the mother of all grief posts: how to help your friend in acute grief.
Grief comes in many shapes and sizes. One of the questions I get asked all the time on Instagram, is “how can I help and support my friend… that just lost her daughter / that received a life changing diagnosis for her baby?”
I’ve finally compiled all my answers and ideas that have been floating around in my head for the last four years. The kind of grief I’ll be referring to is the kind that comes when you lose someone in your immediate family, like a child, or after a life altering/ terminal diagnosis. And, for the most part, the kind of help I’m referring to is practical help for the first year.
We all want to help. Right away. We want to run to the scene. We want to caretake. The problem is, for your grieving friend, it can be overwhelming or underwhelming, depending on their circumstance and community. It’s hard to know, until it’s too late, or if you come right out and ask: are you getting enough help? It can be an impossible thing to feel as though you are actually supporting your grieving friend in time of crisis. I still feel this and I’ve been there.
So, start here.
First of all, how well do you know your friend?
- If you are in the inner circle, your load will be heavier. You may find yourself folding laundry while your friend sits silently, or taking her kids to school, or dropping off grocery bags filled with their favourite things. Your gifts are necessary: time, emotional support and help around the home with intimate things.
- If you are in the middle circle, you are likely a good friend but not a bosom buddy. You may find it the most awkward at first, unsure of what to do, but really wanting to help. However, 2-3 months later, your help will be invaluable, especially when your friend is more willing to talk. You may find yourself offering to clean the bathrooms, take their other children on play dates or dropping off regularly scheduled meals. Your gifts are valuable: rallying the troops, organizing meal trains, giving lots of hugs and helping with practical things.
- If you are in the outer circle, your gifts and meals can mean a whole lot, especially if you are simply a friend of a friend or an Instagram friend. It’s a sweet and gentle reminder to this acquaintance, that their child and family matters and mattered to you. I have to say, I probably received the most lovely gifts from folks in my outer circle. Your gifts are nourishing: following through on meal trains or fundraisers, sending flowers or thoughtful items when inspired, sending notes of encouragement.
Wherever you find yourself in the circle, try not to stay silent. Acknowledge the grief. Don’t try to fix them. Get comfortable with the idea that grief is a part of life and will be present for the next few years. Don’t be afraid of it.
“First, grief is not a state, but rather a process. Second, the grief process typically proceeds in fits and starts, with attention oscillating to and from the painful reality of the death. Third, the spectrum of emotional, cognitive, social and behavioral disruptions of grief is broad, ranging from barely noticeable alterations to profound anguish and dysfunction.” -World Psychiatry Journal “Grief and bereavement: what psychiatrists need to know.”
No matter how close you are to the grieving friend, you may want to suggest resources and books. You may want to offer help. There is not necessarily a wrong way to offer help, but in the intensity of grief, there are tactful and meaningful ways to offer support, depending on where you fall in the circle of friendship. Keep in mind that during the first few months, grieving people may feel very vulnerable, exposed, fearful, isolated, exhausted, shy, or shut down. But your help does not go unnoticed.
What kind of grief is your friend experiencing?
I am not an expert on grief, scratch that—I am an expert on mama grief. I am an expert when it comes to the grief that follows the loss of a three year old child. But every person reacts and heals differently. I don’t know all the nuances of grief — and they are there.
There are subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) differences between the grief that erupts after losing a child in utero, an infant, a toddler, a teenager and an adult child. Frankly, they aren’t always comparable. I’m not talking about levels of pain, but rather how the grief overflows into daily life, differing levels of shock, anxiety, coping, and sometimes short lived relief that suffering is over. There is sudden loss and loss after years of disease. Sudden loss leaves you stunned and terrified, whereas loss after a long battle can be deeply exhausting, and one is left with a mess of medical equipment in the home, the lingering scent of hospice care. Some people get a chance to say goodbye, some do not. There is unexpected loss, like a stillborn child, or expected loss, after a terminal diagnosis. There is major shock for some and a terrifying, new kind of grief after years of anticipatory grief. Grief is fluid, and grief is wild. However, the deep, dark pit that parents (people) have to claw their way out of looks similar.
Finally, there is also the grief that comes when parent’s receive a life altering diagnosis for their child. This may mean a terminal diagnosis, a life they didn’t expect for them or their child, now expected to be full of medical emergencies and uncertainty. This too is grief, and often supersedes anticipatory grief especially if the child requires continuous intensive medical care. It’s not the same as a death, but I’ve added it in here, because I get asked all the time how to offer support to friend’s that receive devastating news about their children. Oftentimes folks don’t know what to do to help, because anticipatory grief is a hard one to navigate when the child is still alive. But a parent that lives in fight or flight for too long, will eventually want (read: need) your help.
I’ve broken down some of my suggestions into stages.
How to help immediately after loss (the first month).
- Offer immediate help, not just down the road. If you leave them with, “let me know if there’s anything I can do,” it will likely fall on deaf ears. But do try to give help. Give them something concrete, something that you are 100% willing to follow through on.
“I want to help you plan the memorial. Tell me what you need help with.”
