Do you remember the last time Grief, the eternal uninvited guest reappeared in your life? Perhaps you experienced a breakup, you lost your job or your pet died? Or maybe none of those things happened to you. Instead, it happened to a loved one and you’re wondering how to help a friend who is grieving?
Unbeknownst to you, grief is a deeply profound and painful experience that you and your loved ones will likely experience in life. This is true of any loss like a breakup, the death of a loved one, or losing a job.
How grief arrives unexpectedly
Most of the time you will not be prepared for grief and therefore may not know how to help a friend who is grieving.
I remember that my deepest losses have shown me that Grief is always there in the periphery reminding me of its presence.
In the beginning, the sensations are so profound and raw that my throat constricts.
“Embrace your grief for there your soul will grow.”Laurence Cole
Tears threaten to fall at moment’s notice perhaps willing the pain to flow freely. The hurt wallows inside my heart, my chest, and the deepest part of my soul.
So what do I do?
I take a deep breath, sigh, and ask my guest to find a comfortable place. I know Grief is going to stay for a while and I might as well get used to it.
Ignoring it only makes it worse and chastising it is useless. I might as well befriend the one thing that I did not ask for.
What the death of my grandma taught me about grieving
I once heard that grief is the price you pay for love.
So if you love deeply and immensely then you will grieve the loss so profoundly that you will feel as if a part of your body is missing.
This is true when you are grieving a breakup or the death of a loved one.
I remember this sensation after my grandma died.
She was my last living grandparent and my connection to a sweetness that I ever knew. She died peacefully in her sleep.
I was lucky enough to see her, say goodbye, kiss her soft cheeks, touch my cheek against hers, touch her still warm bosom and hold her soft hands.
My grandma used to shower me with endless kisses (both sides of course). She smelled deliciously like a flower with its own unique name. My grandma laughed so joyfully her shoulders would shake.
Her laughter was so contagious and you quickly joined her in her delight.
The one person who loved me tenderly and wholeheartedly.
My third limb. A piece of my past and present was now not in my future.
The finality of this loss was immeasurable.
As soon as I think, phew, Grief is gone, I’m okay. I would turn around and see him sitting on the couch comfortably and relaxed waiting for me to acknowledge its presence.
To truly process my grief, I stopped questioning his presence.
Experience has shown me that Grief has no sense of humor and the sooner you accept that he believes his presence is warranted the easier your life will be. Eventually, his presence lessens but he’ll always be there as a reminder of Loss.
So eventually you learn to live with Loss.
It’s really hard.
Don’t try to make it better
Remember that when someone is experiencing grief, they will be experiencing a mixture of emotions.
Believe me, I remember being so sad that I had a hard time breathing and simply wanted to crawl into bed and stay there.
However, I would be reminded of my incredibly strong grandmother who was truly the most resilient woman I know. She raised 4 children, 7 grandchildren and crossed the ocean from Iran to immigrate to the United States.
Moreover, she made the most delicious Persian food and also had a crush on Tom Cruise. She would call him her boyfriend and once argued with me since I too had a crush on him (we decided she got him first).
My grandmother loved deeply, fiercely, and without reservation.
I know that she would be delighted that I married well and that I have a compassionate life partner. That I chose the profession I did and that I am actively helping people every day. She would celebrate my freedom, independence, and will to live my life every day with conviction to love, be happy, and be joyful.
So despite the uninvited presence of Grief lurking around, I chose to wake up, take a deep breath and focus on living the life my grandma wanted for me. She is living through me daily, and for that, I am eternally grateful.
Grief doesn’t end with the funeral
Grief is widely misunderstood in our society.
Some people do not know how to respond or contain someone else’s feelings of grief. Instead, they ignore, avoid or disengage from the person or the situation.
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Or they write a text message saying “I’m sorry for your loss” or “Breakups are hard, he was a jerk anyway.”
Perhaps you may never even hear from people when they find out about your loss.
Why do people respond in a non-compassionate way?
This is not everyone around you but I can say from personal experience that a majority of people will disappear when you need them most.
“We move on always carrying with us those we have lost. Carrying them is not a burden, something that feels impossible to bear, a weight keeping us stuck in the same place. We want their presence to feel like a gift.”Jojo Moyes After You
I think it’s because dealing with painful feelings is uncomfortable for a lot of people. Many can’t deal with their own discomfort let alone someone else’s.
People love fun happy times but bring up grief and loss and soon you will find yourself with only a handful of supportive friends and colleagues.
How to cope with your own grief
When you experience grief, it is palpable and real. It sometimes feels as though there is a dark rain cloud hanging over your head at all times.
Sometimes it rains, sometimes there are thunderstorms, and other times a little bit of sunshine that peaks through the clouds.
“It’s a big deal to share your grief with other people. To give them a glimpse of the pain you carry. It connects you in a profound way. That’s why you usually only do it with friends.”Katherine Center Things you Save in a Fire
For me, there were moments where I felt numb. Others, where I was so sad that I feel like Grief had his thick hands wrapped around my throat wanting to choke me.
Though you will feel devasted by your loss, the only thing that will help you heal is Time.
How to help a friend who is grieving at work
Some people choose to mask their grief because it is too painful. This is not the healthiest coping mechanism because Grief decides to stick its ugly head out when you least expect it.
Rather than masking my grief, I chose to express it through tears, talking, and journaling.
“We never forget the people who showed up when we are navigating the heartache of losing a loved one.”Calm
I remember how hard it was to be back at work because people around me chose to ignore my grief.
Grief makes people uncomfortable and they don’t know how to be around someone who is grieving.
So if you want to learn how to help a friend who is grieving at work, don’t be fake and avoid them.
Instead, allowing them to express their grief will actually help them heal.
In addition, if your friend knows that you’re a safe person to be around, they’ll come to you when they need support.
How to help a friend who is grieving if you have no clue!
What do you do when someone you love is grieving?
It is simple really.
The do’s and don’ts of helping a friend who is grieving
Here are my best tips on how to help a friend who is grieving so you know what to do and what to avoid.
Don’t ask your friend: “How are you doing?”
Truly, I know you mean well, but don’t ask that question because the answer is, they’re not doing well.
Your friend/loved one/colleague doesn’t even know when they’ll feel like themselves again.
Please don’t ask “how are you doing” because honestly, they probably don’t know even know.
Instead, say something like “I can only imagine how painful this must be for you. Whenever you’re ready, I am here.”
Don’t ask: “What can I do for you?”
I have no idea what you can do for me because I don’t even know what I can do for myself.
Don’t ask how to help, just help
Instead of asking, bring lunch or take your friend out to dinner.
Bring your friend or colleague flowers or you can even mail a card.
It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do something.
Don’t say “I understand everything happens for a reason.”
Um, that’s one of the worst things to say to someone who is grieving.
Yes, it’s understandable that you want to say something but minimizing their pain isn’t helpful.
Instead say something like: “I wish I could find the right words. Please know I want to be here for you in the ways that I can.”
When you say something like that, your friend will feel understood and validated.
Do offer hugs
Another way to help a friend who is grieving is to simply give them a hug.
You don’t have to say anything, simply being around them is helpful enough.
Do listen attentively
Maybe when you stop by, your friend will want to look at old photos and share stories with you.
Listen intently, don’t ask a lot of questions, and be present with them.
Do let your friend cry
Perhaps when you show up, your loved one will be sad so just sit with them while they cry.
Acknowledge the suck & stick together
Yes I know, it’s not the most comfortable experience to be around someone who is sobbing, but guess what, Grief doesn’t care what you think or feel.
Crying is healthy and if you can just buck up and allow your friend to cry, they’ll end up feeling lighter.
Do suggest going outside and walk
Or maybe when you stop to see your friend, they are tired of sitting at home all day.
Encourage them to go outside for a short walk. Since you’re there, you’ll motivate them because you will go together.
Do keep showing up
Also do not stop showing up.
Grief takes a lot of time and it isn’t just the first few days or weeks that your loved one needs support.
Keep showing up and demonstrating your love and care.
What to do if your friend asks if the grief ever will ever go away?
I have no idea how long it takes to grieve or feel “normal” again.
There is no deadline for Grief. So don’t say “It gets better.”
Yes, the initial devastation will eventually lessen but grief ebbs and flows.
Depending on the type of loss, sometimes it can take months or even years.
It’s helpful to understand that grief lasts as long as it lasts
Eventually, your friend will feel better.
Until then I hope that you keep showing up and sitting with them.
When you are there Grief is a little lighter and more bearable.
And all you can do now and then is to remind your friend that you will be there, no matter what, whenever it is needed, for however long.
It’s been a few years since my grandmother died.
I miss her dearly and every morning when I wake up to get ready for work I look at her photograph and smile. As I write this, I recall how hard the first few months were after she passed away.
Fortunately, I had a handful of friends who showed up and stood by me, thereby making the pain a little bit more bearable.
Being there to understand how to support a friend who is grieving takes a lot of courage. It’s hard, especially when your loved one is in a lot of pain and you feel helpless.
The best advice I can share with you is just to show up, listen and be present with them. When you do this, your friend is reminded that they aren’t alone and that their grief is validated.
And while you’re supporting your loved one, make sure you are taking care of yourself, too.
Caring for a grieving loved one is hard. Be sure to practice self-care and give yourself grace if you say the wrong thing. Your loved one doesn’t need you to be perfect at this, they need you to keep showing up and providing love and care.
What experiences have you had supporting a friend who is experiencing a significant loss? What have you learned on how to support a friend who is grieving? Please share your stories and comments below.