Monday, February 18, 2019

Sorry for Your Lost: How to Help a Grieving Friend

First things first: The title is not a typo. Amid all the "sorry for your loss" messages I received after Mom died in November, I got one text that read, "Sorry for your lost." The friend who sent that speaks English as her second language, so I don't know if it was a typo or exactly the word she wanted.

Either way, it's perfect. "Sorry for your lost" made me feel better.

Now, my reaction to that text is random and reflects my life as a word nerd. However, after a few months of mourning Mom, I've discovered some (possibly) universal, creative ways to help people we care about through tough times, whether they are mourning the loss of a person, pet, job, or relationship.

Grief is, of course, incredibly personal -- and different each time. A friend might react differently to the death of his father than his mother. One person might see divorce as a Hallelujah! moment, while the other spouse is heartbroken. There is no one size fits all answer. There is no "solution." You won't "fix" life for a grieving friend.

But you sure can help.

How to Help a Grieving Friend
Show Up
Let's start with a question: Is the grieving friend a Facebook friend or a face-to-face friend? If we're talking high school pal you haven't seen in 30 years, then a heartfelt comment on Facebook is fine. If it's possible to add a personal note ("I loved going to your house after school because your mom always made me feel so welcome."), that's tremendously comforting.

If the grieving friend is a colleague, relative, coffee buddy, book club buddy, faith-group buddy, etc., posting online, even with a personal note, is not sufficient. Change your plans and attend the memorial service. It may be cold and inconvenient and you don't want to be there. Keep in mind, your friend doesn't want to be there either. Can't attend? Make a donation. Send flowers. Do something that says, "I share your pain." One friend, knowing how much I love the e.e. cummings poem,
"i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)"
sent flowers with the note: "I carry your heart and your sorrow." I will treasure that note forever.

If you're not sure what to do, consider what this friend has done for you in the past. If she sent a sweet card with a handwritten note after your pet passed away, send her a sweet card with a handwritten note. If he sent a funny card to cheer you up after you got fired, send him a funny card to cheer him up after his partner walks out.

And, in these days of social media, remember the power of a phone call. I know it's hard. But you can do it. Remember: It's not about you. It's about your friend. She'll remember the call long after she has forgotten the conversation.

Ask the Right Question
When you call, let the grieving friend talk. If you feel awkward, try this: Rather than asking your friend, "How are you doing?" ask, "How are you doing today?" As noted in Option B, Sheryl Sandberg's book on grief, that one simple word changes everything. "How are you doing?" prompts the automatic, "Fine. I'm fine. Thank you for asking." "How are you doing today?" opens the door to honest conversation.

"How are you doing today?" also reflects the reality of grief. During the course of a month, a week, a day, an hour, how I feel changes. Maybe you're calling right after I've opened a drawer and seen a note Mom wrote to me 18 years ago, a note I saved because it was dear. I'm missing Mom so much at that moment that it's a physical pain. Or, maybe you're calling after I wrapped up a big client assignment and feel like I knocked it out of the ballpark. I'm not thinking about Mom at all. After the initial tsunami, grief is not a constant flood of emotions. It's an ebb and flow.

Of course, not knowing what mood you'll be dealing with can make picking up the phone even more daunting. I get it. This works for just about any grieving situation, any mood: "Hi! I was thinking about you and wanted to check in. How are you doing today?" 

Warning: Try to avoid cliches that really don't help. "I know exactly how you feel," is never an accurate statement. And, while you may believe that, "It's all God's plan," your friend -- even if deeply religious -- may not find that comforting.
Emily McDowell Studio. Buy her cards. She's amazing. 
When in doubt, listen. Remember, the call doesn't have to be lengthy; it's the thought and effort that count. 

To wrap things up: "Good to talk with you." lets people know they weren't a burden as they unburdened their grief. If you're nearby, take the phone call to the next step: "Want to grab some lunch next week?" 

Provide Food
I know, I know. Everyone's on a diet. It doesn't matter. Everyone has to eat. And grief doesn't lend itself to menu planning, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, etc. Unless your friend, and your friend's family, is on such a strict eating plan that food would be an irritation, bring food. Send food. Take him to lunch.

If you love to cook or bake, homemade food is wonderful -- one of the most comforting moments in my grieving process was when a friend brought an entire Italian feast to the house, including pasta made with her grandmother's old recipe. The food was delicious, we felt the love from my friend and her grandmother. Bonus: Talking about the food opened the floodgates of conversation.

But, don't feel like you need to bring homemade goodies -- or stick around for the meal. Some people prefer privacy. Some friends prefer not to stay. All good. Buy a roasted chicken at the store, bag o'salad, and a baguette. Drop it off, give a hug, and go.

Out of town? Send food. We received several baskets of goodies, and they were wonderful. They not only kept us fed, but they made us feel loved.

Show Up Again
While the ebb and flow of grief never ends, the first year can be horrifically hard, especially when the grief involves a death. All those firsts. First birthday without him. First anniversary without her. First Thanksgiving. And on and on and on.

Grief is also isolating. Something that helped identify you -- a person, a professional position, a pet -- is no longer here. As my sister told me recently, "It's time to find a new normal."

True friends are the GPS on that path. One dear friend, who lives in another state, mails little notes to me on a regular basis , with a handwritten message like: "Thinking about you and hoping it's a good week!" The real message, of course, goes far beyond that. Every note tells me that I am in her heart. I am in her thoughts and prayers. I am not forgotten; my loss is acknowledged and remembered -- even when the words on the paper say nothing about that. Each note is a gift.

Another friend called recently and left a voicemail: "It's been a little while since your mom died, and I'm just thinking about you and wondering if the world feels a little less shaken."

She left the message while stuck in traffic on her commute home. The voicemail lasted 27 seconds. Not a huge time commitment, my friends. And yet, by showing up again, she told me that I matter to her. That my mother matters. That my grief matters. Now, that's huge.

Console Better
Years ago, I wrote a post titled Dance Better. What the past few months have taught me is that I need to console better. Being a baker, I typically bring food to grieving friends, but too often I've taken a "one and done" approach. In the future, I'll do better.

And, unfortunately, I'll have the opportunity. We all will: Loss is an inevitable part of love.

To everyone who has helped me these past few months, thank you doesn't begin to cover it. I do carry your heart, and I am blessed that you carry mine.

No comments: