As you may know, I have experienced the loss of my parents in the past few months. I’m processing my grief in different ways, and this post is one of them. I’ve learned so much on this side of grief, understanding what is helpful and what just isn’t. I’m realizing the mistakes I’ve made over the years, the ways I could have been more helpful to friends who were suffering. And I’ll certainly use what I’ve learned the next time someone else I know has lost a loved one. I hope that this list is helpful to you either as a support person to someone grieving, or if you yourself are grieving, you can forward it to your own friends and family…
Ready? Here’s what NOT to do (and what to do instead) when someone you know is grieving.
DON’T offer help without offering help. Don’t be vague or give open-ended offers of help. Don’t say “Let me know if you need anything.” Your grieving friend is in a lot of need, but does not want to be needy. Your grieving friend has to have support, but does not want to be a bother. Even if you have a very good friendship, they might not even know how to articulate what they need. So…
DO state what you are going to do, and make the logistics easy. “I’m bringing you lasagna on Wednesday night. Tell me the best time to leave it.” “I’ll pick up your kids after school on Tuesday and keep them till bedtime.” “I have a housecleaner lined up to come to your home this week. Does Friday or Saturday work better?” “I know you need to be back and forth to the lawyer’s and don’t like driving downtown. I’ll pick you up at 10:00 tomorrow morning before your appointment.” The sense of relief that comes when you offer something actually helpful is palpable!
DON’T make your friend responsible for the funeral as though they’re organizing a wedding. Don’t keep asking about what time to be there, dress code, who else will be there, etc.
DO everything in your power to get the details for yourself. You know the name the deceased; you can almost always find funeral details online, or you can call the funeral home directly, or contact someone in your friend’s close circle. Once you know details, pass them on to any mutual friends or acquaintances, and ask them to do the same. What a gift, to show up for your friend.
DON’T bother your friend for details about their loved one’s illness or death. Don’t get angry you haven’t been “kept in the loop.” Don’t pester or expect your friend to answer texts, emails, or phone calls right now.
DO be only supportive, and accept that you’re not going to know everything that’s happening the whole time. Trust that you’re getting the information you need or that your friend is able to give you.
DON’T “dump in.” Susan Silk and Barry Goldman describe the Ring Theory in the LA Times. In essence, at the centre of a ring is the person in the most crisis. In our case, it’s your friend who’s lost someone. A circle around that represents their spouse; around that, their children. Imagine concentric rings around the person in the most pain. DON’T dump your anger, worry, sadness, or frustration inward toward people who are closer to the death (or illness, or another crisis).
DO dump your negative feelings outward, to people less affected than you. Talk to your hairdresser about how hard it’s been to find funeral details, or tell your co-worker how you just want to help your childhood friend but don’t know what to do as she won’t return your texts. DO push comfort and support inward, to all those more affected than you. (Also, DO read the Ring Theory article for a simple guide to helping those in grief or crisis.)
DON’T get obsessive about the material possessions of the person who’s died. Why is it that some people swoop in like vultures to pick over the leavings of someone’s life? Is this how we express our grief and longing in a world where we process many emotions with a commercial transaction? It’s disturbing.
DO graciously accept any gifts bestowed on you by those who are grieving.
Those are some of the most pressing lessons I wish I’d known years ago to better support my own friends! Here are just a couple more, for your own sake:
DON’T avoid planning for end of life, for one reason above all else: In my experience, the death industry can be craven. The more time you have when you’re negotiating the arrangements, the less anyone will be able to take advantage of you.
DO try to make these negotiations early on, when you have a clear head and the ability to say no thank you to bells and whistles. I’m astounded at tactics people tried with us when we were dealing with our parents being laid to rest. Protect yourself by planning early, even though it’s no fun.
I look forward to reading your own dos and don’ts in the comments section.