In the past few weeks, several different people have asked me how to best support a friend or loved one who is experienced tragedy and grief. While I’m honored to support others who are hurting, I hate being an expert in this topic. This is a topic I never wanted to study. However, I know that with my life experience with the good, the bad and the ugly I do have some insights and light I can shine on others who are hurting or those who are supporting people who are hurting and grieving.
Grief is such a lonely, individualized process. The thoughts I list below were what was most helpful for me. I’m sure this would be different from person to person, and who they lost, but this is what really stands out to me. It’s also important to understand that grief can’t be measured. No one’s grief is ‘bigger or worse’ than anothers. Grief is grief. Pain is pain. Grief doesn’t always mean the death of a loved one. Grief can be from a divorce, a loss in friendship, a changing of job, etc. I hope these insights provide some specific things you can do if you have someone you love and you know their heart is hurting.
I lost my dad Bill, and both brothers Ben and Andy in a tragic airplane crash almost 20 years ago. These pearls of wisdom come from a lot of deep introspection, deep sadness, and way too much experience on the topic.
1. Show up and just listen.
What I remember most about the blurry few days and weeks following the airplane crash is the people who were physically there. The people who dropped their lives to be there for the days leading up to the funeral. The quick drop-in with a basket of fresh blueberries and flowers. Even the quick check-ins via text or calling were appreciated (even though I rarely responded). These efforts were the most noticed. It still to this day drops me to my knees thinking about the people who were there for me. Holidays and anniversaries were (and still are) the hardest days of the year for me. Those who know me best know to be super present on those days. It truly means the world.
My aunt showed up at our house every single day for an entire year around dinner time just to check-in. Family would gather at our house during the evening hours to be together, process and cry. My best friend would call me almost every day. There were some nights I swear I fell asleep on the phone with her listening. She didn’t have to say anything. I just needed to know she was there.
On our first Christmas Eve alone, my brothers friends and closest cousins came to sleep on the floor in the living room. They didn’t have to say a word, they just tucked into their sleeping bags and were physically there in the morning to endure what felt like another impossible day to face.
2. Say something.
If you remember one thing from this blog, just remember to say something. Saying nothing is so much more painful than saying something. No one knows what to say. No words can really help the sadness. However, acknowledgment of the impossible feelings of loss is the best thing you can do. It can be as simple as “I’m sorry, and I’m here.”
3. Don’t ask, just do.
Lots of people will reach out and say ‘let me know if there is anything I can do to help.” While the loving intent is there, someone grieving has no idea what they need. They don’t even know if they brushed their teeth that day. Just take action. Bring over food or text them that door dash is on the way. Drop flowers on the front door. Send a card in the mail. Offer to help with something specific. I remember my aunt and uncle showed up to plant flowers in the spring. They planted the entire garden without ever letting us know they were coming over. It was a gift we enjoyed the entire summer.
4. Grief isn’t linear.
In grief, time isn’t ever linear. Often it feels like it happened yesterday or a few months ago, and only sometimes does it feel like it was 20 years ago. For someone who is hurting the duration of time that has gone by doesn’t really matter. Just because I recently honored the 17th anniversary of the crash, it didn’t make it 17 years easier. It was just as awful. In some ways, the more time that goes by the more prevalent reminder of what my Dad and brothers they are missing. I now have a 9 and 7-year-old. My little ones have lived close to a decade without a grandfather and two uncles. So no, it doesn’t really get easier. The pain, loss, and sadness becomes more manageable because you learn to adapt and get used to the sadness that is always present.
4. Put your friend’s loved one’s ‘saddest day of the year’ in your calendar.
I still get caught off guard after so many years when August 12th rolls around, I get a few text messages from a few very special friends. The feeling that you aren’t alone on the saddest day of your year can do wonders for a hurting heart. The tricky thing about loss is that everyone is present when the loss happens. There is often an overwhelming amount of support for the first few weeks, months or even year. It’s after that where you can really show your support. I promise you they will never ‘find closure’ or ‘get over it.’ They will simply learn to live with it.
5. No, your friend will never be the same.
Grief transforms us. It is a rollercoaster of ups and downs, outbursts of both laughter and tears, and the incessant hope to keep their memory alive forever. Coping with grief can come out in all kinds of ways. By allowing your loved one to feel what they need to feel, be what they need to be, and know that they are not being judged and that you are still wrapping your arms of friendship around them is what matters the most. Your friend is trying to live in a world that feels upside down to them. It feels like the puzzle pieces of life have been shattered to the ground and beginning to put it back together feels to overwhelming. Just consistently show up for them. It will mean the world.
For me, I dove head first into yoga, and meditation, hoping to hear and see ‘signs’ from them. Was I crazy? Maybe. But that felt like comfort. Now I feel like I have a beautiful relationship with my Dad and brothers in their spirit form, but it has taken me a long time to get here.
6. Say their name.
Nope, you aren’t going to make them ‘sad’ by bringing up a memory or their name. We are already feeling the pain and loss… pretty much all of the time. By bringing up a memory, or speaking about them makes their memory come alive. This is therapeutic. This is beauty. This is remembering WITH the person who is hurting.
7. Let them know you miss their loved ones too.
No one wants to be in it alone. Sharing about how you miss them too actually feels really comforting. One of the most profound things a friend did for me was she wrote my dad and brothers a letter. This was a few years after the airplane crash. The letter shared an update of how my mom and I were doing- and that we were actually okay. She talked about how we had adapted to our new world, the healthy things we had done to move forward and how we still think of them and miss them every day. She also shared how she missed them too. She left this letter at the graves. I’m not sure I was ever supposed to find it, but I did, and it truly meant the world. I think of this gesture often. It was one that truly stands out to me.
8. Help them preserve the memories.
For someone who just lost a loved one, you are also terrified you will someday forget. Forget their smell. Forget facial expressions. Forget silly mannerisms. Forget memories. The cards and letters that poured in were overwhelming, but the ones that had specific memories and photos were the ones I loved and still have. One of my brothers’ roommates made a spiral-bound scrapbook with silly stories about Ben. I read them yearly and laugh at what a character Ben was.
9. Allow them to honor what is lost.
For me, on a daily basis, my dad and brothers are on my mind. I think about how I can continue to honor, remember and have them close to me. This is visible to everyone on big days like weddings, birthdays, and milestones. Just remember that your friend is doing it every day in their own special way.
For me, it’s certain items placed in my home in a very intentional way.
It’s that bottle of wine I’m still saving.
It’s the photos on the wall and all of the scrapbooks and videos I have stored away.
It’s how I always sit at a certain place at the rodeo (right by the buckin’ shoots) because that’s what Andy did.
Or how I always say ‘fish on!!!!’ like my Dad did when I catch a fish.
Or how I still watch ‘The Bachelor’ because Ben got such a kick out of the show the first season of airing.
It’s the ring on my finger and the stars dangling in my car that are my reminders of them.
If you are reading this, thank you. Thank you for caring this much about your friend or loved one who is hurting. They are lucky to have you.