I’ve received a similar email from several friends this past year. The email tells a terribly sad story and usually starts with: “My friend’s daughter/ husband/ mother just died in an accident/ in a car crash/ from cancer. I want to be there for her, but I don’t know what to do. Do you have any advice?”
A year ago, I was the awkward friend – the one who hadn’t dealt much with death, who didn’t know what to say, who didn’t know what to do. Today, I’m the one people go to for advice.
I’m certainly not an expert. But I can share what has helped me and what hasn’t. What I would say first is that everyone grieves differently, and what helped me may not be right for helping your friend, but here’s what worked for me.
Let me start by sharing a scene from the recent movie, The Good Dinosaur. In this scene, the young caveboy, Spot, is sitting up late into the night with Arlo, the dinosaur. Because he cannot talk, Spot must communicate without words the story of how his family died and how he came to be alone in this big, Jurassic world. He stands up three sticks in the dirt – mommy, daddy, and himself – and draws a circle around them. Then, one by one, he knocks down mommy and daddy. Spot looks at the downed sticks, and then at Arlo, and then he looks at the moon and howls — a deep, sad howl — that echoes throughout the valley. That’s the best way Spot can think of to communicate his sadness. Little dinosaur Arlo doesn’t know what to do. But he lets Spot tell his story, and when Spot howls, Arlo tries out howling too. Arlo is tentative at first, not used to this primal howling like wolves, but pretty soon, the two of them are howling together into the valley, howling up at the moon.
Arlo’s approach is as good an approach as any, on how to help if you have a friend who has lost someone they loved immensely. Here is what’s been true for me:
- In the beginning, just show up. Don’t ask, what can I do to help? I had no idea what I needed help with. I didn’t know I needed people to bring us dinner for two months. I didn’t know that we needed someone to buy a box of Kleenex for every room. I didn’t know I needed someone to take Hannah back-to-school shopping. We were zombies. Luckily, friends just came and did these things.
- If you can contribute to the planning of the funeral – like, if you’re handy with a computer and can mock up a funeral program – ask if you can do that. There’s so much to do and the family is too shell-shocked to do it.
- Don’t be afraid that you’ll remind your friend about what happened, or that you mentioning it will make her sad. I think about Dragon, 24/7. There isn’t one minute I’m not thinking about losing him. It helps to acknowledge what’s happened as opposed to pretending that everything is okay Even just saying, “I don’t know what to say” is an acknowledgement. It adds to the pain when I have to pretend that everything’s normal, that I didn’t just lose my son.
- “How are you?” is a social convention that is usually responded to with “I’m fine.” “How are youtoday?” acknowledges that everything is not fine, and we both know it. This thoughtful acknowledgement of my situation allows me to be less automatic and more honest.
- Don’t avoid your friend if you see her out in public — at the grocery store, at church, at a game. I know it’s awkward, and neither party knows what to say. But please don’t try to hide. You have both already seen each other so hiding just makes it more awkward. Just be natural, and if you walk by, you can just ask, How are you doing today?
- Tell your friend what you remember about that wonderful person he lost – what was she wearing or saying or doing, the last time you saw her? I want to hear all your stories about Dragon. I want you to tell me his funniest joke, or how he made you laugh in class and then the teacher needed to separate you. How you fought over girls. How he took you to the nurse’s office when you were stung by a bee. How he became your friend. Or how he became your son’s friend. There is no better gift for me than to share in your memories of Dragon, or when you let me share mine.
- Just be with your friend when she needs to cry. On the phone, in person, or over Skype. At 6am in the morning or 6pm in the afternoon. It might be a little overwhelming for you, listening to someone wail from the depths of her soul, when there is nothing you can do to change it. But at least you just being there makes your friend feel not entirely alone. You may not understand my pain because you have not experienced it, but you are willing to share in it.
Hannah holds me, let’s me cry it out, and then just says, “I love you.” She doesn’t tell me to stop crying, she doesn’t promise it will get better, she doesn’t tell me that she knows how I feel. She just holds me to let me know she’s there with me and then she tells me that she loves me.
- Send letters, emails, texts, or phone calls long after everyone else has gone back to their own lives. If you won’t remember to reach out on your own, put it in your calendar. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, it can be as simple as: “I’m thinking about you. I know you miss him. I’m so sorry. I’m here.” It’s scary to think that people have moved on and forgotten.
- Introduce your friend to support groups – from the hospital, from church, from your neighborhood, from Facebook. Our friends found a support group meeting for us, put us in a car, and drove us to the local chapter of Compassionate Friends, a national association of parents that have lost children. It helps to know that I am not the only mother to have lost a child. It helps to see that it is possible to survive this pain. There are days when these are the only people I can talk to.
- Remember the anniversary of when he or she passed away. Know that each milestone can be hard. Time is completely distorted in the aftermath of a death. Send a note saying you’re thinking of them.
- Holidays used to be days of celebration – Fourth of July, Mother’s Day, birthdays, Christmas. Now, holidays are the worst, because the gap between this holiday without him is huge compared to the memories of all the holidays with him. I never knew how many holidays we celebrate in the US until this year. One, two, sometimes three a month! Even non holiday “big days”, like the last day of school, are hard. Just reach out.
- Let your friend grieve as long as she needs to grieve. This isn’t something she’s going to “get over” because it’s not an illness — it’s a condition. She is learning to integrate this into her life now. Her whole world has shattered, and she is the walking dead.
It’s a long list, and it’s not even complete. I bet Daniel and Hannah would have a couple things to add. But, as a shortcut, just put the Good Dinosaur on repeat: “Tell me how it hurts. If you want, howl at the moon. I’ll howl too.”