6 Ways to Help a Friend Who Is Grieving
I kissed my husband goodbye, went to bed, and woke up a 36-year-old widow with two kids. I've often thought about how I would react if a friend were in my shoes—and I’m pretty sure it would have been in all the wrong ways: timidly, expecting her to guide me, and afraid to bring up anything to do with it for fear of hurting her.
There are some simple and powerful things you can do to help. Everyone's situation is unique, but here are some of the things that helped me most:
1. Be relentless. If you can only remember one thing, it's this: Show up and be relentless about it. However you do it—texts, emails, visits, letters, flowers, meals—it's on you to be present, over and over again, and it matters. But here's the key: Don't ask for anything in return. Leave the voicemail, don't ask for a call back. Just say you'll keep checking in. Drop off dinner in Tupperware you don't need back. Text a thinking-of-you statement, not a question that requires a reply. Stop by with a bouquet of flowers or banana bread and give a hug, then split. Don't invite yourself in for a visit. Keep giving for the sake of giving.
2. Know that saying nothing isn't kindness. It's a common assumption: Talk about happy things. Don't say the name of the person who died. Avoid asking "how are you?" It seems like the kinder route. It's generally not. The fear seems to be that bringing up the subject might be upsetting. The reality is that when you're grieving, you're continually aware of your loss. It's not something that someone else might painfully remind you of. The pain is always there. When it goes unacknowledged, when those you love stay mum and skirt around what is very much your reality, it can feel bizarre and isolating. One of the kindest things a friend did was visit with me one night and ask me, over and over again, to tell her a story about my late husband. It gave me a chance to open up and be seen.
3. Don't ask 'how are you?' When it comes to how I'm doing, “How are you?” is kind of a useless question. Bad, duh. But it can feel loaded and uncomfortable to respond that way, so I often found myself just saying "OK," and not really taking advantage of the chance to open up. A better way to frame it: "How are you today?" It’s a subtle tweak that is so much more concrete, and more directly invited me to express that today was feeling tougher, or easier, or sadder.
4. Offer to do something specific. So many people reached out to me with a heartfelt "let me know how I can help." I took almost none of them up on that, either because it felt uncomfortable to say "what I really need is someone to put my kids to bed tonight," or because I wasn't even thinking straight enough to see what needed to be done. Ask if you can come fold laundry, or take the kids for a while, or clean the bathroom, and say when you'd like to do it. Leave your friend nothing to do but say yes or no.
5. Write down the date. When someone is grieving, anniversaries are unavoidable and can be brutal. I initially thought only in months, hyperaware of each passing one. Six months was big. Twelve months was huge. Having my loss acknowledged on those days helped. It’s as simple as saying that you know today isn’t like every other day—you see it, and you're sending love.
6. Give a Rainy Day Box. The way my sister decided to support me was one of the most powerful ways I was helped. It gave me a way to feel deeply cared for and seen on my toughest days, without having to ask anyone for a thing. It was a relief, a release, and completely on my grieving schedule. That schedule is a weird part of grief. I might brace myself for a holiday to feel horrible ... only to find the holiday was manageable, but the next day was dreadful. On those dreadful days, it kept me going.