The first few weeks after we lose a loved one is often filled with calls and visits from concerned friends and family. Neighbours pop in or stop you in the street to ask how you are doing. You feel a level of support. Knowing how to support a grieving friend is not always obvious.
Three months in, my clients tell me, is when it seems to suddenly go quiet. They tell me they feel alone, isolated, vulnerable, lost. “Where did everyone go?” They ask me. The truth is, they went and got on with their lives. Not in a cruel way, not in any way saying that you don’t matter. They have to return to their everyday lives.
Grief is different for each of us
It is easy to forget, when we are the people helping a grieving friend, that this looks and feels different for each of us. Grief is often described as a process and we understand there are several stages of grief that we have to pass through, in order to move on. But let me assure you, telling someone who is experiencing grief what they ‘should’ be feeling, or that they are ready to move-on, is not going to help them. They need to set their own pace for their grief and often the best thing we can do is listen.
After two or three months, as we return to our lives, we get ‘busy’ and seem to forget the support we were offering to our friend or family member, and it is at this time they really need us the most. When all the goodwill cards and sympathy messages have stopped, when the house starts to feel very quiet in the evenings, that is when we could have most impact. This is the time to be there and show them they are not isolated, they are part of a community who cares about them.
A little effort to help a grieving friend makes an enormous difference
If this sounds like a big commitment, or if you can already hear the voice in your head telling you it’s going to take up time you don’t have, then take a minute and have a think about how little effort it really takes to include one more person in your plans for a movie night, or one more person to feed at a family Sunday lunch. How much effort would it really be to meet for a cuppa in a local coffee shop once a month, or even go shopping in town together occasionally? And the positive impact this would have on both of your lives might be a pleasant surprise.
I bumped into a client recently, in a local coffee shop. Last year, she lost her husband of 62 years, to Cancer. She was having coffee with a group of five other women, and they were laughing and joking together. She spotted me and came over to say hello and gave me a hug. I looked over at her friends and said how lovely it was to see her out and enjoying herself. She told me that she’d got through the toughest year of her life thanks to those friends. That they had supported her, cried with her, got her out of the house and dragged her to dance classes, swimming, WI meetings and regular long walks. “They were there for me when it all went quiet. They brought hope back into my life.”
Send a card or a keepsake to show they’re in your thoughts
It’s a rare thing to receive a hand-written card or letter in the post these days. All the more reason why it will be so well received. I recently sent a copy of the beautiful collection of poems on grief and loss, by the brilliant Donna Ashworth, to a friend. Her husband died a little over a month ago. I imagine that she’s missing him terribly and I hoped the poems might offer some comfort. When she messaged me to say she’d received the book and loved Donna’s writing, I was so glad I’d made the time.
The most common reason people avoid friends after a death in the family, is fear of saying ‘the wrong thing’. ‘I didn’t know what to say’. This comes from believing we have to fix each other all the time. And there is no ‘fixing’ the fact that someone has died. It sucks. It hurts and it may continue to do so for a very, very long time.
The answer, is to be there to listen. It’s not about you, and it certainly isn’t about having any answers. The best way to help a grieving friend is often not to say anything, but to listen. This wonderful poem has always struck me as expressing this perfectly:
When you meet someone deep in grief – Partricia McKernon Runkle
Slip off your shoes and set them by the door.
Enter barefoot this darkened chapel,
hollowed by loss, hallowed by sorrow,
its grey stone walls and floor.
You, congregation of one are here to listen, not to sing.
Kneel in the back pew, make no sound.
Let the candles speak.
Support worth sharing with a grieving friend
There are several online resources and books worth sharing to help support anyone at a time of grief. Here are some of the ones I’ve shared with grieving friends and clients.
It’s okay that you’re not okay – by Megan Devine – this a wonderful book for anyone experiencing grief
The Good Grief Project website. Worth exploring for resources and ways to support yourself and others.
Cruse website – specialists in Bereavement support.
Who do you know that lost someone they love in the last few months? Why not pick up the phone to them today and let them know they’re not alone.