“Are you getting enough help? Are you getting too many flowers? It is helpful if I’m a point of contact for people wanting to help? “
“I am going to cook some meals for you, or arrange a meal train. What types of food should I avoid?”
“Do you want people to donate towards a memorial bench/tree or charity in lieu of flowers? I can help with that.”
“Do you want me to look into photographers or videographers for the funeral?”
“Do you want me to look into placing an obituary? Or can I watch your kids while you write that?”
“Can I take your older child to school for the next few weeks? Can I take your younger child for part of the day to play with my child?”
“Where would be the best place for people to leave food, gifts or flowers without disturbing you?”
“I’m going to mow your lawn/fold your laundry/clean your bathrooms for the next few weeks. What day and time would be the most helpful?”
- Nourish them. Food is medicine. See below how to help 3 months later for more ideas. If you needs tips and meal ideas, please visit my friend, Lindsey’s gorgeous and wildly popular blog, A Pinch of Yum. Here you’ll find “Feeding A Broken Heart”, a stunning collection of recipes for the grief stricken. Lindsey lost her son, Afton, and has first hand experience as a grieving mama, as well as incredible kitchen skills, so you won’t want to skip this series. You’ll find recipes like Simple Enchiladas Verdes or Spicy Instant Pot Carrot Soup. You can see some lovely stories under the hashtag #feedingabrokenheart.
- Openly grieve with them. Ultimately, there is really nothing you can do to help your friend in this time. They may want privacy as they stand bare naked in their new grief. They may not be ready to engage with you. On the other hand, they may seem to be acting the same, but unable to fully engage with their grief because they are in shock. Just go with their flow. Cry if they cry, and cry even if they don’t. Grief is a weird beast. Just know that your friend is carrying this immense grief, whether you can see it or not. It will change over time, but so will they.
- Acknowledgment. You’re not sure what to say? Nervous? You don’t want to say the wrong thing? That’s okay. But acknowledge their loss somehow, without empty euphemisms. Avoid, “God has a plan,” or “God only gives you what you can handle,” or “she’s not suffering anymore,” or “she’s in a better place.” Check in without expecting a response, in fact, let them know you don’t need a response, but let them know you heard the news and offer words of genuine compassion. Megan Devine, author of “It’s OK that you’re not OK” says that “Acknowledgement is the best medicine we have…when somebody is in pain and you look at them and you say, “I see you,” that’s medicine.”
- Check in at a later date. If you really don’t know what to do right now, or are overwhelmed, give your love and make a note on your phone to check in with them in two to three months. This is also a good time to order a personalized gift. You can see some suggestions here.
- Resist offering resources or reading materials, unless you are in their grief group. Now is not really the time to offer books, reading resources or even blogs. If you really want to offer a book, say, a memoir about grief or children’s literature about grief or something that is NOT a self help book, you can simply buy it for them, wrap it and leave it at their door. Write a note about how it helped you (if applicable) or why you think it’s beautiful. They probably won’t pick it up until 3-6 months later, so offer it then if possible.
- Helping from a distance: a lot of the ideas mentioned above or below can be used if you live far away. It’s amazing what you can order on Amazon, (even in Canada). Etsy is great for personalized memorial gifts. You can send gift cards, coffee cards, takeout credit….basically anything through email. If your friend moved away from her community recently, gather a bunch of people together to purchase something practical, like a cleaning service to come once a month for a couple of months. You could even go as far as having groceries delivered to their door, without saying a word. You probably know what they like: cream for coffee, nut milk for oatmeal, toast, jam, Cheerios, diapers. Think of what you need on a weekly basis when you’re not in grief, and chances are, your friend will need them too. And then some.
How to help 1-4 months after loss
I suggest three months, because this is typically when well-meaning folks fade away. Summer vacation starts. Christmas starts. Life moves on. A painful and normal thing. But in three months, your dear friend is going to need and love the food that was once offered, probably even more now than at first. The reality is, the grief is deep and long lasting, and the numbing shock has worn off. This is also when appetites may come back, and the world starts to slowly turn again.
- Flowers. Now is a beautiful time for flowers. Drop them off two months post loss or diagnosis and they will likely mean the world. I remember having to tell someone to tell everyone else to stop sending us flowers. We had so many in the first few days, I actually got overwhelmed. They were too beautiful. My grief was too intense. I barely noticed them, but I did notice the lack of countertop space, and smelled the rot of dying blooms in brown water. I wanted to tell everyone to please send us flowers later, because I knew I’d want them. It seems silly, but flowers immediately following a major loss isn’t the best idea. Even waiting a few weeks can make a big difference. Or try a lovely plant that won’t die!
- Reading material. Lovingly suggest a blog or book. Better yet, buy it for them. I have a list of some children’s literature and adult grief memoirs that I’ve loved. Check my posthere under #9.
- Make beautiful things together. Offer to help plant a memorial garden. If you’re artistic, use your gift of photography, painting or writing, if you like.
- Practical help around the house. Offer to do their grocery shopping or meal planning for them. Make a date to vacuum their home every two weeks. The little things go a very, very long way.
