Yesterday, I left work early to attend a grief seminar. Yes, I’ve become that super fun person who talks about grief, goes to grief events and then reflects. But when you’re sitting in grief, it’s something that’s on your mind constantly. And this seminar got me thinking.
I used to be awkward about grief. (To be fair, I think we’re all awkward about grief — at least in the beginning.) When a friend lost a parent or spouse, I didn’t know what to say. I had the vague sense that saying SOMETHING was better than not acknowledging the loss. But I’m pretty sure up until this last year, I didn’t know WHAT to say or even what to do. I have some residual guilt about this — some situations that I didn’t come through in the way I would want to today.
In May, I lost my sweet daughter Ally. Prior to her death, she’d had a long battle with cancer. During the three plus years of her illness, we had so much love and support. And yet, even before my daughter died, our family was grieving — grieving the change in our family, the loss or normalcy, Ally’s loss of a typical adolescence. I’d like to speak to how to help a friend who is grieving. I know because this is what has helped me.
- Acknowledge the loss. Don’t tiptoe around your friend’s loss. It’s not a secret. They are thinking about this loss 24/7. It’s okay to express how very sorry you are. And it’s okay if the only words you can utter are “I’m sorry.” I’d also suggest if the words won’t come at all, a hug speaks volumes. Your presence is more important than finding the exact, right words because there are no exact, right words.
- Bring food. Bringing food and buying gift cards to restaurants are tangible things you can do when you don’t have the right words. These things tell a friend, “I love you. I’m with you. I want to help you.” And during a time of grief, cooking is a burden. Food always helps.
- Send cards. I can’t tell you how much cards brighten my day, and I’m still getting cards even now. I have stacks of cards from friends. I keep these because they are constant reminders that I am loved. Ally was loved. People are thinking about our family, even months after our loss.
- Check in with your friend. Call. Text. Go knock on your friend’s door and drag him or her out for a walk. Make sure your friend knows he or she is not alone.
- Talk about the person who died. I know people who are uncomfortable talking to me about Ally. This comes from a place of caring; they don’t want to make me sad. But you know what? It is cathartic to talk about my daughter. She was a beautiful person, and talking about that is a happy reminder of who she was.
Now, let’s address some things to avoid.
- Don’t ask a person to talk about their “stage” of grief. I call bullshit on the stages of grief anyway. It’s not like grief is a neat little progression of emotions; grief comes in waves of thousands of little feelings hitting you all at once. I’ve been angry. I’ve been depressed. I’ve even been joyful. (Yes, I know that sounds weird — but joyful for Ally’s life, for friends, for the support we’ve been given.) I’ve felt guilty and uninspired. But these feelings ping from one to another constantly. Let your friend express how he or she is feeling instead of you trying to force a conversation about the stages of grief. Try to listen and understand.
- Don’t share platitudes or meaningless religious philosophies. “God has a plan. She’s in a better place now. Everything happens for a reason.” These statements may be comforting to YOU. You may believe these things to your core. But these statements feel utterly ridiculous to a person who is grieving. (Note: I have had people I love and admire say these things. I understand. People don’t always know what to say. So I’m not monumentally upset about this. I’m just saying that if you could avoid these platitudes, it would be a kindness to the griever.)
- Don’t have a time frame in your head as to when your friend’s grief will magically be vanquished. Grief is a lifelong friend. I’ve only been grieving my daughter for nine months, and I can tell you that I can’t imagine a time when grief won’t be sitting right on my shoulder. I’m hoping my grief lessens, but I don’t think it goes away. And I’m not sure I want it to leave me completely. My grief is a symbol of my great love for Ally. I don’t want my love for her to ever be extinguished.
- Finally, don’t beat yourself up if you do handle a friend’s grief imperfectly. We are all learning and growing. I myself have huge regrets. I know I could have showed up for friends better as they grieved. I just didn’t know how. I didn’t understand. So when you know better, you do better. And that is my goal moving forward — to be a better friend to fellow grievers.
I want to end by saying this: A person who is grieving will need constant support and friendship. I’ve been blessed to have a tribe of people who’ve lifted me up and kept me going. Recently, I was talking to a friend. We were sitting in her car, getting ready to go into the gym to work out. I started crying, thinking about and missing Ally. She grabbed my hand, held it tightly, and said this: “Crysta, there is no expiration date on how long I’ll listen to you talk about Ally. We’ll be in a nursing home, and we’ll still be talking about your sweet girl.” Friends, that’s what we all need in this crazy thing called life — people who will love us through hard times right up until the end.