“Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.” ~Vicki Harrison
I’m no stranger to grief. When I was twenty-three I lost my mum, and then eight years later I lost my second daughter, Grace, when she was only one day old.
Soon after Grace died, my husband and I saw a grief counselor. He said something about other people’s reactions to grief that turned out to be one of the truest statements anyone has ever made to me.
He said, “There will be at least one friend you never hear from again because they don’t know what to say. At least one person will tell you not to worry because you can have another baby. And there will be one shining star—someone who you didn’t consider to be that close a friend—who will be there for you more forcefully and consistently than anyone else.”
All three of his predictions came true.
If you have a friend who is grieving, I know you will want to be their shining star. Grief is awkward and difficult; it’s something we tend to shy away from if we can help it. If you have never experienced grief, you may be at a loss to know what to say or do.
You Don’t Need to Say the Right Thing
In fact, you don’t need to say anything at all. You just need to be there.
It may not feel like much, but your physical presence alone is a comfort—a hug, a hand to squeeze, a presence in the room. These are all important crutches when someone is navigating grief. Remember that you can’t fix this; all you can do is open your arms and open your heart.
There were a few friends I never heard from again after I lost Grace, as the counselor predicted. It seemed so unfair to lose friends at the same time as losing my baby. I wish they had known that I didn’t expect them to say anything profound or heal my pain, but I did expect them to stick around.
Try to Steer Clear of Platitudes
The discomfort and awkwardness outsiders often feel toward grief has given rise to many platitudes over the years. Personally, I would steer clear from saying, “Everything happens for a reason,” or, “It is God’s will.” Even someone with the strongest faith will find that hard to swallow.
Many platitudes are focused on trying to make the griever focus on the future and move on. While the intent is admirable, I just didn’t want to hear that time is a healer and how all would be fine. My grief is a burden I carry with me every day, and while it is true that I have learned to bear the weight of it (most of the time), I will never “get over it.”
Try to consider your friend’s beliefs and values before offering words that you feel may be of comfort. Someone said to me, “Grace and your mum are up there watching over you,” which is a statement that just doesn’t match my beliefs, however much I wish it did.
Instead, I felt slightly annoyed and then guilty for feeling annoyed, because I knew how well-intentioned my friend’s statement was.
Try to remember anniversaries such as the birthday of the person who died and the anniversary of the date of their death. Sending a card or even just a text on the day will let your friend know that you are remembering too.
I have a friend who always writes Grace’s name on our Christmas card. This means so much to me at a time of year when Grace’s absence from our family is even more keenly felt.
Celebrating the life of the person your friend has lost can be as simple as reminiscing and talking about them. You could ask to look at photos and other mementos with your friend or help put together a life book.
Don’t be afraid to mention the person they lost. You may think it kinder to steer clear of the subject, but trust me; your friend will want to talk. Memories are all that remain after a loss, and talking about the person who died really does help to keep them alive.
If your friend is fundraising in memory of their loved one, you could offer to help. My husband and I carried out a lot of fundraising after Grace died, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the wonderful friends who helped out at and supported our events.
Deep loss causes lasting changes—I know I’m not the same person I used to be. Your friend may seem fine one day and angry or depressed the next. It’s all part of grief’s rhythm, which is eternal and has no logic or pattern.
Vicki Harrison’s quote above really sums up what it is like to live after loss. So don’t take it personally if your friend seems distant or has no wish to socialize at times. He or she is just learning to swim.
I can bear the load at times; other times I simply can’t. One of the consequences of my loss is that I have unintentionally become more introverted. Some days I just need to stay in a safe bubble with my little family, because letting the rest of the world in is too difficult.
It’s easy to remember the profound effect grief has on your friend shortly after the loss, but much tougher to keep this in mind months, years, and decades after. I don’t believe that time is a healer; instead, it seems to be an adapter. With much difficulty, I am learning to adapt to life without my loved ones.
The rawness may be dulled with time, but the emotions and sorrow are not. I know it can’t be easy for the friend of a griever, but if you can remember and be there for the long term, you will be the shining star your friend so desperately needs.