How to Reach Out to Friends in 2021
As I drove into Salt Lake City in the middle of a cross-country road trip, I received a text from one of my dear friends. Her little nephew, at only ten months old, had passed from a brain tumor. In just three short weeks, cancer ran through him so quickly that the medicine, doctors, and his little body couldn’t keep up.
I struggle to describe my friend’s heartbreak. Utterly devastated is the closest I can get. She was beside herself for everyone involved, especially the little boy who had so much life left to live.
Watching a friend grieve
As 2020 has so kindly shown us, grief comes at unexpected times and it doesn’t always involve deaths. In addition to mourning brought about by the coronavirus and police brutality, grief has come with the loss of routines and should-haves.
Seniors in high school and college grieved the loss of prom and graduation celebrations. Grooms and brides grieved the loss of the dream wedding. And many are entering 2021 in grief: grieving the loss of a loved one or something else (such as spending the holidays alone).
And yet, despite the chaos that 2020 generated, some of us have been privileged enough to walk through the year relatively unscathed. Those who find themselves in that position need to know how to be supportive to their grieving loved ones.
It is hard watching a friend grieve. When we hear about their loss, we want to reach out. We tell them we are terribly sorry. We comment on their posts that they are in our thoughts and prayers. When people die, some say, “Well, at least they’re in a better place now” (don’t say this). To try to cheer friends up, others say, “Everything happens for a reason” (I don’t suggest this, either).
To appropriately express our condolences and respond in empathy, we should send a private text or DM. The first part of the message should read: “You don’t have to respond, but…” followed by something we would want to hear if we had found ourselves grieving.
This does two things.
- It makes them feel more loved.
- It makes you more loving.
Let me explain.
They will see it as genuine
In a study at Penn State’s Health and Human Development, researchers found that people generally agree on what is most loving and least loving. They found that people feel most loved through small, everyday behaviors like snuggling. Essentially, people appreciate genuine displays of love over big, romantic gestures.
In the age of “building your brand” sometimes it is hard to trust comments. It can be difficult to tell whether people truly mean it or if they are just saying it so everyone else sees how great they are.
When we reach out privately, we immediately make it known that this is not performative. By adding “you don’t have to respond,” we express that our one purpose in reaching out is to share our love. We don’t even expect love back. This time is all about our grieving friends, and we want to make it known that we are here for them.
They will appreciate the release of control
In the same study, researchers found people feel least-loved through controlling situations. By stating that our friend should feel no pressure to respond, we love them through releasing control. We are admitting that what they need may not be to talk to us and that is ok.
Those six words free the grieving friend of any responsibility they may feel to respond when their emotional capacity is already maxed-out. When they think of us and how we cared for them, instead of control, they will remember feeling free. They will remember feeling loved.
Your inhibitions will be lowered
Sometimes we choose not to say something thoughtful because we fear their reaction. Especially with grief, it is hard to know what the right thing to say is. It is because we understand that the right thing does not truly exist. Nothing can bring back the loss.
Unfortunately, the fear of saying the wrong thing can keep us from saying anything thoughtful. Simply put: fear holds us back. We say something canned and hope that it expresses our care. But if we were to move forward in spite of the fear, we could be more loving and find deeper connections.
Luckily, when we use these six words, we help ourselves act in love. We lower our inhibitions by taking the pressure off ourselves. When we do not have to worry about their reaction to our words, we can focus our energy on saying something vulnerable and from the heart.
You will be practicing emotional responsiveness
When we respond to our friend’s loss with love and compassion, we need to keep this in mind: we are more than likely NOT the only ones. There is a big chance that on top of the overwhelming situation of mourning, our friends find themselves inundated with goodhearted messages.
When we recognize that they may not be able to respond to our thoughtful words — and we communicate that is ok — we are practicing emotional responsiveness. Blake Griffin, a licensed family and marriage therapist, describes emotional responsiveness as:
“understanding and meaningfully responding to the individualized needs of our particular partner in moments of need.”
While he says this in the context of marriage, it is such simply profound advice on relationships that it works for friendships, too. With these six words, we practice exactly what Blake Griffin suggests. We are expressing that we understand their need to feel loved and supported and, at the same time, that they may not have the capacity to respond.
In the past few months, I have sent my good friend a few messages introduced with these six words. Every single time, she took me up on it: she chose not to respond.
And yet, here I am writing this without an ounce of doubt that I did the right thing. Though my friend did not respond to the texts, she told me countless times how much she has appreciated the ways I have cared for her during this season.
I do not say this to brag. I would never suggest I am the most loving. I get things wrong. I get things wrong a lot. Luckily with her, in this season, it was the love that stuck. And it all started with those six words.
In a year that has brought so much pain for far too many, I am calling out those who have some emotional capacity left. Spread love. Here is how you should start:
“You don’t have to respond, but…”