Grief can be a bit of a mine field for those supporting a bereaved friend. You want to ‘get it right’ for your friend, but you may feel unsure what the right thing to do is. Another anxiety can be what to say. Are you afraid of saying the wrong thing, or making things worse? I always say to people that I imagine it would be hard to make it any worse than it already is, so don’t worry. Saying anything rather than nothing, is the best way forward.
Here are ten things you could consider while you support your friend through this difficult and emotional time of bereavement.
Don’t compare, each bereavement has its own landscape –
Even if two people have died of the same disease, or the same way, there will be many differences in their experiences. Comparing them somehow diminishes your friend’s experience. However similar it appears, it will feel unique to them.
Don’t feel hurt if your friend rebuffs your offers to join you, sometimes the bereaved need to be alone –
Grief can be very overwhelming and immensely tiring. Your friend needs time to rest, time to absorb what has happened and alone time. This is natural and normal. What you could look out for perhaps, is when alone time becomes isolation all of the time. Then I would encourage you to step in and see what is going on. It’s a fine line, but trust your instincts.
Don’t stop your friend talking about their loved one repeatedly; they need to do this -
The urge to talk about the one who has died is primal. You cannot stop it, nor should you. It is one way in which your friend can start to make sense of the death and the impact of it. People need to go over the story again and again as a way of processing their feelings and it also keeps the one who has died metaphorically close at a time they are struggling with the idea of not seeing them again. Try and be patient with that and don’t stop them.
Don’t avoid mentioning the dead person’s name –
Your friend wants you to talk about their loved one. They want to hear their name and to know that you remember them. He might like to hear stories about the one who died because that means that you have not forgotten that person. It brings them closer to the person who died too. That continues for a long time. In the same way, if you have any photos or little film clips on your camera, why don’t you send them to your friend. I am sure they will be gratefully received. If you feel anxious about that, just ask them first.
Don’t relate stories about similar deaths –
Suffice to say, it just isn’t helpful, and also it is meaningless, because your friend is very much in his or her world with their own experiences. Try to focus your attention on what will help, support, nourish and comfort your friend. No additional burdens are needed at this time.
Don’t touch or throw away anything without asking, you don’t know what memory clings to that particular object -
It is lovely that you want to help your friend, but if they get to the point where they are ready to sort out the person’s belongings, or give them away, be careful what you dispose of. The smallest of things can have significance for your friend. It is probably safer to stick alongside them in that job and ask before you decide to get rid of anything.
Don’t pressurise the bereaved to go back to work before they are ready -
You might feel enough time has passed or that your friend ought to go back to work because they will feel better if they do. I am sure these sentiments come from a caring place but truthfully, some bereaved people just cannot face their job any time soon. In fact, they might need a change of job. They may feel very wobbly, very emotional, unable to concentrate, very exhausted and quite unable to get back to work. Try and respect this and remember that they are not the same person they were. In time, they will be stronger and more resilient but in the first 1 – 2 years, this is sometimes not the case.
Don’t cross the road when you see them –
Your grieving friend may behave in ways that stretch your empathy and friendship. It is not unknown for friends to fall out when one of you is bereaved. The saying goes that grief rearranges your address book. Try not to be that person, they are probably feeling lonely and isolated and your friend needs you. It is really hard to be the one that sticks by a grieving friend long term. I call those people ‘stickers’. You need to be resilient and take care of yourself too but try and be the one who stays a long-side your friend. Your relationship will be the richer for it in the long-term.
Don’t judge when your friend starts a new life, they’d rather have their loved one back any day –
I wonder how you will feel when your friend starts really living again. Perhaps he is going out more, has a new partner, got a new job or is traveling more. It is easy to slip into judgements about that. To name a few, “well obviously he didn’t love her as much as I thought”; “I just can’t believe he is dating already”. Life does go on and irrevocably, your friend’s life will grow in ways he could not have anticipated despite his grief. To keep living, your friend must engage with life once again, but don’t mistake that for forgetting, he won’t be doing that.
