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May 26, 2014 10:27 AM   Subscribe

How can I support my bereaved friend?

One of his immediate family members died tragically, in a way that might complicate grief.

I will take his lead on everything and just listen. That's the prescribed advice. Is it really enough? My friend is a truth-teller with no patience for bullshit. Repeating “I’m sorry” over and again is weak. He deserves more authentic engagement than that, and would offer nothing less if roles were reversed.

None of us is religious, though he's vaguely ‘spiritual’. I am not at all, and he knows it. I can’t help with those kinds of comforts; he’d hear a false note a mile a way. I have nothing to offer regarding the unfairness of life. It is unfair. This is one of many senseless pains and burdens he's already borne. There are more to come in the not too distant future (unrelated), and he knows that too. He's a reality-focused person.

Thanks in advance for your guidance. I'd be grateful if answers concentrated on talking about meaning after death and providing support; I'm not the one who lost someone.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I never find "I'm sorry" a weak response; I find it extremely comforting, appropriate and respectful. I also appreciate people asking me of I feel like talking about my lost loved one and respecting my wishes either way. I appreciate people hugging me and listening to me and not getting upset if I get emotional. I really appreciate it when people don't act sadder than they actually feel themselves. I like it when people share their own personal experience with me in an empathic, not narcissistic or attention-grabby, way. By far the biggest kindness people offer, though, is a kind (preferably heartfelt and brief) remembrance of my loved one. I then really prefer it when folks allow the conversation to move on to lighter things, as it doesn't help me to dwell on my loss and, ultimately, my grief is a quiet and very private thing.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 10:41 AM on May 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

Offer to help out with concrete, day-to-day things. Do his laundry or help clean the house. Take him out to lunch or bring him groceries. Invite him to "normal" entertaining activities like movies. Allow him to refuse any of these, and anticipate awkward and painful silences, but offer anyway.

There's often nothing to say in these situations, but just being there is a powerful way to support someone.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:44 AM on May 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

Two other things.

Please never say or intimate that your friend's loss has a purpose or that their 'job"now is to discover that purpose.

It's good of you to want to be loving and supportive. Follow your friend's cues and don't force anything. Good luck.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 10:48 AM on May 26, 2014 [7 favorites]

if your friend is a truth teller, then offer up the truth - "i don't know what to say... words seem to failing me right now. i do want you to know i am here for you if you need it, in whatever way that may be." add in things to personalize it as you see fit.
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 10:51 AM on May 26, 2014 [19 favorites]

Hey, how are you doing?" and then let him talk.
posted by sciencegeek at 10:57 AM on May 26, 2014

TryTheTilapia is spot on and said everything I was going to say and more.
posted by amro at 11:15 AM on May 26, 2014

Depending on how close the family member is, and how nearby you are, there are also concrete things you can do to help -- offer to pick up / drop off dry cleaning, walk the dog, gas up his car, etc - little things that fall by the wayside when you're dealing with grief. Sometimes being there to listen is all you need to do, other times having someone making sure the house doesn't run out of milk goes just as far.
posted by Mchelly at 11:50 AM on May 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am currently experiencing a loss and these are the things people have said that have been of comfort to me:

-I'm so sorry.
-I don't know what to say. (In conjunction with "I'm sorry")
-It's so unfair. (Maybe some people wouldn't like this, but for me, acknowledgment that it's unfair relieves the burden of responsibility I might feel--that I could have done something to prevent this when in reality there's nothing anyone could have done.)
-I love you.
-This is so sad/I'm so sad for you.
-I wish this wasn't happening to you.

Of course people are different, and maybe some of these things wouldn't comfort someone else, but really, just having people express sympathy in their own way has been helpful and comforting to me. And the consistency of support--people sending a little text every once in a while or an e-mail or phone call, has been especially comforting.

