Helping a grieving friend
Grief is so scary.
It touches all the most terrifying parts of being human: Death. Loss. Loneliness. The realization that we control very little in this life. The impermanence of all of our relationships.
Like all those other things, grief doesn't spare anyone. And that's the scariest thing about it.
When we haven't gone through grief yet and see others in it, it's hard to imagine what it's like. We get stuck in our own existential angst and often do nothing, because we're afraid to do the wrong thing.
Even when we have gone through our own grief, sometimes the experience feels so distant (or so fresh) that we still don't know what to say or do.
The basics of grief (and what not to say)
My first year in graduate school, I interned at a bereavement center. My youngest client was 5 years old, and the oldest was 85. I counseled people who lost parents, children, spouses, and siblings.
I learned so many things about how people grieve, and what helps survivors when someone dies.
I also learned that most of what people think they know about grief is wrong.
The worst is when people say things like "You'll get over it" or "They're in a better place." Phrases like this minimize the grieving person's pain and the connection they still feel with the person who died.
Grief looks and feels different for everyone, and there's not an order of operations. That stuff people say about the stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, etc. - isn't right. Grief isn't linear, and not everyone goes through all of those feelings.
What grief is really like
Grief can be really complex depending on the relationship the bereaved had with the person who died.
There's no timeline for it. Grief changes over time, and the intensity of it can lessen. Sometimes people try to wall it off or avoid it, but grief hangs around.
For many people, grief is supremely disorienting. Many times people can't deal with the grief right after the death, because they have to attend to other people and tasks, like planning the funeral.
Sometimes the grieving person can feel numb for a while, or like life isn't quite real, which can last as long as a few weeks or months. At the bereavement center where I interned, clients didn't start groups until they were about 3 months post-loss for this reason.
If you are seeing a friend or loved one through grief, here are some ways you can help:
1. Be there
The most powerful thing you can do for a grieving friend is make it clear that you are there for them, without expecting anything from them or putting pressure on them in any way.
This might mean sending a card or flowers, or texting them regularly to check in, or going to the memorial for the person who died. It may be as simple as verbalizing that you are available to hang out when they feel sad, and reaching out every now and again to invite them to coffee.
Sometimes it's just enough to say, "I'm really sorry for your loss. I love you and I am here for you." (And when they reach out, actually being there for them.) Whatever you do, however small, it matters.
2. Offer specific help
Asking "What can I do?" is a kind impulse, but it puts a burden on your friend to think about and assign a way for you to help them. They may be too overwhelmed and not ask.
Instead, offer specific ways you can help them. Like sending food, or dropping their kids off at school one day a week, or picking up groceries, or walking their dog.
Imagine what you would want someone to do for you if your world imploded but you had to keep living. Then offer to do that thing for your friend.
3. Keep being there
Anniversaries are so hard when you're grieving. This includes not only the anniversary of the death, but other important dates, like holidays and birthdays.
Reach out around these times. It can help your friend feel less lonely. It can feel really good for your friend to know that you remember their loved one on that day, too.
Also reach out to share with your friend if you have a specific memory about the person who died, or if you are thinking of them.
Remember that sometimes grief is delayed. Just when people start to feel the grief most acutely is when others tend not to be around as much. So be aware that your friend may need you more a few months after the loss than they did right after.
4. Share resources
If there are books or poems or essays or anything grief-related that you've found helpful, it's okay to share these. Here's one of my favorite grief memoirs.
For someone that is grieving it may be hard to concentrate on a long book, and something like this grief book, with its very brief snippets of content, may be easier to read.
It's also not a bad idea to share the information of grief groups or therapists who can help if the person is really struggling.
For those grieving now
If you are grieving, I am so sorry for your loss. Please take good and gentle care of yourself, as well as you are able to.
Don't be ashamed about needing help. It's okay to reach out to friends and family for connection. It's also okay to reach out to a therapist.
A grief group might make you feel less alone, and help you to remember that you don't have to carry your sadness, anger, and other feelings by yourself.
I hope that you are kind and patient with yourself in your grief. I wish you peace and so much love and support.
Sepideh Saremi, LCSW is a psychotherapist and the founder of Run Walk Talk, mindful running + talk therapy in Beverly Hills and Redondo Beach, CA.