Grieving is at once an incredibly personal experience and a universally human one. Many people find it isolating, finding themselves outside of time somehow—the whole rest of the world continuing to move forward while they remain frozen in a standstill. Additionally there can often be a felt pressure to 'get on with it' after a brief period and rejoin that forward stream like nothing has happened, even though you might still be reeling from loss.
And so, a community is needed, one that understands and is working to change our culture of “denial, impatience and intolerance of grieving.
The truth is, nobody knows what to say when someone dies. Show up anyway.
Be that friend.
While there are of course no “rules” and what works for one griver might not suit the next, there are a few considerations we’ve found to be particularly helpful and relevant when supporting a friend through the death of a loved one. Mostly, it’s because we’ve been there, we’ve been the ones people are supporting and we’ve lived through the things that aren’t that helpful (we’ve also been the friend trying to offer support), so we compiled a list of things that might be helpful. As with anything, it’s a guide.
In the early days of grief it can sometimes feel like you’re drowning, like your world has been completely split in two and like everything has changed. If you find yourself here or your friend is in this place, our hearts ache for you.
“Others have come before you, but that doesn't really matter now.”
What matters is that the sky is wrong, and this life is wrong, and you need someone to see it, to acknowledge it. To say—this is f*cked up sh*t that just happened here.”
There’s not much to say that will bring comfort. There’s not anything to do, or fix, and the more quickly you realize this, the better and more meaningful support one will be able to provide.
Grief is a long and winding road and it looks different for everyone.
Pull up a chair, you might be here awhile.
We’re All Doing The Best We Can
And, if you’ve been here before you know there are definitely no concrete steps your grief will follow, you know platitudes won’t bring comfort, and you definitely don’t want to hear someone tell you “everything happens for a reason.”
Instead, what might be most helpful is a friend sitting quietly beside you, not expecting anything of you, not looking to you for direction or guidance, and definitely not asking you questions you can’t answer.
When someone says ‘let me know if there’s anything you need or reach out any time,’ and you’re not even sure what you need, it can feel like an empty offer, like a void you can’t see through or around, like something you don’t know what to do with.
We don’t like to tell people what they should and shouldn't do, and when it comes to supporting a friend when a loved ones dies we have a few ideas to consider:
- Any phrase that begins with ‘at least…’
- Avoid platitudes
- You have so much to be thankful for: they know that and it doesn't really matter right now
- Everything happens for a reason
- Advice period and especially advice that states “you should or shouldn't”
- Trying to explain or take away the person’s pain
- Minimize the pain or grief
- There’s a learning in this
- Anything that involves toxic positivity
- “When we push aside difficult emotions, we are unable to have difficult conversations.
- When people hear a variation of ‘just be positive,’ they are often being signaled:
- My comfort is more important than your reality.
- There's no space for your humanness here.
- Let’s stop shaming people for normal human emotions and instead create space for them.”
So, What Can We Say?
- Try not to let fears about saying or doing the wrong thing stop you from reaching out. This happens a lot with grief. Entire friend groups disappear, people fall off the face of the earth and you’re left feeling even lonelier than before. There are many reasons why this might happen, a few of which are:
- You’re a walking billboard for their biggest fear (I definitely don’t want to make a joke and it’s like people think grief is contagious…)
- For people to stand with pain they must be willing to touch a place in themselves they generally don’t want to go to
- Grief is messy and complicated and unpredictable. They don’t want to get involved
- They’re sacred to say or do the wrong thing, so they do nothing instead
- They were going to disappear anyway
- For a little more on this perspective, check out this open letter from a grieving friend
Name names, say the deceased person’s name
Rather than asking “How are you?,” consider another way to check-in without leading with that. Asking “how are you feeling today,” is a more helpful and supportive question
Let the person know you’re there to listen, you’re not trying to “fix” them or “solve” anything, you’re simply there to be with them
Everyone grieves differently and for different lengths of time
Offer to help in practical ways (keep reading)
Maintain your support (after the death, funeral etc.)
Continue support over the long haul (we’re good in the beginning stages of grief, ok in the middle and really quite terrible over a long period of time)
- Try not to make assumptions based on onward appearances (the person may look like they “have it together” and this might not be the case at all)
- The pain of loss may never fully heal and that’s completely “normal.” We don’t “move on from grief, we move forward with it”
- Extend extra support on special or significant dates
Grief is horribly lonely and if it’s not enough to lose someone you love, so often you also end up grieving a million other things, like the loss of friendships.Be the friend who stands in the fire with the people you love. Who sits in the pain, even when it’s completely unbearable. Who is there in the beginning, the middle and especially for the long haul.
