What to do for my friend whose boyfriend just died?
January 14, 2009 12:49 PM   Subscribe

My roommate's boyfriend just died. My other roommates and I want to do something for her, but we are drawing a blank.

I live in a dorm with five other girls, with two people to a bedroom. This morning, I was in the bathroom when I heard crying.

I came out, and I could tell that my roommate was sobbing hysterically in our closed bedroom. The five of us then stood around awkwardly, trying to decide whether or not we should go in and try to comfort her and ask what was wrong, or wait until she was ready to come out.

Eventually, she came out, and she told us that her boyfriend of a year died. (He was 21, had cancer, and lives in Hong Kong.) We sat in the living room with her and tried to be there for her. She told us that we didn't need to sit there and watch her cry, and shortly there after, went back into our room. She left the door open and was talking to a friend online and still crying.

Flash forward a few hours, and she's out with one of her friends from back home, who may or may not have known her boyfriend. She's clearly distraught.

The five of us would really like to do something for her, but, we have no ideas of what to do.
posted by firei to Human Relations (24 answers total)
I think the only thing you can do is be there for her when she's ready to talk. Or maybe some flowers? And it may be considerate to not be lovey-dovey with your gentleman callers while she's around. At least for a little while.
posted by sacrifix at 1:03 PM on January 14, 2009 [4 favorites]

Besides the traditional stuff like a card and flowers, I bet she'd appreciate help with daily tasks like laundry, cleaning and cooking, since they may seem overwhelming right now. Given that there are four other roommates, this would be trivial to split amongst you. Give her a few days to sob hysterically, and then take her out to a funny movie or something distracting. But don't insist that she go.
posted by desjardins at 1:11 PM on January 14, 2009 [3 favorites]

Set her up with a massage/haircut/highlight/mani/pedi type of gift certificate.
posted by kristymcj at 1:14 PM on January 14, 2009

I think it would be nice if you tried to make sure there was always an invitation or something for her to go along to if she wants. While they wouldn't have to be special outings for her (though nice, not reasonable 24/7), make sure she's invited out with at least one of you instead of everybody taking off in their separate directions. Similarly, maybe itd be nice if you did some more things together as roommates, like watching movies in the common room or something. Its nice to be around people or at least have the option to.
posted by nzydarkxj at 1:19 PM on January 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

My godmother (to whom I was very close) died while I was living in a dorm with 5 roommates. When I woke up the next morning, someone had already gone out and bought my usual coffee/bagel combo and placed it in the kitchen with a note. Someone else rented a bunch of movies for me and left a note saying "just knock on my door if you want movie watching company. I want to see all of these ones!" They asked how I was doing everyday but didn't make a big deal out of my crying while wandering around the apartment. Little, unobtrusive things like this made the world of difference. (And I really miss my old roommates.)
posted by meerkatty at 1:20 PM on January 14, 2009 [12 favorites]

Anything handmade or homemade, a nice card, offers of stupid distracting movies, just your presence, it's all good.

Be on guard against avoiding her because you feel awkward and worried that you'll "say the wrong thing." Help the others to also not do this. It's mortifyingly easy to do, because we are human and this IS awkward and sad. There are many AskMe's from grief-stricken people wondering why their friends dried up and blew away.

On the other hand, it's also mortifyingly easy when you're grieving to push people away who are trying to support you, even while you're wishing that they'd stop listening to your "I'm so brave" act and make with the hugging.
posted by desuetude at 1:23 PM on January 14, 2009 [5 favorites]

You can make this easier by acknowledging her mourning with customary gifts of regard, like:

yellow or white chrysanthemums (you can give other flowers, but no thorns)
a small amount of money in a white envelope (used to purchase something sweet - it can even be given with a sweet)
as mentioned above, something sweet

...other than those, just letting her know you're sorry for her loss and to otherwise be considerate of her mourning period will probably go quite far in helping her get through this.
posted by batmonkey at 1:23 PM on January 14, 2009

Cooking her favorite comfort food will help immensely.
posted by infinitewindow at 1:24 PM on January 14, 2009

Cooking for her and calling/checking in daily, probably more since you all live in close quarters.
posted by rhizome at 1:36 PM on January 14, 2009

I cannot recommend enough the book How to Survive the Loss of a Love.

Nthing all of the above, especially helping her with daily tasks. See if she needs help letting professors know. She's not going to be able to do her best for a while, and she deserves to be cut some slack.

