Often, I am asked ‘how best can I support my friend who has experienced a death?’. It is a great question and yet there is no simple answer. When grieving, our needs can change frequently; some days we might feel the need for comfort from the company of friends and family, other days we seek space and solitude to reflect or be still. Some days we might want to talk about the loss and then other days words can feel exhausting and empty. Most bereaved people appreciate the gift of meals particularly in those early days, but others have felt overwhelmed and indebted by this gesture.
It is best not to assume or anticipate what is most helpful but rather to simply ask the question ‘What can I do for you today that would be helpful’. Many bereaved people have suggested that offers such as ‘let me know if there is anything I can do’, will not lead to an uptake of offer. Most people do not wish to feel a burden on others (irrespective of multiple attempts to alleviate this sense of burden). Sometimes a more direct but gentle and respectful approach is needed. Try not to be offended if the person does not accept your offer for assistance at that time. It could be that your offer, albeit appreciated, comes on top of multiple, simultaneous offers from others, leaving your friend feeling overwhelmed and confused. It could be, that where death has deconstructed your friend’s routine, normalcy and any sense of control, the act of accepting assistance affirms a sense of sudden ‘helplessness’ and incapacity. Whatever the case may be for your friend, keep offering. A willingness to be patient and flexible is helpful.
A common point of distress for many bereaved is when friends avoid, avoid and avoid. We have all heard those stories where people cross the road to avoid eye contact or conversation with the bereaved. Or those who try to rush the bereaved toward happiness, ‘closure’, ‘moving on’ and normality….anywhere but in grief. Similarly, those who struggle to speak the word ‘died’, to name the deceased (where culturally appropriate to do so), to ask of the loss and subsequent impact. To say ‘I am sorry. I don’t know what to say right now other than I am here for you’, can be of more comfort than obvious avoidance or inappropriate clichés to fill the space.
Often the root of avoidance derives from fear; fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of upsetting the person, fear of making it worse. There will be times when you don’t always get it right; it can be a difficult and sensitive space without a reference guide or template. There is no one ‘right’ way. But if your intention is genuine, one of love, care and support, then you can always acknowledge the awkward ‘moment’, apologise and take two. At times, the act of just ‘being’ with your friend is worth more than words. Presence is a welcomed companion where a grieving friend feels a sense of loneliness and emptiness.
If we can silence our own unease at being in the presence of another’s grief and pain, then we are well positioned to attune to their support needs. Try to not give up on your friend. Remain patient and consistent in your desire to offer care and compassion during a distressing, confusing and vulnerable time.