Helping Friends in Grief
We’ve all been there, or will be someday, to witness someone we love go through loss and grief. Of course, we want to support our loved ones when this major life event occurs, but how do we do this? Our culture really doesn’t teach us how to interact with grief, how to talk about it, or how to support each other as we walk in it. We may even feel paralyzed with fear and not do or say anything worrying we would upset the bereaved.
Having lost a loved one, I see now that it’s not so much what people do to support me, it is simply that they are brave enough to show up and stand by my side, no questions asked.
I feel incredibly lucky to have been held in this way during my time of deep grief. It’s been three years since my mom passed away and I still remember all the little things my friends and family did to support me during that time. It wasn’t just the day she died…it was the month of hospice care leading up to it, the week in between her death and her funeral, and the many months and years of grief to follow.
One particular memory stands out in my mind. I was shopping for something black to wear to my mother’s funeral. Apparently, I didn’t own anything other than a black t-shirt, and even my mother would have been disappointed in that outfit choice. So, I walked into the first store and asked if they had any black dresses. The snobby sales person informed me that all they did not, in fact, have anything black, especially since it was spring.
My body and soul had been through so much the month leading up to this, that I simply couldn’t handle his tart response. I left the store in tears, and desperately called my good friend Sara. She answered right away: “What’s up buddy?” her usual greeting for me. I sobbed out my anger and frustration over the damn black outfit, and she listened, agreed that the man at J.Crew needed to check his attitude, and eventually calmed me down. “You can always borrow some black clothes from me, it’s going to be ok.”
Later, Sara confessed to me that she had been in the middle of a work meeting when I called. She got up, left the meeting, and answered the phone, knowing it must have been important. Under normal circumstances, shopping is not what I would consider an emergency, but it was in that moment. I felt completely helpless and devastated, and Sara simply answering the phone made all the difference. She didn’t necessarily need to do anything; she was just there when I needed her.
That moment felt both big and small; another stitch in the fabric of comfort that was wrapped around me from people I loved. There were countless smaller moments where my friends and family’s love and support literally kept me from drowning: My Aunt Katie constantly organizing all the food we received, my girlfriends who stopped by just to give me a hug, my boyfriend transporting my cat an hour in the car to come be with me, both my mom’s sisters holding my hands and saying I could lean on them because they were strong enough to hold me.
The other element that helped me survive this dark time were all thoughtful gifts my friends sent along the way. As a Reiki practitioner, they knew I valued alternative healing and the metaphysical world, and their gifts matched my personality exactly: Essential oils for stress and sleep, crystals for emotional support, and herbal teas for grief recovery.
While flowers and food filled our family home, it was these gifts that truly helped me endure one of the hardest moments of my life. I used these items like my life depended on them, because in that time of deep grief, it felt like it did.
The combination of simply standing by my side, acknowledging the loss, and giving gifts that actually helped me to heal, is the essence of connection with a grieving friend. Brene Brown describes human connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” Grief and loss amplify this need for connection in our communities, gives us the opportunity to be vulnerable, and witness someone else’s vulnerability.
The thing to remember when supporting our grieving friends, is that it’s hard to go wrong when it comes from love. Grief isn’t the absence of love, but the overwhelming amount of love you feel when someone leaves your world. Showing that you recognize this love, see it in the people you care about, and acknowledge the enormity of the loss, are the pillars of support that help us to heal.