I’m sure you’ve been there. You get a text, a phone call, a Facebook message with the horrible news that someone you know has just experienced a loss. Whether it was sudden or to some extent expected, it can be impossible to know what to say to them.
Should you message them? Ignore them? Never speak to them again in case you accidentally upset them?
Now, I’m no expert but I’ve experienced my fair share of people “putting their foot in it” and saying the wrong thing, so I’m going to attempt to pass on a few pearls of wisdom about what to say – and what not to say – when the unthinkable happens.
Don’t ignore me, please
There is nothing worse than when you’ve just been bereaved, the time in your life when you need support and love more than ever before, and people start to ignore you. It really hurts! I know it’s uncomfortable for you, but it’s nowhere near as uncomfortable as it is for the person who has been bereaved, so do try and say something, even if it is only “how are you?”.
Losing someone close to you, at any age although especially at a young age, is one of the most traumatic things that can happen, and I’m really passionate about making sure that no one is left alone, isolated, vulnerable and struggling when their reality is so unbearable. It is known that experiencing a loss can significantly impact someone’s mental health and can cause or increase feelings of depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
Something as small as being noticed, being valued, and being spoken to can make the world of difference to someone who is really struggling (note – this is actually just great advice for anyone suffering, not just those whose situation is bereavement), and we all have a part to play in helping our friends.
Offer help – but make it specific
I just read a fantastic article by Emily Price on Lifehacker – you can read it here – all about how to offer specific help to your friend who is grieving, so that you can alleviate the burdens on your friend. Here’s what Emily has to say…
Death is awful. The weeks following my mom’s death were awful. While I definitely needed the help, I didn’t have the energy or the time to coordinate with friends to handle things. If someone had asked “Would you like a sandwich?” The answer would have most certainly been “Yes. I haven’t eaten in 2 days.” But when faced with no sandwich and a hundred people offering to help, I’m not going to text anyone and ask for food, or a ride to the funeral home, or help buying flowers. That’s weird. It’s uncomfortable. For a traditionally independent person, it feels like begging even though it’s something your friends are generically offering to do. I mean, technically I can drive myself places and find my own sandwich.
When people ask me, “how can I help”, I never know what to say! I’m just as new to this grief game as you, so I don’t always know how to respond, and one of the best things you can do is offer clear, specific assistance. The person can always say no if they don’t need it, but the chances are they do.
Some ideas for what to offer
Be it dropping round a loaf of bread and some milk, to delivering a piping hot apple crumble, food is ALWAYS appreciated. The last thing the bereaved person is going to be thinking about is cooking good, healthy meals, and the likelihood is that they either won’t eat at all or they will eat easy, fast food that won’t make them feel any better at all. It’s particularly important if this person is living alone to make sure that they are eating well.
Top tip: don’t want to face your friend yet or think it might be a bad time? Leave the food on the doorstep and leave – when they open the door and find the food waiting for them, they will be so grateful and feel really loved, even if they didn’t know it was you!
Do you have a few hours spare? Why not send your friend a message, asking if they need you to bring them some shopping, look after their dog/children/house, or just drop in for a coffee? Avoidance is the easy option but I know that you are a brave and confident friend who wants to help, so why not give up a few hours to practically help your grieving friend? Remember not to cause them more stress or give them another thing to do – so if you invite them for a walk, make sure you offer to pick them up and drop them off, too!
Top tip: don’t be offended if you don’t get a response or your friend asks you not to come round – they might have had hundreds of offers like yours and are feeling a bit overwhelmed by kind people! The fact that you offered is good enough and will have been really helpful.
I’ve touched on this in the previous points, but when your mind is trying to process the death of a loved one, literally EVERYTHING feels like a huge effort. Believe me, just showering can seem overwhelming some days. Our brains are wonderful things, but it’s sort of obvious that when something as massive, life-changing, confusing, shocking and terrifying as death shows up, our brains can’t really cope! One thing that is far too much effort can be driving, and when our brains are distracted and emotional, it’s probably not a brilliant idea to be doing loads of driving around. So you could be really helpful by offering to drive your friend to the shops, to the funeral directors, to the florist – wherever they need to go, if you could take them, the task becomes 100 times easier and less scary.
Top tip: time alone in the car is a great time to talk to your friend and see how they are getting on. Be gentle and don’t ask too many questions!
Whether you post a card, send a Facebook message or speak to them in person, use words to convey to the person that you are thinking about them. Don’t write an essay, just a simple “I’m thinking of you at this time” is enough. Yes, we don’t often have the right words, but that doesn’t mean we should have no words. Communication is key when grieving, and if from the start of the bereavement they never speak to anyone, everything is only going to get harder. If you and your friend share a faith, you could always add in that you are praying for them, as this is hugely reassuring when someone is feeling like no one cares.
Top tip: choose the right card – there are plenty of horrible ones! Keep your eyes peeled on our social media, as we are working on our own, not-terrible bereavement cards, which will be just the right thing to send to your bereaved friend.
You’re an amazing friend and I believe in you!
It’s scary (even when you’ve been on the receiving end of both good and bad support, it’s still hard to know what to say and what to do, believe me!) but you can do it, I promise. Supporting our friends when death happens is one of the most challenging aspects of a friendship, but also the most important. My favourite humans on the planet are those that know exactly how to treat me and look after me when I’m at my worst, and as a result, they also get to see me at my best!
I really hope this article has helped you in some way, and now – go out with confidence and let’s talk about loss.