And after a while it's nice to talk about lighter things, as TryTheTilapia said. It's OK if your friend is happy to change the subject and talk about something silly or less heavy. It sounds like you're going to take your friend's leave and that's perfect.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:53 AM on May 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

Hi, recently bereaved person here. Lots of people say "how are you" but mostly only expect an "oh i'm fine" and that's about it, they don't give you the time or space to actually tell them how you are because they are afraid to deal with your sadness or grief or fear. If you really want to help, offer to go for some coffee or to visit them and bring some beer or whatever (if they accept of course) and then ask them how they are really doing, maybe with some indirect questions first to assess if they're in the mood to talk.
I've had just two or three friends willing to really hear me out for an hour or two and then I really feel like they've helped just by listening.

Grief is such a lonely place to be in, not just because of the sadness, but because of the context of the death of the loved one, specially if it was a tragic death, there are a lot of feelings and thoughts that go along with that and it helps tremendously to get them out.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 12:01 PM on May 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Argh. I meant "take your friend's lead" not "leave."
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:22 PM on May 26, 2014

Even if your friend is thinking about the meaning of death, that doesn't mean that he wants your opinion - you are much more useful as sounding board so that they can discover their own thoughts as they say them out loud. The good news is that this means that you don't need any answers - just empathy. The words don't matter so much (which why "I'm sorry" works about as well as anything) as long as your friend senses that you genuine care and that you respect his experience (not telling him what to think or feel). As CrazyLemonade said, "grief is such a lonely place to be in". Your job is not to get reduce the grief itself but just make it less lonely. and thus a little easier to bear.
posted by metahawk at 12:53 PM on May 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've found this quote from Samuel Beckett, from a letter to a good friend who's father had died, contains the sentiment I've often wanted to convey to friends who have suffered a loss:

"I know your sorrow and I know that for the likes of us there is no ease for the heart to be had from words or reason and that in the very assurance of sorrow’s fading there is more sorrow. So I offer you only my deeply affectionate and compassionate thoughts and wish for you only that the strange thing may never fail you, whatever it is, that gives us the strength to live on and on with our wounds."
posted by hwickline at 1:06 PM on May 26, 2014 [13 favorites]

The most comforting thing that anyone ever said to me when I lost a parent was, "damn, that totally sucks." Just something about how authentically, openly honest it was made me laugh and feel loved all at once. So my advice would be, if you're dealing with a no-bullshit kind of guy, don't give him any bullshit about being sorry for his loss or senseless pains of his life or whatever. Just tell it like it is. This sucks.
posted by decathecting at 1:57 PM on May 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think it's really, rare for anyone to be able to say anything that actually makes you feel better when you are grieving. In the face of the absoluteness of death, it all sounds trite and people pretty much always sound uncomfortable. I think it's a lot more caring and genuinely supportive to Do Shit -- clean bathrooms, do dishes, do laundry, sort and open mail, etc.

Mourning is a long process and I think there's a lot to be said for little and often vs shock and awe. Alternatively, one of my closest friend's mother died when I was overseas and what I said was "Look, I know you are surrounded by people and offers of help and cups of tea, so you can choose: do you want me to come now or do you want me to come in three months when all of this support has faded?"
posted by DarlingBri at 2:13 PM on May 26, 2014

Chiming in here to agree that saying"this sucks" is raw and real and appropriate.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 2:35 PM on May 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

You can say "I'm sorry," though repeating it over and over again would be tedious. You can say this sucks and it's unfair. You can tell him that you will listen any time he wants or needs to talk and that nothing he says will ever be repeated.

And then you help, as much as is possible, with acts of service. Don't say "what can I do?" and put the burden on him to come up with something, say "I'm going to check your supplies of coffee/toilet paper/milk and run to the grocery store, any requests?" and "are there phone calls I can make?" and "are there errands you were supposed to run that I can handle for you?" Offer to take a phone outside, park in front of the doorbell in a folding chair, and turn away visitors for 2-4 hours or overnight so the occupants can bathe, nap, and have some quiet time to themselves. Help do what needs to be done.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:00 PM on May 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Don't sugar coat it, or say anything like "she's in a better place," etc. It sucks so bad to lose someone you love. It's literally the worst thing on earth. Just tell him that. Tell him it's unfair and it sucks and you're really angry and sorry that this had to happen to him. Also, if you knew this person who passed, sharing a kind memory also helps. It helps tremendously knowing that this person will be remembered by others. Just know and appreciate what this person means to him, and feel that weight with him.

