The holidays are approaching, and your best friend is in mourning. The excitement of the season is diminished by the lingering melancholy of sadness and loss. How do you respond? What can you say that acknowledges their pain, while drawing them into the gaiety of the season?
When someone close loses a loved one, no amount of comfort seems adequate. Kind words and deeds barely scrape the surface of deep mourning that grips the human heart. But in reality, the presence of caring friends eases the hurt and pain, and makes grief bearable.
Consistent, dependable love and support are the ingredients that nurture healing and recovery. What to say or do isn’t nearly as important as simply being there. Grievers often become isolated, uncertain of their ability to manage the chaos within themselves. When a sensitive and sympathetic friend reaches out with a smile and a touch, the dust settles, and the griever feels relieved. Stress turns to productive energy and coping skills rebound.
In general, there are two aspects of grief in which friends can help: social/emotional and practical. Let’s look at the social/emotional first. Listen quietly and attentively. It’s the best gift a friend can offer. Expressing their feelings breaks the sense of estrangement and lightens the load. A grief shared is the beginning of healing. Cry with them if they cry. We need not be afraid of tears. Crying brings physical and emotional relief and draws out pain and sorrow. When friends cry, too, it acknowledges the deep loss your friend is suffering. Laugh if they laugh. Some aspects of their story may have a humorous note to it. Emotions fluctuate and can change quickly. By allowing someone to express exactly what they are feeling, we are accepting the state of mind they’re in, instead of trying to change it. Ask inquiring questions. “Are you sleeping all right?” “Do you get out every day or so?” Listen carefully to their response. Grievers often try to assure everyone that they are ok. Probe a little and schedule times to get out together. Relate things you know or liked about the deceased. Remembering an incident or character trait acknowledges the person’s importance and keeps their energy alive. Be alert to continuing feelings or problems that give rise to concern. Lingering depression, chronic anger, and physical aches or pains are all common to the state of mourning. But if it seems excessive to you, it may need attention from a professional. Mention it, non-judgmentally, with an offer to help find competent, understanding counsel.
The practical aspect for helping grievers is just that. It involves doing the ordinary, everyday tasks that can’t be set aside because someone has died. There are endless jobs to attend to and offering a helping hand will be welcomed. Here are some ideas: Run errands to the grocery store, drug store, post office, dry cleaners – any trip that interrupts the daily schedule. Offer to drive your friend to appointments. When emotions are compromised, driving and being alone in public places can be frightening. The presence of someone is reassuring. There’s always work to do around the house. A little dusting, a load of laundry, making meals and cleaning up not only relieves your friend of the chores, but gives them company while they attend to some things. The mountain of paperwork that erupts following a tragedy is overwhelming. I remember sitting at the dining room table wondering, “When do they let you cry?” Legal documents, policies, certificates, what have you, must all be accounted for and in order. Help as you are able and seek resources when you can’t. It’s this aspect that undermines the grief process and compromises time and energy.
The need to comfort a grieving friend may occur any time of the year. But the holidays are especially difficult when one has lost a significant someone. An abundance of support and comfort from dear friends eases the sense of loss, and enables the griever to enter into the celebration of the season filled with hope and the love of those who care.
Judy Strong lost her husband in 1991. She has experienced the entire cycle of grief and recovery, which is recorded in her book, No Time to Grieve - ISBN 1-59298-047-3, $9.95. Further information on loss, grief, and recovery is available on her website, http://www.notimetogrieve.com