How to Support Someone as They Grieve
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Your friend just called crying. Her friend just died and she is a mess.
What do you say?
It is always hard to have the right words.
Are there "right" words?
People often say "I am so sorry" or "What can I do to help?" These people have good intentions and really do want to help. These are good things to say. However, the person grieving often does not know what they need. Their whole world is now upside down.
So, what do you do?
Offer to come over and just sit with her right now. If your friend says "no thanks" respect that. Let her know you are calling her later/tomorrow to check-in.
If your friend has kids, offer to watch the kids while your friend has some quiet time away. Be prepared to totally handle the home with dinner, clean up, and bedtime (if needed).
Your friend will probably not be thinking clearly and will need you to take charge of helping run her home for a while, especially if she is a single mom, divorced, etc. Now, I am not forgetting the children. The children will need special comfort and time to process if they knew the person. I will cover that in another post.
Sometimes the person that just had the loss does not always feel the loss right away. Often times they are in shock and cannot grasp that they lost a loved one. If it was a close relative, they may be in charge of the funeral, so they are focused on that. Sadness may not hit them for a few weeks to a month. Then they need you more than ever.
They need a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes they need reminding to eat and drink water. Bring your friend food. Bring tissues. A special blend of calming tea and a special teacup. Offer to drive her where she needs to go. Attend the funeral with her, if needed. Babysit her kids. Call to check-in.
Even if your friend says she is fine, she may not be. Tell her you are coming over to say hello in person. Then do. Bring a pie or groceries. Is the house a mess when you get there? Then tell your friend to go lay down and you get to cleaning.
Self-care is out the window for your friend. Remind her to take a shower if it's been a week. Remind her to take her vitamins, etc.
How Long Does Grief Last?
Everyone is different. When you lose a loved one, grief lasts a lifetime. However, the intense- hard-to-manage-life grief (called acute grief) will last up to twelve months then should taper off from there. The grieving person will still have downtimes after this time period, especially if they were close to their loved one and/or if the loss was sudden. I found a psychotherapist who gives a great explanation here.
If your friend is not getting better after a year, then interventions will be necessary, such as counseling or support groups. When I was interning with my master's in social work, I was helping facilitate a grief group. One woman who lost her husband a few years prior still had all his medicine bottles. She could not bear to throw out anything that belonged to him. This woman was stuck in her grief. What she needed was individual therapy as well as the support group.
There is a very helpful support group called Grief Share. It is offered at many churches. I personally took the class and it did help. To support your friend, get the information for her. Let her know the nearby churches that offer it and the days and times they meet.
My Personal Story
Twenty years ago, I lost my mom to colon cancer and my brother to a tragic accident that put him in a vegetable state for almost a year. He died two months after my mom did.
After I lost both of them, I did not deal with it. I told myself they were no longer suffering and in Heaven. Which I still know. However, I neglected my feelings of loss. The loss of a mother who would have doted on her future grand-daughter, who would give me good advice on marriage, cooked amazing meals, and who would have kept my dad grounded.
The loss of my brother who would have been a very fun future uncle. My brother who taught me so much about empathy, people, and life (he had muscular dystrophy).
Both were gone.
Even though they were both expected deaths, it is still hard to fathom they are gone sometimes.
While my mom was in her last month on earth, I had a few good friends who called me often. They were showing their support since I was in another state caring for my mom. One friend was empathetic and nurturing. The other was empathetic and funny. He helped by telling stories about our co-workers and some of the crazy stuff happening while I was out. Both were a tremendous blessing.
At my mom's funeral, we received SO MANY cards and flowers. It was overwhelming. All the cards sat in a brown sack for a week or so before we opened them. It was still all too much. We were numb as we read the cards. The dozens of flowers were pretty but so sad when they all died.
What Would Have Been Helpful?
First, I am not saying that what our friends did was wrong. Most people give cards and send flowers. That is what American culture tells us to do. What would have been helpful is for my mom and brother to be honored by donating in their name to a charity.
Our friends could have used the flower money and gave it to kids who are suffering. Or to the animal shelter that needs funds for medical procedures to fix up cats and dogs.
Then later on (a year or so) when my grief was settling down when I am trying to think of ways to keep honoring my mom and brother, send me a wind chime with their name on it or a desk fountain. When I hear it sing or see the water dance, I will think of them.
Or send me a book that has ideas on how to keep grief at bay during the holidays while honoring our loved ones. Is there even a book like that? I found one that looks promising.
Sending me a card with memories that you have of them. To this day when someone brings up a memory of them, I LOVE it. It reminds me of how they touched others and brings back their memory in such a rich new way.
So, What Should You Do?
Pray! Pray for wisdom for you. Pray for comfort for your friend.
Be active for your grieving friend. Listen. Don't just offer to be there. Tell her you are watching her kids while she goes out for a few hours on Saturday. Bring over a lasagna.
Then down the road, send her a memorial she can enjoy (like the wind chime idea). If you have memories of her loved one (even if they are small things), write them out and send them in a pretty card.
Losing someone hurts so incredibly deep. Grief is necessary and normal. Encourage your friend to attend a support group in a few months after the funeral. A funeral helps bring closure and makes it final and real for all who are saying good-bye, as well as honoring their loved one.
I hope this equips you to help your friend who needs you.
Be blessed with the wisdom to know how to help,