- Errand running. Ask if they need errands done: a drug store run, stuff from the hardware store, a car wash. Keep in mind what time of year it is. Is it close to a holiday? Is it early spring? They may still want a flower garden, a spring clean, their Christmas lights strung up, a sense of normalcy.
- Food. FEED THEM, but not just dinner. Feed them muffins, fresh salads, chocolate, wine, eggs from your chickens, and warm dinners ready to drop off at 5:00pm. Relearning how to cook and manage life can be so difficult–in fact it doesn’t really happen yet. They will likely still be crippled by their loss, and cooking is just not on the to-do list. I can remember almost all of the meals and food gifts that were made for me. And almost all of them made me cry with relief. To all those that fed us, thank you. I choke up when I think of those warm, herby dinner rolls, that hot Italian wedding soup in a giant freezer bag (this was a year after Flo’s diagnosis, and so unexpected), the mason jar full of someone’s else’s granola. Food is the ultimate healer, and you, inner, middle or outer circle friend, can nourish your friend from the inside out. #FeedingaBrokenHeart
- Bear Witness. Really listen and respond as your friend enters their “meaning making” stage. It’s an important step towards healing, and will last for the next few years. Simply bearing witness, whether you are a stranger or a friend, can help immensely. “Meaning making…is a piece of ancient wisdom that is deeply embedded in all spiritual traditions and existential philosophies. Basically, when we can make sense out of what happened, derive meaning from it, and put it into a context, we feel better.” from Psychology Today.
How to help 6-12 months after loss.
Don’t forgot to check in with your friend. They may have a burst of post-acute grief energy, and are looking for outlets. This is when they may be getting some of their strength, drive or creativity back. But the grief is still bubbling under the surface, whether they know it or not. The first year is all about firsts. First Christmas. First birthday. Firsts, firsts, firsts. There are always tiny, grief volcanoes waiting to erupt all over their carefully constructed new life.
- Be physically present. Be there, for the loved one’s first birthday after death. Bring balloons, flowers, cake, cards, something personal for the mama or dad. Something that says, I know she’s not here, but I love you, take care of you, I remember her. Birthdays after loss are something fierce. I struggle for weeks before Florence’s birthday. I feel anxious, angry and depressed. It seems to get better as time goes on, but never goes away. You can’t forget birthing your baby, and when it seems that the whole world is happy-clappy as they celebrate their living children on their birthdays, you, the bereaved one, are left in a gaping hole of loss. It stings and it feels wrong. Cake, flowers, cards–they don’t fix it, but they do help numb the sharp edges.
- Be thoughtful. Research the details behind your friend’s child or loved one. When were they born? Months have birth flowers and gemstones. Is there something on Etsy that reminds you of the lost one? Send it along. Find a vintage teacup with the child’s birth flowers while you were thrifting? Drop it at their door. You guys, I can’t tell you how many times people have done this for me, and how MUCH IT MEANT. Knowing that the loved and missing one is on someone else’s mind helps ease the isolation and pain. The memories and reminders are all they have left, so lean into them.
- Personalized memorial gifts. If it’s not in your budget to buy, you can also suggest some thoughtful keepsakes, or chip in to buy a thoughtful gift with a few friends. One thing that I’ve been searching for (but didn’t know it until I found it) is a high quality memorial wind chime. The one I found it made by Woodstock. It has a special spot where you can actually place ashes or a lock of hair in a secure, covered place. Then, you can have the metal weight at the bottom engraved, or leave that up to your friend to do—although I’ll be honest, it has taken me almost 4 years to do this.) Not only is a piece of their loved one in the chime, their name is visible. Combined with the soothing sound, it will certainly be a touching reminder. Here is the one we have. I am in no way compensated for this, I just love it and think it’s a really thoughtful anniversary gift.
- Support their endeavours, whatever that looks like. Many people find solace in fundraising for a time, but some really don’t. Keep your eyes open to how you friend is trying to make beauty in the bleakness. Go to their fundraising runs or dinners. But if your friend isn’t doing these activities, that’s normal, too. They may express through writing or art, a new job, activity or distraction. They may feel pressured into doing something “big” to honour their loved one but most people don’t have it in them, don’t want to, or do something else entirely. This is all okay.
- Honour the hard work they are doing. They will always need you, just as you’ll need them one day. Honour the work your friend has done and is doing. They are walking a treacherous path, and may feel deeply alone if they have no other friend’s that have experienced the same thing. There is always the world of Instagram (#MamaGrief is a good place to start). I have met some amazing mothers through IG–friend’s across the globe that I would hug and cry with in a heartbeat, if given the opportunity to see them in person (and some I have, and let me tell you–it was life changing.)
- Repeat. Finally, you can repeat any of the ideas from the first 6 months. Grief takes time. And it is hard work. The first year is when your friend is likely in deep mourning. But the second year? That’s when a lot of the work starts, the digging, the healing.
I could go on and on. There are many forms of grief and help, but I think this covers most of the ways you can be involved in your friend’s healing.