Recently, a good friend asked me how to support a dear friend encountering a devastating loss. There are no good words, he said.
My friend isn’t wrong.
My hope is that my journey through grief can light a path for others. While everyone’s experience is different, here are four ways that I would suggest to encourage those in your community walking through loss and grief.
- Be a haven.
A haven is a place of safety or refuge, a shelter. In the storm of grief, seek to be a shelter for your friend. Whether that is by opening your home or a bottle of wine. There are so many ways to do this, but it’s important to know there are two things grieving people need to feel deep in their bones to feel safe:
You are loved.
Say it, show it, let your actions do the talking. When your heart is ripped apart, you need to know that others care that your heart heals. That you heal. That you matter to them. Your wholeness, the care of you matters to them.
As humans, we want to be accepted. When a loved one passes, it upends your support network, one of your go-to people is no longer here with you. You worry that you don’t or won’t matter to anyone else.
There are lots of ways to show love, and everyone receives and feels it differently. Think about the ways your friend or loved one expresses their love to you. Odds are, that’s their love language. Mirror it back to them. Gifts, words of affirmation, acts of service, quality time, physical touch, or some combination of a few or all. Figure out how they will feel you love them and do that.
And then say it, say it, say it. Even when you don’t hear it back. Say it.
You are not alone.
When my Mom passed, I felt so alone. Actually, I didn’t realize that I felt alone until my best friends told me over and over, that I was not alone. I felt such relief. Those words made me cry.
But the ways our community showed up over and over let me know it is true. Prayers, texts, emails, meals, flowers, visits, cards, calls.
Some of my Mom’s best friends sent notes on significant dates. My godmother accompanied me to doctor’s appointments after I ruptured my ACL. The kindness of it is overwhelming.
Pay attention and put the significant dates in your calendar—the day of the month and check in at one month, six months, a year. Check in every year during the month of the anniversary of the passing. For friends who have lost spouses, write down their wedding anniversary. Know holidays will be raw and difficult for those grieving, so find a way to reach through busyness that surrounds holidays to say I see you and your pain is not forgotten.
- Acknowledge the shitty.
I don’t know anyone who is walking through grief who hasn’t looked around and gone, this is some bullshit. And it is.
No matter how it happens, whether a long illness or in an instant; no matter the age of the loved one who passed. The gaping hole of their absence will be something your friend deals with for the rest of her or his life.
Acknowledge it. Doesn’t even have to be complicated. Just put it on the table, look at it, and know that not trying to cover it up in some platitude is a way to unflinchingly see and affirm the grieving process. Say the nice things, too, but let’s all start with being honest.
- Listen, be present, and just be.
When a loved one passes, you honestly don’t know what you’ll need or when you’ll need it. You don’t how things will get put back together again or if they ever will.
There are all different kinds of people—introverts, extroverts, introverted extroverts, etc. Some people will need to talk. Maybe a lot. Some will want to lose themselves in nature. Sometimes, your extroverts will just want to sit with someone in silence. Do all those things.
Some will want to pray together. Others will want to cry out to God in anger. Give grace for that. Hold their hand through it, literally or in spirit. And provide a safe space for that process.
Ask the how are you doing question, mean it, and be ready to really listen. Don’t shy away from asking the question. Don’t worry that you’ll remind them of their loved one. They do not forget for a moment that their loved one is not here. Ask the question, give the space to answer or not, and follow their lead.
- Bring the joy.
Loss is deep water. And joy knows how to reach into the deep, how to cut into the darkness with light. Joy can abide with grief in a wounded spirit and give it a hug.
Find ways to honor, remember, and share. If you know the person who passed, share stories—not just the proper ones, but the funny ones, sassy ones, inappropriate ones. Your friend knows who their loved one is. I love hearing stories about my Mom. Especially when she was being sassy. The lady is no wilting flower, I know she’s sassy. She was sassy with me all the time, and opinionated, and bossy. She loves to giggle. The best giggle. Talking about her, hearing how she impacted the people in her life, sharing memories is such a loving way my friends and family let me know the difference she made to each of them. And I’m so proud of who she is, so I love to hear about the way she lives on in the lives of others who love her.
And encourage your friend to celebrate. It could be small things. But find the small things that lift the spirit. Share photos on social or send hard copies through the mail, so they can be framed. Ask how or if they want to mark significant milestones and support them in it. Do activities with your friend that their loved one enjoyed or that they always did together. Be ready to share a meal, make a drive, or jump on a flight if you’re able.
Finally, don’t get bogged down in trying to do the perfect thing. Keep it simple, keep it real. Show up, show love.