I’ve had this article in mind for about six years now. It’s a change from my usual posts, but someone needs to write it. Because death happens more often than we like to think it does. Sometimes it’s sudden. Sometimes we know it is coming. Occasionally, it is welcome, but more often, it is tragic, shocking and heartbreaking. Western culture doesn’t have a good set of rituals around death and mourning, and so we rarely know what to do or say when death comes close.
Here are five tips from my experience on how best to care for a friend who has just lost a loved one. Perhaps you could share any other ideas or your experiences in the comments section at the end. Let’s help each other get better at supporting people who are grieving.
1. Acknowledge and separate your grief from your friend’s grief.
When your friend loses a loved one, you will probably feel grief too, even if you never met the person or knew them well.
When someone dies- whether you knew them intimately or only heard the story in the news- however close you are to them, you may experience grief. Unworked grief from a previous loss may rear its ugly head. A story of a child tragically dying may evoke empathetic grief for the family. It may even cause you to feel regret for not valuing time with your own child. The death of a friend’s parent may spark emotions of anticipatory grief as you consider the inevitability of the loss of your own parent. If an acquaintance dies, you may feel varying levels of grief, loss and even regret for the time you didn’t get to know them well.
Acknowledge your own grief. Then try to separate it from that of those closest to the person. Your friend may well need someone to cry with them. But they don’t need you so overwhelmed by your own grief that they find themselves needing to support you through it. Find your own outlet- find another friend disconnected to the situation, and share the depths of your feelings, regrets and sorrow with them. Then be strong with your grieving friend. I found myself, in our time of grief, holding up weeping bodies, my shoulders were wet with their tears, trying to comfort my friends. Thinking to myself- this is the wrong way around! Find a place to deal with your grief and don’t dump it onto your friend at this time.
2. Honestly assess how close you are to the family, and whether your presence will actually be a blessing.
Many people in a community are affected by the death of a member. But that doesn’t mean every member of the community suddenly should become best friends with the family who have lost a loved one. Take a moment to take stock and check how close you truly are to the people closest to the deceased. Are you close enough that it is normal for you to rock up to their house? In the midst of trying to deal with sudden tragedy, we had the strangest people turn up on the doorstep to offer their condolences. Ex work mates (and the boss) of my dad from years earlier came over on the first or second night. When people who you haven’t seen in years turn up, the occasion becomes a very awkward social gathering- and the pressure is put on the grieving family to entertain. If it is normal for you to come over, make yourself a cup of tea or get in there and do their dishes, then you are the person that might be helpful to have around right now. If you can be honest enough with yourself to say, “I’m not actually that close,” then save your condolences and visits for a few weeks or months later. It’s not that we don’t want to see you. We just can’t handle having to entertain visitors right now in the earliest days of our loss.
3. Do remember and acknowledge the loved one
Don’t turn up on the doorstep that week- but do make an effort to remember to visit or send a card or flowers once the worst is over. It can be a pretty crazy couple of weeks when dealing with a death- whether expected or not. There will be a funeral to plan, relatives to contact and sometimes make space for if they have to travel to get there for the funeral. The thousands of cards and flowers that get sent in that time might not even get noticed. But the people who remember once the initial shock is over will get noticed. I think a good idea is to put a note on your calendar for six weeks in advance, and six months or a year if you are really committed to showing you care, and send flowers or a card or visit then. When the funeral is over, it often seems as though everyone else has moved back on with their lives- but for the person who has lost a loved one, they now need to renegotiate their life- life will never be the same. Acknowledge that their grief still continues. Allow them to remember their loved one. Remember and commemorate occasions- birthdays and the anniversary of the death. This speaks far louder than all the well-intentioned flowers or cards sent in the midst of the chaos.
4. If it is a sudden and unexpected death, people can be in shock. People who are in shock don’t eat!
Meals provided at this time may just get wasted. If you are going to cook a meal, consider something ready to be frozen (in an appropriate container), or think about cooking a meal after the turmoil of the first few weeks. After the funeral!
5. Platitudes. Don’t say them.
“They’re in heaven now.” “Maybe it’s for the best.” “God just wanted them to be with Him.” “God knows what He’s doing.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “At least you’ve got an angel looking down on you now.” “God never gives you more than you can handle.” Post the other platitudes you hate in the comments!
We all do it, when we don’t know what to say. We say these awful little cliches. But they grate against the soul! Simple, pat answers for life’s most complex and incomprehensible questions don’t help at all. If you don’t know what to say, say nothing. You can’t fix what has happened, and your words are not going to make a grieving person feel better. Have you ever known someone in the depths of despair to wipe away their tears and say, “You’re right- God’s so lonely in heaven that He wants my child/partner/parent more than I want them here, and I’m 100% ok with that. Let’s get on with life.” When someone is mourning, let them mourn. Don’t try to make it better or give answers. As healing happens, they may come to a place of being able to say, as I can, “I don’t know why this happened, but I’m still able to trust God with my whole life.” But that can take a very very long time. And that is 100% ok. Be there with them in silence. Listen with love.
These are not hard and fast rules. Everybody is different and I can only speak from my own experiences. Use your judgement- or ask your friend what would be the most helpful! I’ve done all these things wrong myself, until I was in the position of the one grieving. And even now, I don’t always know what to do. But I do try now to think very carefully and intentionally about how best to care for that friend who has just received the worst news of their life. I hope you will too.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments.