What makes a great friend in the midst of grief is someone willing to overcome the awkwardness to engage. He or she comes alongside and is willing, at least for a while, to agree that this is terrible, unexplainable, the worst. No forced looking on the bright side. At least not yet. No suggesting you should be grateful for anything. At least not yet. To have a friend who, with a shake of the head and a sense of “How can this be?” refuses to rush too quickly past sharing a sense of agonized disappointment at the reality of death—what a gift.
Recently I was talking with a friend. We were trying to figure out if and how to reach out to someone she hasn’t spoken to in years who lost her 35-year-old son. It’s been a while since he died, and much longer since she’s interacted with her friend. She was afraid of the awkwardness, of saying the wrong thing, of making her friend feel sad since maybe she wasn’t so sad at this point.
I explained to her that when someone you love has died, it’s as if a hurdle has been placed between you and every person you know, and that hurdle stays in place until your loss has been acknowledged in some way. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture or a long conversation. It doesn’t matter if it’s been a while since the loved one died. It doesn’t have to be anything brilliant. Sometimes a simple “I know what has happened, and I’m so sorry,” or even a nonverbal hand on the shoulder or squeeze of the hand, will knock down that barrier.
A few months after our daughter died, I was in the carpool line waiting to pick up my son from school when another mom, who had a daughter born a short time before Hope, came up to my car. She told me that she felt awkward each time she saw me since she still had her daughter while mine was gone, and that she didn’t how to get past that awkwardness. “You just did,” I told her. Simply acknowledging the barrier knocked it down.
Sometimes we hesitate to approach someone because we fear it’s been too long since their loved one died, and that they’ve moved on and don’t want to talk about it anymore. But the opposite is more likely to be true. If it’s been a while, it’s likely people have stopped talking about the one who died, while the grieving person’s desire to talk about him or her has only increased.
So bring it up. And keep bringing it up over the months and even years to come. That’s a gift a true friend gives someone who’s grieving. It matters less what you say than that you say something.
What Grieving People Don’t Expect
It’s not up to you to say something that answers the significant questions they’re asking. Those take some time to work through, and if they sense your willingness to linger with them a bit in the midst of the questions rather than offer simplistic answers, they’re more likely to want to explore them with you down the road. It’s not up to you to recommend the book they need to read, the counselor they need to see, the drug they need to take. You don’t have to provide a framework for thinking and feeling their way through their loss. Really, you just have to show up and say little. What they need more than someone with a lot of words is someone with a willingness to listen without judgment, someone who seems to be entering into their hurting world for the long haul of grief.