“Welcome to the club that no one wants to belong to.”
Those were the words of my friend after I lost my dad to Frontal Temporal Dementia (FTD) in June 2014. She and I now had something in common that even best friends don’t want to share: We both lost parents as young adults in our 20s.
Losing a parent long before I ever thought I would has been one of the most jarring and difficult things I’ve been through in my life. Even though I have the best and most loving friends in the world, I felt lonely in my experience and struggled in managing my grief.
Through it all, I learned valuable lessons, some regrettably. Instead of being the one trying to find the words to comfort someone else, suddenly I found myself on the receiving end of those words — and things I had always said turned out to be things I didn’t want to hear myself.
If you have someone in your life who is going through a loss, consider these tips:
Follow their emotional lead
If I could say one thing to someone supporting a grieving friend, it’s that you just need to pay attention: They will show you what they need. What grieving people truly want is validation; they want to know that someone hears them and accepts how they feel in that moment.
So, if your grieving friend wants to look on the bright side one day, look on the bright side with her. If she wants to be sad or angry, say something like “I completely understand why you are sad. It makes me sad, too.” Or, “I can see why you are angry. That’s really frustrating.” And leave it at that. Just to know that you are listening and they are heard helps a grieving person feel less alone and more loved.
Realize that grief can start long before someone dies and goes on long afterwards
If your friend is grieving someone with a degenerative disease or an illness like cancer, grief begins long before the ill person passes away. FTD is a degenerative disease, which means its onset and symptoms are gradual, with sharp periods of decline. I grieved so much about my dad while he was still alive, like when Father’s Day came and he didn’t know he was a father and couldn’t read the card I bought him. Some of the most meaningful messages I received in these days were from friends who recognized which days would be particularly hard for me. Friends who texted me on Father’s Day, for example, were very thoughtful and memorable to me.
I know that I will grieve in the future as well. For example, I know when I marry, I will grieve that my dad cannot walk me down the aisle; when I have kids, I will grieve that they do not know their grandfather. My hope is that someday when I look at my bridesmaids — some of my closest friends — they will be mindful of how both joyous and heartbreaking that day will be for me, even if it’s with just a note, a hug or a meaningful presence. “Checking in” with a grieving friend doesn’t end in the weeks or the year after the funeral. Continue to check in.
Looking on the bright side might not always be the bright thing to do
It is so understandable to want to look on the bright side for someone or to say, “It could be worse.” However, saying this can come across as dismissive of the person’s feelings. While it is said with good intentions, it can send the message that the grieving person is not handling their grief well or is not being positive or optimistic enough.
In reality, some parts of life are really tough, and it’s okay to feel sad and not always want to be optimistic. Accompany your friend in those feelings instead of jumping ahead of them.
Personal philosophies are great for blogs, but not for comfort
When something tragic happens, we often try to wrestle with it ourselves — even if it’s not happening to us — for our own sense of peace. That is a perfectly human thing to do. However, when a grieving person confides in you how they are feeling, it is not a good time to offer how we have worked out injustice in our own mind.
Even grieving people with the most solid philosophies or strongest faith might not be able to make sense of what is happening to them, and it is a deeply personal journey they must go on to arrive at their own conclusions. Sharing your philosophy can ignore their struggle and conclusions and make the tragedy of death about your own perspective, not theirs.
It takes a lot of courage to accompany someone. Do not be afraid
I give huge props to my friends who during that time and still today directly ask me how I’m feeling about losing my dad. It takes a lot of courage to accompany someone through heavy, deep emotions, especially when they involve anger or sadness.
Often times, people do not bring up the death because they are afraid they will upset the grieving person. Talking about it very well might upset that person, not because it was brought up, but simply because they are upset about it — and that’s okay.
What can be truly upsetting to grieving people, however, is when they feel as though the whole world has moved on and they are left alone in their grief. Many friends who have lost loved ones say they wanted someone, anyone, to bring up their lost loved one so they could finally share how they were feeling because it was awkward bringing it up on their own. So, talk about it. Let them know you still care or think about their loved one. Share memories. Show them they are not alone.
Offer concrete help
A lot of people’s immediate thought of helping a grieving person is to sit by their side listening to them cry and comforting them. That is helpful, but grieving people also sometimes need help with basic life tasks because they are often depleted of energy.
I will never forget my friend who drove me to the airport in Boston shortly after I got the news my dad was dying. Your offering to do practical things can make their lives less complicated and stressful, which allows them time and energy to use wherever they need it most.
Accept that you can’t fully understand, and understand that no one is asking that of you
Outside of going through it yourself, losing a parent or a loved one is not an experience that you can fully understand. However, the good news is that a grieving person does not expect you to fully understand it. Trust me, I would be fine if more people in this world did not understand it because I wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone.
What a grieving person wants is not miraculous understanding, but simply accompaniment. Accompaniment can include empathy, and that may require drawing upon your own experiences of loss. Even though your experiences might not match exactly, trying to understand someone’s emotions is a way to express compassion.
Accept that sometimes there’s nothing to do or say
It’s hard to verbalize grief, and sometimes it’s even harder to verbalize support. Sometimes there is simply nothing you can say, and that’s okay. If you feel the urge to try to fix the situation, realize that some things cannot be fixed and that the grieving person simply needs the supportive comfort of being in the presence of a good friend, even if that’s in silence. If you have a physically affectionate relationship, hugs or holding hands are some physical expressions of love that can be very comforting without ever exchanging a word.
Standing by a grieving friend can be tough, and it’s understandable why we shy away from something and someone, even when they mean so much to us. However, grief is not something to fear, and being intentional in your words and actions can go a long way for someone who is grieving, especially if they are feeling alone. Take these bits of wisdom and challenge yourself to help a friend in need — the painful memories might last a lifetime, but the memories of your love and good deeds will too.