Saying open ended things doesn't help much. "How are you?" "What can I do?" They're both too open ended. Don't ask, just do. Bring food, clean the house. Don't ask if they need anything, just notice if they seem to need things around the house and pick those up.

Depending on how comfortable he feels emotionally with you, talking and crying with him is cathartic and helpful. But that might not be who you are together and that's ok. Just remember that what he's going through right now is literally the worst thing to happen to someone on planet earth, and not a whole lot will alleviate it much other than time.
posted by katypickle at 3:01 PM on May 26, 2014

I think there are many great comments here. One thing I would add is be patient if your friend needs to tell his story several times. In my personal experience, as someone grieving or someone offering support, people need to tell the details over and over, as a catharsis. So don't get (or at least don't show) annoyance.
posted by bluespark25 at 3:29 PM on May 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Remember when it happened; mark it on a private calendar if you need to. The anniversary of any death can be hard. For some people this can be especially true if the person who died was close to them, or if they died in an unexpected or particularly difficult way. Most people can remember to try to be supportive when someone is first grieving, but that gets harder a month later, six months later, and so on.

I would encourage you to be the friend who remembers and supports him beyond just the next few months or so. Sometimes when we're on the outside of grief looking in, it can be hard to remember that even though things go back to normal in a relatively short period of time for us, they don't for the person grieving. They may never really go back to normal at all, and understanding that can be very valuable.
posted by Verba Volant at 4:18 PM on May 26, 2014 [6 favorites]

nth-ing the "this really sucks" sentiment (aka "honesty") being exactly appropriate. One of the few things I specifically remember someone saying to me at my dad's visitation (sudden and unexpected) was when one of his buddies from younger days who came down the line and just said, "This is pretty fucked up, isn't it?" For some reason, that resonated with me far more than any of the well-meaning and heartfelt greetings of tons of friends and family members.
posted by jferg at 8:26 PM on May 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Start with "do you want to talk about your loss." As a person who has experienced tragic situations, I have strong memories of people "pushing" their sympathy.

Your friend may want to discuss something else. Ask him.
posted by miss tea at 3:11 AM on May 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Using real language and non-platitudes is great advice.

One thing that may be helpful is to also offer to do things with your friend that can remind him that life does go on.

Offer to go for a hike, a bike ride, a beach outing; a concert, play some video games.

If you can get him outside of his grief and back into doing active things that he used to enjoy, it's a nice and gentle way to show him that life does still have pleasure and that a person can manage both grief and happiness. That we can still feel good things, even during awful times.
posted by kinetic at 3:12 AM on May 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

As a recently bereaved person I can say that you have some great advice here.

Nthing don't ask your friend "what can I do to help you?", rather suggest a particular task ("I'm going to mow your lawn on Saturday if that's OK with you"). It's hard to believe all these offers of help are literal, and it's also sort of hard to puzzle out what a person might be actually offering to do. But a few people just came over on their own initiative and did practical useful tasks for me and I liked it a lot.

Don't worry about trying to make it better on a grand philosophical scale. People want to tip-toe around the bereaved because our culture tells people they have to find a silver lining. Sometimes there isn't one. I think you could just say to him what you said to us. Well, it'd be fine if you said it to me, anyway. He knows it sucks.

I also like to hear stories about other people's experiences, how they navigated losses and crises. Your friend may or may not share my prediliction.
posted by sockanalia at 4:48 AM on May 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Make your friend tea, listen, make sounds that indicate you hear and acknowledge the suffering. Show compassion and suggest/participate in occasional light change-of-scene calm activities to help avoid ruts. But mostly show compassion.
posted by ead at 7:06 AM on May 27, 2014

Lots of good suggestions here.

One thing I would add -- there is no time table for grief. Your friend may be experiencing a sense of loss months or even years later -- perhaps not as acutely as now, but still there. I think making space for that grief, no matter when/how it comes up, is a very loving thing to do for a friend.
posted by elmay at 8:33 AM on May 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

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