Don’t feel jealous when your friend is able to break away from you and do other things –
As I said above, in the end life grows around people’s grief. If you have been ‘a sticker’, you may have enjoyed the intimacy with your friend, that sense of being in the middle of it all; it can feel very intense for a long time. Then over a longer period of time that changes and your friend may not need you so much. Try not to feel jealous about that. She has had a difficult time and is slowly emerging through the mist to a new and changed life. If your friendship has survived intact, then there is a strong bond between you which will endure.
If any readers have suggestions to add to the above, please join the conversation below.
When I am counselling clients who have had a bereavement it isn't usually long before the question arises, 'how long will I grieve'? I think what most are asking is how long will I feel like this? I often imagine this question as a foreign movie with subtext. If I could see the sub-text it would probably read, 'because I cannot bear the way I feel, so please tell me when it will end'.
Annoyingly there is no map or stopwatch for individual grief. What I will say is that the amount of time often reflects the strength of the love. Having said that conversely, if someone has had a difficult relationship with someone, perhaps a parent, sometimes the grieving can be protracted and extremely hard. That is one of the myriad of difficulties which face those who grieve.
From my own experiences in my family, from talking to clients and watching other families who have experienced the death of a child, I believe no parent ever 'gets over' the death of their child. I had a moving conversation with my Mother shortly before her death. She told me that my brother, who died in 1979, came to her in a dream, which was a very rare event for her. When I asked her what she thought it meant she said, 'I think after 30 years I am finally getting used to it'. So for parents, the 'piece of string' is life long and I am pretty sure they wouldn't want it any other way because their grief is an important ongoing connection to their child.
In sessions, I usually ask a client how long they imagine their grief will be part of their life. I often hear, a few months, six months and occasionally someone might say a couple of years. I tend to err on the side of two years. In the Robert Peston Interview Show with Eddie Mair, Robert talked with Julian Barnes about their grief following the loss of their wives. Julian Barnes made the point that his grief started to feel better at five to six years, and that he felt less ambushed by it at that point.
In the deeply moving book, Can I Let You Go, My Love? by Kay Van Dijk, she beautifully depicts four years of her intense thoughts and feelings following the death of her beloved husband. What is different about this book is that the words are written in real time like a diary, so the length of time of her grief and the waxing and waning of her feelings and thoughts are laid bare over a long time. There are many widows who have found this incredibly helpful as it is truthful and I generally suggest that they read it in 'real' time, corresponding with where they are in their grief. It then validates their own experiences, and helps them to understand they are not going mad, they are just grieving deeply.
This is the point I think, grief does not have an end. It is more a case of learning to live with it and the way it shapes, colours and changes our world. The way I describe it to my clients is that in the beginning grief is like a radio that it turned on full blast, high volume, very intrusive and unbearable. Over an undeterminedamount of time, the volume and intensity is 'turned down', until eventually it sits at a comfortable low volume, maybe barely perceptible sometimes but of course, like any radio, the volume can be turned up by oneself or occasionally others (or situations) unexpectedly. What is true, is that at a lower level, the volume or the grief feels less raw and more manageable and that makes daily living easier.
For those of you who are supporting someone who is grieving, I would implore you to be patient with the one who is mourning. You cannot hurry them along, you cannot make it better, you cannot (nor should you) stop them crying and there is no definitive end point. What you can do is listen, listen and listen more. You can be patient, you can empathise, you can carry the load when they are overwhelmed, you can offer them solitude or company when they need it, give time and hugs, but mainly, try to take on board that they are probably in this period of grieving for a long time and because of that they deserve as much understanding and support as you can possibly muster.
If you are struggling with grief and would like some support, you can contact me here.
Also, if you have thoughts about how long grief lasts, please share them with us below.
Photo credit: Public Domain Photos / Foter / CC BY