Also, keep an eye on her in terms of normal grieving vs. ongoing depression. If she appears to be "stuck" or seems despondent and suicidal, get help immediately.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 1:40 PM on January 14, 2009 [3 favorites]

Assuming dorm living means that you are in school, perhaps there is counseling /someone she could talk to the the schools health services? Maybe you could offer to look into it for her.
posted by R. Mutt at 1:42 PM on January 14, 2009

See if there are free/cheap grief counseling services available for her, and have the numbers handy if she wants them.
posted by juliplease at 1:43 PM on January 14, 2009

Nthing above, everyone's answers were great, it's so awkward sometimes to know what to do.

Give her hugs if she's normally a huggy type person, that did a world of good for me when my Dad died. Also someone had written in a card "A bright light has gone out" and 8 years later this stands out as the most touching thing said to me.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 1:44 PM on January 14, 2009

Since different people need and want different things when they are grieving, and since some people feel weird asking for help even when they have standing offers, I think what I would do if I were in your shoes would be to give her some sort of comforting concrete gift - say, a stuffed animal or a cozy scarf, and tell her something like "This represents my willingness to help you through this time. If there is anything you want me to do for you or to help you with, whether it's going out to dinner with you, doing your laundry, or just being in the same room with you, hand me this stuffed gorilla or leave it on my bed (or hang the scarf on my doorknob, etc) and I will come and help you." Sometimes it's easier to hand someone a stuffed animal than to verbalize your pain.

I especially like the idea of a scarf because then you can call it a Helper Scarf, and maybe the five of you can pool your money and splurge on two matching ones made out of cashmere or something posh - one just for her, and one Helper Scarf for whoever's helping to wear while they're helping out. It could be either sweet or cheesy, I suppose.

But if you don't go that route, I would recommend letting her know that you are all there for her, and she shouldn't hesitate to ask for your time, no job too small.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:46 PM on January 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

Maintain engagement. Ask how she's doing and if she needs to talk or anything once a day or so. From time to time, try to involve her in things you might be doing (going to the cafeteria, movie, conversation). Ask her about him, if she has any photos, how they met, etc. If she refuses or brushes it off, don't take it as a sign you should stop, just that you should reduce the frequency of your attempts. If she starts crying, let her cry. If she wants to separate herself from you to cry on her own, let her know that it isn't necessary. If she still goes, let her know that she can talk any time she wants. At some point she's probably going to feel like talking or doing something and you don't want her to feel that she can no longer ask because you've ended up giving her too much space.

Find out if there is going to be a funeral or open memorial service in your area. If so, go at a time when your roommate will be there. She'll be touched you came.

Grieving takes take, and everyone has their own pace. There isn't much anyone else can or should do to try to influence the pace, but sometimes a little push/encouragement can be a good thing. Its too early for that though. The only think you might want to be a little firm about is encouraging her to eat enough. Also, if she's really not up for going to classes its good if someone communicates why to her profs. The best way to handle that is probably to ask the floor advisor or someone similar how to make sure that gets taken care of (it is probably their job).
posted by Good Brain at 1:49 PM on January 14, 2009

that last paragraph should start with "Grieving takes time..."
posted by Good Brain at 1:51 PM on January 14, 2009

Take up a collection to help her pay for an airline ticket or other travel expenses if she's going to HK for the funeral. Then organize people to take notes for her in class.
posted by carmicha at 2:04 PM on January 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

I may be illustrating a gender divide, or just my own weirdness, but if my S.O. died and someone offered me a pedicure or money, I would be dumbstruck -- probably not offended, but maybe. I think aiming to distract is a high-risk gesture. "My boyfriend died and you think a haircut will make it all okay?" But see opening caveat.

Carmicha's ticket idea is appealing if one has to go the material route (it will depend on your economic circumstances, and hers, and the plans for a funeral), or maybe the symbolic twist offered by Metroid Baby. Otherwise, the small gestures of comfort and sympathy around the house may suffice. When you lose a loved one, it rapidly becomes obvious that most people don't know how to deal with you, so you have a lot of room.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 2:20 PM on January 14, 2009

I may be illustrating a gender divide, or just my own weirdness, but if my S.O. died and someone offered me a pedicure or money, I would be dumbstruck

Unless you're also a girl, then this isn't a gender divide. Break-up = pedicures, grieving =! pedicures. Atrociously tacky.

Remember this question? This situation is the opposite. You guys tentatively reached out to your roommate, and she told you to not sit around and watch her cry. Grieving is extremely difficult for some people to openly share with others, especially if you're not her immediate family or a close friend. I personally side with the option to just tell her once, calmly, that you are there for her, and let that be it. And yes, help out with laundry, groceries, pick up some homework from a class she might have missed. She knows you're concerned, but she might interpret anything more involved as overly officious or, worse, rubbernecking.

And honestly, I don't think asking her about the boyfriend is a great idea: let her broach the topic and then settle into an armchair and ask about their history, but don't willy-nilly interrogate her about their meet-cute in case you're just worrying fresh wounds.
posted by zoomorphic at 2:35 PM on January 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just nthing the no spa certificate. It does seem a little crass. Perhaps in a few months it might be nice. I do think the bagel/coffee idea is nice--simple things that will help her get through her day. And also nthing help her out at school -- picking up things, taking notes, etc.

Also, perhaps talk to your RA or student dean (after they hear about it from her -- don't be the one to spread her sad news) about ways you might be able to help her. They can also keep an eye on her mental health and academic performance, in case she needs some extra guidance/help.
posted by faunafrailty at 3:47 PM on January 14, 2009

Is there a quiet place to sit and just stare? When my friend's mom died we spent a million late nights lying on deck chairs the roof, staring up at the sky with some candles lit and a bottle of wine. We didn't always talk that much- certainly not formally about his mom- but he kept coming back night after night, so I assume it was pleasant for him. Maybe going for quietish walk/sits near water or sky would be nice?
posted by pseudostrabismus at 3:55 PM on January 14, 2009

After my wife died at age 24 the most helpful thing people did for me was helping me with day-to-day tasks like preparing food and doing laundry. If you're not having-dinner-together close, you can always offer her food or to go to the cafeteria for her. If she's going to HK for the funeral then collecting money to offset the ticket seems like a good idea (some might be offended though, so it might be worth it to ask if you're unsure how she'd feel about it). Getting help with note-taking might be good too - for a student that's another day to day activity, and people who are grieving are notoriously unable to concentrate. On the other hand, she may throw herself into her studies as a distraction, and that's okay too.
Also, don't feel like you have to know the right thing to say, because there's nothing you can say. Saying something is almost always better than saying nothing.
posted by smartyboots at 5:46 PM on January 14, 2009

Everybody needs and wants different things in this kind of situation, and I've found (from both sides of the equation) that two questions on a daily basis tend to work well: How are you doing? and What can I do to help? I've said this before around here, but I had a friend who helped me through a very difficult time, and when I answered that second question with "I don't know, nothing..." she followed up with "Is it ok if I keep asking?" It really let me know that she meant her offer, and she did keep asking every day until things got better. That meant the world to me. It is natural and normal and perfectly ok to not know how to handle this situation, so you are very much allowed to ask your roommate how you can be supportive in ways that she will find most helpful.

Also, I had a roommate in college whose mother died, and I barely spoke to her because I didn't know what to do. Obviously I couldn't bring her mom back, so it seemed like nothing I could do would help anyway. I felt like I should just leave her alone. That was years ago, and I still feel awful for not having the insight or bravery or whatever to just do something to try to help. Don't be like that.
posted by vytae at 6:20 PM on January 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

My boyfriend died when I was 21. It really sucks, and it's wonderful you want to do something for her.

I would say a spa day might not be a bad idea, depending on the type of person she is. It might be too soon for it though, perhaps some time after the funeral. Even if it's tacky, she'll appreciate that you thought of her to do this for her. (My co-workers got me a plant, and I loved watching it grow bigger and bigger. I still thought it was weird, but the intent was there. And it did bring me some happiness.)

Comfort food, and making sure she knows that your are available for talking to and it's okay to really tell all of her feelings. It might be uncomfortable for her to cry infront of you alot. So let her know it's okay (if you cool with it) Also try and get her out of the house once and while, even if it's just for a trip to Target. Everyone does grieve differently, but it helps to have a distraction every so often. Hug her if she looks like she needs it. I always remembered feeling like no one wanted to touch me because they were afraid I'd breakdown and it made me feel more lonely.

Sometimes, one night (and only one night) of drinking heavily helps some. Not like a night out, but a night in and talking about all the good memories she has of him, and getting trashed.
posted by Attackpanda at 8:59 PM on January 14, 2009

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