Stand by Me (How to Help a Grieving Friend)

Grief is a strange beast, at one time uniting the grief-stricken to those who’ve been there, and yet at the same time profoundly and suddenly distancing them from the community of friends they thought they had. Nothing wreaks such havoc on friendship as tragedy; when the grieving need friends to be present most, they find themselves most alone, as their friends vacate their places beside them when they feel at a loss for what to say or do. I have never felt more isolated in my life than I did in the months following my daughter’s death, and, sadly, I know that my experience is not unique. Grieving friends have told me that they felt sad, confused, and even angry at the swift departure of so many from their lives. Yet, having been someone who had not experienced deep grief before, I also have empathy for the ignorant friends, having been one myself. We friends don’t know what to do or say, so we “give them space,” convincing ourselves that that’s what they need right now since we don’t have anything to offer. However, that’s truly the worst thing we could do to our friends.

I’ve been contemplating writing this post for some time now, and it’s been a bit of a dilemma for me. On the one hand, I may stay at home with my kids right now, but I’m a counselor at heart and by trade, and the counselor in me sees the need for some demystification of the grief process to those who haven’t yet experienced it. On the other hand, I know that some of my friends will recognize their well-intentioned attempts to say something comforting, so should you find yourself in what I say, please know that I deeply valued your effort to comfort me, even if the the words you said weren’t ideal. This post not intended as a passive criticism of anyone; it is simply my list of what to do, and not to do, for a grieving friend. I am writing this for all of my grieving friends who have said they wished other people knew how to help them, and for all of my friends blessed enough to have not had to learn firsthand about grief. This is my effort to bridge the gap between the grieving and the yet-to-have-grieved.

1. Don’t avoid her. What your friend needs most right now is to know that you’re still there for her. You may intend to be, you may even tell her that you are, but unless you are physically present with her in the days, weeks, and months that follow her tragedy, you are abandoning her. She isn’t able to think clearly right now, and she makes it through each day one moment at a time, so she may not think to invite you over. But she very much wants to see you, so invite yourself over, or invite her over, or ask her where she’d like to go (she might really need an opportunity to get out). Whatever you do, don’t do nothing.
2. Don’t say you know what she’s going through. Counseling 101: never tell your client you understand what they’re going through, even if you think you do. The same rule holds for friendship. Every person’s experience is unique, and you devalue her feelings when you say you know what she’s going through. You don’t, so instead, ask. Giving her the chance to tell you her story and share her feelings is one of the best things you can do. Maybe she’ll say a lot or maybe she’ll say little. Either way, you’ve been a good friend to her.
3. Don’t judge her grief.. So your friend’s aunt died, and you think she shouldn’t be so upset? If you weren’t part of their relationship (which you weren’t), your opinion doesn’t matter. Just because you aren’t close to your aunts doesn’t mean she wasn’t close to hers. Or think your friend is being too emotional, or not emotional enough? It’s not your place to judge the process of grief she’s going through. She may be feeling numb around you while at night, she can’t stop sobbing. You don’t see the full picture, so allow her to be free to share whatever emotion she needs to around you. Don’t push her to cry, or act like you want her to stop crying. Just letting her be free to express whatever she needs to, in that moment, is the kindest thing you could do. Also, don’t push your friend to see a grief counselor. The “normal” grief process takes months, at least, so let her process through it. If, after several months to a year, her grief is keeping her from doing things she previously enjoyed, you could talk with her about it then, but no sooner. Of course, if ever she expresses wanting to harm herself or other suicidal thoughts, please do get her help right away. Otherwise, recognize that grief takes a long time to process, and a death is not something one ever “gets over.”
4. Don’t compare her experience. Do you know someone who went through a similar loss? Keep it to yourself. It’s tempting to share their story but your friend doesn’t know them, so it won’t make her feel any closer to you. After my daughter died, I would listen patiently to these stories, but inwardly, they just made me feel sad that someone else had gone through the same thing, and I felt more distanced from my friend. While I’m sure it was never the intention, it felt a little like they were trying to “one-up” my experience, saying, “Well, what happened to you is bad, but this is even worse!” If you have been through something similar, do tell her, but do it after you’ve given her the chance to talk.
5. Do treat a miscarriage like any loss. If you haven’t been through one, you can’t imagine the pain of losing a child you carried in your body and hoped and dreamed of. A baby changes a woman’s life, body, and way of thinking about the world so never dismiss a miscarriage as an irrelevant loss. Often, too, women feel responsible for their babies’ deaths (“Did I drink too much coffee? Should I have skipped the workout? Did sex with my husband cause the miscarriage?”), making a miscarriage fraught with additional emotions to grieve through. Even if you don’t understand it, recognize that your friend lost a baby, and be there for her.
6. Don’t give spiritual explanations for things that can’t be explained. Ok, this is coming from a pastor’s wife, so, trust me, if it didn’t comfort me, it’s not likely to comfort anyone else, either. The truth is, we don’t know why bad things happen, so we shouldn’t try to explain tragedy away. “She’s with Jesus now,” and “God just wanted her to be with him in heaven,” and, “It’s God’s will,” made me angry at God for “taking her away” from me. “She’s in a better place,” and, “You’ll see her again,” felt so trite and unfeeling, seeming to imply I ought not grieve at all.  And a few people told me that their mom, grandpa, etc., in heaven was holding her; if I didn’t know them, saying that they’re holding my baby, something I want desperately to be able to do but can’t, feels like someone just said my baby’s been kidnapped, but it’s ok because the people who took her are nice.  I’m truly glad that that thought gave them comfort, but it wasn’t comforting to me.  I do believe many of these things to be true, but not one of them gave me comfort coming from someone else’s mouth. I can’t imagine how much worse it must be to hear these things when you aren’t sure what you believe. Just don’t say it, please.
7. Do bring up her loss.  Don’t be the person who simply makes cheery smalltalk to a friend after she’s just lost a loved one.  You may feel like you’ll be pouring salt in the wound if you mention her loss, but you won’t be reminding her of anything that she isn’t already thinking about every minute of every day. You’ll do more damage by saying nothing, because she’ll feel like you’re ignoring her pain and don’t want to talk about it. Bringing it up gives her permission to be honest about her feelings, and that’s what she needs most.  She already feels like she can’t talk about her loss anywhere else, from the grocery store to the park, so don’t make your friendship another place where her feelings are taboo.
8. Don’t recommend a book to her unless it helped you through a similar loss. Having someone recommend a book they haven’t read for a circumstance they haven’t been through is like having a counselor recommended by a person who’s never been through counseling. It felt like people wanted to help but didn’t know what to say, so they suggested a book. The books I found least helpful were given to me by people who’d never lost a baby, and the most helpful were from people who had. It’s that simple.
9. Do cry with her. If you feel deeply for your friend and her loss, don’t restrain your emotions for her sake. I had so many friends apologize for crying with me, as if they needed to be strong for me and had failed me by showing emotion. Yet their tears were the most honest, loving gift they could have given me, and I still treasure and remember every friend who cried with me. I know that others cried for me, but they unintentionally withheld a gift that was meant for me if they kept those tears to themselves. I’ll never know how deeply they felt for me, and we never got to share that moment together. It’s sad, and often untrue, but we the grieving assume our friends aren’t thinking about us if they never show us that they are. So don’t be afraid to cry with your friends.
10. Do just say, “I’m so sorry”. It may sound like it’s not enough, but simply saying “I’m so sorry” is the very best thing you could say. It validates the gravity of her loss without trying to explain it away or ignore her feelings.

If you’ve found yourself in some of these errors made with the best of intentions, just tell your friend you’re sorry that you didn’t know better how to support her at the time. It’s never too late to be there for her, since the pain of loss never goes away, one just learns to live with chronic heartache. And remember that being there and saying the wrong thing always trumps not being there at all.

Finally, if you don’t know what to say, say nothing. Some of the most meaningful interactions I had with people after my daughter died involved no words at all. A deep, heartfelt embrace always brought tears to my eyes. Even a simple shoulder squeeze and a look of genuine empathy said more to me than words ever could have. Honestly, there’s nothing you can say that will make a friend’s grief any less, so just be what you already know how to be…a good friend.