My Basic Formula for Helping a Friend in Grief
To those of you grieving the death of a child and/or spouse, I have no idea what you are going through. The only thing a friend can do is offer his/her presence and listen......alot. To you would be supporters, I was totally ignorant in grief support. Its okay to be nervous, but all you have to do is jump in with both feet. In some places in this story, what I've written is direct and not soft and fuzzy. This is directed toward the supporters and not the bereaved. When my friend tells me I'm doing something wrong, I will change my tone. Until that time, the following is appropriate.
Here is what you do right from the start: You read books (I've read 10-15), you search the internet (30+ websites), you learn, you do not stop, you do not quit, you do not neglect, you do not question, you be proactive. For the most part, don't ask your friend to tell you what they want, pretty much anything you do will be okay. But DO NOT TOUCH anything that might be even remotely associated with the dead loved one.
Mid January 2004 was 6 months since my friend's family died. His family included his wife and both children (3 years old and 5 months old). While I was totally ignorant and am definitely not schooled, the following is what I have done.
I am a 37 year old man with a Geology degree. My friend is 37 with a History degree. We have known each other since we were 2-3 years old. My bereavement support resume prior to this was exactly zero and personal loss was much older relatives. I went to the visitation and the funeral. After that, I was ignorant like nearly everybody else. A little bit scared and not knowing what to do, I jumped right in to supporting my friend. I visited on the 4th week anniversary day. I hugged him and said, "I don't know. I just don't know what to say." He said, "There isn't anything to say." We sat on the front porch and I listened for 6 hours. For 3.5 months I visited my friend every week on that day (calling the night before). I listened, listened, listened, and listened some more. Four to six hours was normal for 2-3 months. Listening to 20 minutes of silence can sometimes be more important than listening to words. You don't fill the silence. You focus on your friend. Many times after 10 minutes of silence, my friend shared with me a memory that I had no idea what he had been thinking about. Even now, if there is a time he wants to talk about his family, my mouth closes and my ears open.
Specific examples of my proactivity include: Mid November the 2 months of holidays kind of complicated matters, but I offered my time and ear whenever needed. A few days before Thanksgiving, I called about 20 local restaurants to find which would be open and when (told him I would). It took me 10 minutes, but the gratitude was enormous. In December, though he was out one evening for a "should go/shouldn't go" Christmas party, I parked/waited beside the house for 3-4 hours so he wouldn't come back to an empty house. Little things can mean so much. Tell your friend you will do something and then do it.
My friend will never hear me say things like, "When will this be over?", "You've got to get on with your life.", "You're young, you can marry again/have other children.", or other dreadfully hurtful phrases. My only role was, and will continue to be, to give him my total friendship, a listening ear, and my unconditional support.
I have probably visited my friend 25-30 times since the beginning. I have told my friend that I am going to be by his side for months and years. For those incredulous of my "dedication", I have my mom to look towards for beyond 3-5 years. She put flowers on the grave of a friends 5 day old son for more than 30 years until he was taken back to the family plot out of state. And as a kid I remember going on Christmas mornings.
Also, a little extra I've done which I'm glad I did, but isn't exactly required. I've written 30 pages (so far) of observations since the funeral. I've written what we had for dinner, what he said, memories of his family that he told me, and my attempts to put his moods into words. All of this is of course for his eyes only. Rereading it recently, I am seeing things getting "better", but I know it's a long way. It really is very rewarding to see the changes over time. I continue to observe, listen, try to understand, and be a friend.
And lastly as a supporter, feel free to cry too. Not in place of your friend, but with your friend and on your own time. Crying is truly good to do and experience even if the reason is very bad. And men, don't be self conscious about crying. If you need to, just do it.
Helping a friend in grief. There is no greater thing you can do for your fellow man or woman.
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