So, What Can You Do?
As humans we want to fix, to solve, to do. And in grief these feelings seem to be on overdrive. While most of supporting a grieving friend isn’t about doing, there are a few “doing” things that are in fact helpful. From our experience (we wish we didn’t know, because that would mean we haven’t lost, we haven’t been here before, but we have and we know) the best things to do are:
Very specific offers:
- I’m coming by tonight at 5pm to take out the garbage and green bin. I won’t even ring the doorbell and if you need me I can come in
- I can pick up [insert child’s name] at school on Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays
- I’d love to order dinner for you and the family, what night works best for you this week?
- Shop for groceries or run errands
- Drop off a casserole or other type of food (keeping in mind dietary restrictions, allergies etc.)
- Offer help with funeral arrangements
- Stay in your loved one’s home to take phone calls and receive guests
- Help with insurance forms or bills
- Take care of housework, such as cleaning or laundry
- Watch children or pick them up from school
- Drive your loved one wherever they need to go
- Look after pets
- Go with them to a support group meeting
- Accompany them on a walk
- Take them to lunch or a movie
One of the best gifts we can offer someone who is suffering is our presence
- Have you ever sat in a quiet room with your shoulders leaning up against the other person, simply so they can feel you next to them. If you’re close enough to the person and they’re comfortable with that, it can be and mean everything.
- Consider creating a Caregather (watch the video here):
- Brings friends and family together who are eager to support and send their love. Together they can bring some joy and lend a hand while she focuses on health.
- Gather the community
- Post the best ways to care
- Gather care in a care basket
- Swap and star gifts
Online resources to gather their support community:
- Meal Train: provides a fast and effective way to organize calendars, food allergies, availability and drop off instructions
- Caring Bridge: share news and updates with friends and family in a public space or through direct message, organise help with meals and child-care and receive emotional support from your community.
- Take Them a Meal: an easy way to coordinate meals for a friend or family member. Their site also includes recipes that are easy to transport, resources for supporting someone who is grieving loss, ideas on practical gifts and much more.
- Care Calendar: a free website that takes away some of the stress of organizing daily tasks like cooking, child-care and any other support needed.
Watch for signs of complicated grief and this really falls best under the care of a professional
- There is simple grief (crying, unable to eat, can’t sleep, may even seek out professional support)
- And then there is the kind of grief that “for some people, acute grief can gain a foothold and become a chronic, debilitating mental health condition that worsens over time, rather than gets better.”
Show Up Again & Again
You’ve reached out a bunch of times and the person hasn’t responded and/or is unable to engage fully or at all. It seems like nothing you’re doing is appreciated or acknowledged or even that supportive. We know it’s painful and confusing and hard. It feels personal. We can tell you with near certainty it (usually) isn’t.
Reach out again.
It can feel like nothing you’re doing is helping. In many ways it’s true and it’s also ok.
Because nothing anyone can say or do will actually take away the pain or bring back the person who has died. For this reason (and many others) it can be difficult to console a friend who is grieving and it can even feel futile. It’s wildly uncomfortable and desperately lonely for both the griever and sometimes even the person who is grief adjacent (you might miss your friend, miss their support or miss laughing with them).
When we understand and accept that grief is a gradual (often painstakingly “slow”) process, that it takes much, much longer than any of us would like, that it’s uncomfortable and messy, and that our presence really is our only offering, we’ll begin to actually meaningfully support those who are grieving.
Feeling anxious about doing and saying the right thing is natural. As best you can, trust your good instincts in wanting to help and to be there. Be your kindest and most patient self, either asking the person directly or trying to figure out what they need (this requires that you listen, listen again and then listen even more). They might even want you to make them laugh. Grief is hard, plain and simple. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions and behaviour. One minute you can be crying and the next feeling even a little lighter. There are no formulas, there are no quick fixes. It’s complex, confusing and it hurts like hell. And one of the only real truths about it is: every single one of us will experience grief—It’s the price we pay to be human, to love, to live.
So, when you go through your own turbulent times (because you absolutely will), know there’s support and community for you, too, and you will know what to look for, because there was a time when you tried to build that for someone else (and for this, we grievers thank you. Thank you for not trying to fix us, for not telling us to “move on,” for not diminishing our pain. And also, thank you for offering hope, for standing alongside us even when we’re our least shiny and happy selves. Thank you for allowing us to be imperfectly human).
The only way through it is through it (and going through it with people who “get it” makes going through it even a little less heartbreaking).
We’re here to support you and want to ensure a better death becomes integral to a good life. To learn more and access additional resources visit www.eirene.ca