your cues from them. If they seem to be pulling you in or seeking you out, then go ahead and be there for them. If they’re not actively engaging with you, try not to take it personally. They (as a member of our society) are also struggling with how to make their loss make sense, and how to move through the pain of it. It’s usually pretty exhausting, so they may just not have the energy to include you. And that is absolutely okay.
Keep in mind that if it’s going to add more work or stress to the friend’s life (if you’ve been annoyed with them about something, or are having your own set of difficulties), hold off on trying to process those things with them. As a grieving person, it’s difficult to gather the energy to accomplish even the most basic tasks, so try not to make them have to expend that energy on comforting and taking care of YOU as well. Because that means you’re not helping.
You don’t have to pull this off perfectly — nobody expects you to be perfect, and not everyone has the same sensitivities. This was not written with the intent to overwhelm you into inaction; it’s intended as a map, to help you brave unfamiliar territory.
I hope it helps.
A word from the author:
My name is Dusty Paik. I am not a professional, so there’s nothing really for me to qualify here, just that over the last 4 years or so, I’ve weathered a somewhat unusual number of losses. At the time of writing this piece, the most recent one is the passage of my mother Carol (of MS related complications from pneumonia) two weeks ago. Not too long before that, my father Dan passed on (from a nasty bit of non-small cell carcinoma). I’ve included a coupla pictures of each of them, because they were pretty cool. I’m still moving through this process myself, and I really hope I’m able to turn that into practical help for the curious.