what you should do when a friend loses a loved one

I have done a bunch of blogs for people who have lost a loved one, but I really wish I could speak to their friends. Before I lost my spouse, I had no idea what to do for anyone that had a loss or how their mind and heart were processing this. Now that I have been through it, I will try my best to let you in on those thoughts and share from an insider’s perspective.

What you should do when a friend loses a loved one…

Let’s start with a good one… Saying, “Be strong.” These two little words are confusing to a new widow or family in loss. Some said, “Be strong for the kids.” Does that mean I am not supposed to cry? Or not in front of them? Or go lift weights? Am I doing this grieving thing wrong? Does this mean try not to be affected by this death? It sounds like I’m supposed to act like this is a normal day. Or week. Or year. I have no idea what I am supposed to be doing, so- okay, I will try not to fall apart in front of anyone or everybody. I will be strong- whatever that means. Oh, by the way, the tears you hold back don’t go away, they reside in your body and your spirit. I learned this from experience- even though I felt at the beginning I cried so much that there could not possibly be more tears, I didn’t cry later on for heartaches I didn’t expect. Like “Dad’s and Donuts” at school. I held those tears back and then years later didn’t know what to do with them. Keep holding them back? Now it seems too late to cry? No, this is not good on your soul. Tell your friends to cry it ALL out. Trying to be strong like Super Woman isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

“You are the new man of the house.” Oh, right off when people told this to my 13 year old who was the oldest boy at home, I spoke up, which is not like me (the OLD me). But this was not okay to put this kind of pressure on a kid. I told Jeremy this as well as those who said it. He is not supposed to be a man. He is a boy who lost his dad. That is way too much to put on a teenage boy who just finished his 7th-grade year in Junior High. I guess I am the new man and woman of the house. I can take it and I want that responsibility of being a parent and him being a child.

“You need to get out of the house.” In the beginning, I tried to keep busy doing anything so I didn’t have to think about the loss. Then after a few weeks, I just needed to rest. My body finally said, “It’s time to slow down.” Friends called and said getting out of the house would be good for me. “I just can’t.” I emotionally couldn’t do this. I had recently fallen apart in the cereal aisle – Raisin Bran can do this?! I was learning that I couldn’t control these enormous emotions all the time so I needed to take a break. So remember there is a time that isolation is good. It is part of the healing process. It won’t last long and if you keep asking your friend if it’s a good time, one day it will be. I loved my friends that checked up on me and that understood when I said no, I really meant no. I didn’t expect them to understand, but they honored me. It was more than 6 months before I wanted to go out socially.

Telling their story. In the beginning, everyone is anxious to hear what happened. Then people get tired of hearing the story, but we are not ready to stop telling it. The story is part of healing a traumatic event. In the survivor’s eyes it is a major disaster, the biggest they have ever experienced. I know it’s not a hurricane, but it sure feels like one. We try to comprehend it while the heart hurts and our mind can’t wrap around it. We have to get it from the inside out to try to relieve the pain. I tried to be a detective and see if anyone had clues surrounding the death. How can I put this puzzle together? Telling it builds structure. The listener may have missing pieces or insight that I didn’t know before. Even now, years later, I am getting info that helps me heal. What I found awesome is friends that validate me and sit with me and listen, even though I’m sure they have thought over and over, “Move on, lady!” Our society has the mentality that we should shut up and get over it. Fast. Oh, this is something they will NEVER get over.

Try not to compare losses. “I know how you feel because my grandma died last year.” That just didn’t fly. A grandma and a spouse are completely different relationships. But I gave them this- you know what loss feels like. They understand it just plain hurts. Losses are very personal. Nobody will ever know their loved one the way they did. It’s an emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual relationship that runs deep. Saying “at least he didn’t die this way” doesn’t help. Or “lucky for you that you had 23 years! My friend only had 10”. No matter what there is always something worse, but in this state of mind, no matter what you say, it won’t bring their loved one home. I was very grateful for how many people said, “I have no idea what you are going through. I can’t imagine, but I am here for you. What can I do to help you?”

Grief changes. The first year a grieving person may need to live in the home they shared and not change more than has already changed. They love the familiarity and their loved one’s clothes hanging in the closet to feel a connection. But then the second year maybe the home brings them stress and feels like an emotional holding cell. Maybe they don’t want to date one year, but the next they do. Maybe they want to sit at home for the first 6 months and then they want to go skydiving. This is one crazy emotional rollercoaster and all I wanted to do was get off. It seemed I did get off, but then I was crazy and got on for another ride. Sometimes within minutes. I’m sure my best friends really thought I was losing it. If you can be the kind of friend who can talk through their emotions, honor their feelings, and tell them to breathe deeply, that would be so helpful.

There are truly angels who live among us. I found a ton of them. They came over at the right moment. They answered my calls at 1 am. They did my quarterly taxes for me. They mowed my lawn. They smiled at me at the store. They told me I was doing a great job even though I was still in my pjs at dinner time. Since we all grieve differently, we are comforted in various ways. My best advice would be to ask what you can do to help, then do it. Then ask again for months. Or years. The thing I hear most in my widow groups is that after a few months, most people forget and the support dwindles. Please remember this loss is like a wound. It heals very slowly over time, then a scab forms, then a scar. That scar is a memory of what they have been through so far and will never be something they “get over”.

Friends on a bike ride