5 Ways to Be a Friend in Times of Grief

Saying the right thing and avoiding saying the wrong thing!

As we all know, 2016 was a rough year. Grief has featured heavily for many, in so many ways. But even without the loss of so many much-loved public figures, grief happens to all of us, sooner or later. Ironically, for such a universal feeling, it makes us feel completely isolated and alone. I truly hope if you are stuck there, that you let yourself connect with others, because I promise you, they DO get it.

But if grief is the loneliest feeling in the world, being a friend in times of other people’s grief is the most helpless feeling in the world.

Being a friend in grief is tough. It never really seems like there is anything you can do to help, but you sure as hell know you could easily say the wrong thing. We have all read stories and articles about how offended someone was when someone said something they thought insensitive in a time of crisis.

Recently, someone I know who has chronic health issues, posted on Facebook that she would much prefer to be asked things like “how is life treating you?”, or “what’s happening these days?”, than “are you okay?” as she says she just gives a stock reply “yes” to “are you okay?” even though it is often not true.

This post elicited the usual concerned responses from her close friends, but what I truly wanted to say, what I couldn’t say (because she was obviously struggling at the time, though we may have the conversation at some future date), was that I thought the responsibility to change the dynamic in this situation was with her, not the well-meaning questioner!

But there you have it- my very point made on multiple levels:

- when people are struggling, they feel isolated and misunderstood

- in grief or struggle, we feel disconnected and want support from others, but also tend to lash out at anything and everything that doesn’t feel 100% supportive (whatever “supportive” feels like!)

- being the friend of someone who is grieving or struggling often involves NOT saying lots of stuff or not having a clue what the right thing to say might be!

I could talk about the psychological mechanisms of grief making us feel betrayed and abandoned and so trying to assert control over the comforting behaviors of our friends as a way of regaining a (egoic) sense of self, but that would not be really helpful here!

So, let’s have some simple tips instead for how to be a friend in times of need:

1. Call or message regularly

Especially if someone is stuck in hospital, a day can feel like a year! Every day or couple of days- even just a little “hug” meme in a Facebook message can let someone know they are not forgotten. Takes you less than a minute, but it can make a huge difference to them. I have actually even set a daily reminder on my phone at times so it takes zero memory power to make it happen!

2. It is not about me!

A friend of mine has been going through the worst time caring for her very sick husband. She has texted me at times saying she needs to talk and when can she call and I have advised her of when is good. I mostly leave the calling to her as I know she has sooooo much on her plate, so I figure she will call she it suits. Sometimes she says she will call tomorrow and then I don’t hear for a week. Now, I could choose to get cranky about this (and she often starts our calls with abject apologies for the delay), but when I find out that she has had 3 emergency room runs that week and her son is sick too, I remember, this is not about me.

My ego or expectations are not needed here. My motto with her is: I am here when you need me. Even if she doesn’t call, I just keep messaging her random hugs, knowing she will feel safe to call when she can.

3. Be honest

Some of my go-to lines include:

“I wish I could say something useful here, but I don’t know what to say, so I am just here for you”

“I don’t know if you want to hear this and you can tell me to shut up if not…”

“If you feel like a visitor today, I can come over. If you just want to be alone, that is fine too!”

4. Be open

I have been supporting a friend with how to talk to her 4 year old about his father’s illness and I have always encouraged her to be honest with him (at a simple level, of course). We have come up with the term “big feelings” to help him understand the overwhelming stress they are all under. Recently, I was sitting playing Lego with him and his mother said something about how he had been having “big feelings” lately and I just casually replied, “yep, big feelings suck”. Next thing I knew, I was flat on my back as this kid had just thrown his arms around my neck with so much force we were both on the floor in a huge hug. Instead of platitudes or avoidance, I just acknowledged his reality and obviously that was pretty meaningful to him!

5. Let it suck!!!

Comfort and positivity have their place when talking to friends in grief, but so does sitting in the dark places with them. Having someone acknowledge how much the situation sucks can be really important. Moving forward and seeing the good outcomes can come later.

Grief is a huge topic and this is just one little aspect of it. Of course, life is often a much more tangled web than a simple article can address, and we usually have our own grief and frustration and lives going on while we are also being friends and family and workers and other things! So I get that it is not so simple to let go of all of that and just ‘be there’ for someone. But I hope these tips help for when you might be feeling a little bit helpless. xo

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