We all feel awkward about it. A friend of yours had a death in the family and you just want to help. But how much are you actually helping vs. hurting? As someone who has been on both ends, here are my 5 tips for dealing with a grieving friend.
1. Never ask how it happened
This is my cardinal rule. NEVER ask your friend how their loved one died. It’s selfish. If they are willing to share the cause of death with you they will. Oh trust me, they will. It’ll be one of the first things they say. But if they don’t offer up that information – DON’T ASK. Personally, I hated having to explain my father’s death. Every single time someone heard it was a car accident, they had this look of utter despair on their face and I just couldn’t deal with it. Put yourself in their situation – what if you had a loved one pass away from an overdose, suicide, bad fall… would you really want to replay the story over and over again? In the end, it doesn’t matter how the hell they died. The concentration isn’t on them. It’s on your friend and helping them in their time of need.
2. Don’t send flowers
Flowers are a nice gesture and they show you care but when someone in your family dies, you get so many flowers. Trust me; there will never be a shortage of them. Think creatively instead. When my grandma passed away, my aunt’s office delivered sandwiches to her house before the wake so no one had to worry about finding something to eat while getting ready. When my dad passed away, some of my friends wrote long letters. That meant more to me than all the flowers combined and I still have them. Here are a couple suggestions: a gift card to a restaurant so the family can have a night out together, Visa gift cards to help pay for gifts during the holidays, offer to do the grocery shopping for them for the next few weeks or put together a basket of their favorite magazines, candy and CDs. My favorite idea is to offer to babysit during the services. Most families have kids in them and it sucks having to decide which parent is going to be able to make the service. Instead, go to the wake in the first hour then offer to watch the kids of the family. It’ll mean a lot.
3. You don’t know how they feel
So stop claiming that you do. Even if you lost someone close to you, your pain is different than their pain. Hell, I can’t even claim to understand how my brother feels and we lost the same parent at the same age. Everyone has a unique relationship and unique feelings. The second someone claimed that they knew how I felt, I immediately put my wall up with them. If you lost someone close to you around the same age as this person did, it’s ok to relate and let them know what your experience was. It’s not bad to offer advice, just don’t ever say “I know how you feel”. If you haven’t been in their shoes before then don’t try to relate to them. A 13-year old doesn’t care that you lost your father at 40. It’s okay to not be able to relate. The number one person that I went to during my grief period straight up told me that she felt bad she hasn’t lost anyone and couldn’t relate. That didn’t keep me from going to her when I needed someone to talk to. In fact, I respected her more for being honest.
4. Don’t be afraid to visit
I think that a lot of people hesitate to visit the family at home during the week of services because they’re afraid they’ll bother them. That’s so far from being true. When my two best friends and their family came to be with me the morning after my dad passed away, a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I will never forget my landlord stopping by with their baby to hand deliver their gift. The truth is that when you’re going through a tough loss, you and your family are grieving together, which means you can’t escape it. Sometimes you just need a baby to play with. Also, stick around at the wake. I know that people don’t like wakes but nothing felt better than knowing that there was an entire room filled with my middle school friends to escape to during the services.
5. It’s OK to be the distraction
Not everyone is going to be the therapist. Sometimes you have to be the distraction instead. That person who will provide the fun in life. If your friend doesn’t want to talk to you about their loss, that’s totally fine. When I went through this, I only talked to my 8th grade teacher… I didn’t want to talk to anyone else. It’s overwhelming having 10 different people wanting you to open up to them. That’s why we need the distraction – the friend you know you’ll always be able to have a good time with. It doesn’t invalidate your friendship. They need you just as much as the therapist friend, just in a different way.
When all else fails, just ask the person what they need. They’ll let you know.