Caring for a Grieving Friend: Dos and Don'ts From an Empath's Firsthand Perspective
We all experience loss, within our own timing.
Many of us have been on both sides of grief—either experiencing it directly, through the loss of a beloved family member or friend, or indirectly, through a friend who has lost someone important. When it is direct, we need the compassion of others, but how can we give compassion in an indirect scenario? What can one say or do to ease, or at least not add to, the suffering of the grieving one? This article is about exactly that.
Do be your usual self, but don't expect them to stay the same.
Loss can change a person in ways that are not easy to recognize or explain. The extent of the change will depend on the individual situation. The person going through it may sense the changes in himself, but may not be able to describe them or communicate his new needs very well. Perhaps the changes will be permanent, or they may wear off as the grief is given time to process. This will take time to become clear, both to your friend and to you. Even if the person your friend lost was not an extremely close relationship, or it was complicated, this still applies.
But this does not mean you need to change. On the contrary, the steadier you can remain, while also being sensitive and compassionate, the more of a comfort you can be. Everyone handles death in different ways - some will want to recount memories of the person they lost, while others would prefer not to talk and process on their own. This may take a bit of intuition for you to figure out, but either way will not require extreme changes in you, unless you have tended to lean on them for support often in the past. In this case, the nature of the relationship will change a bit. They will need you now, so it may be best to go to someone else for your own support in the meantime.
Do listen, but don't talk much until you have a better sense of your friend's emotions.
Most of us know better than to say, "I know exactly how you feel," or relate something in our lives to the loss that someone else is facing. But there are many things people say that can be akin to those statements. Even something like, "You are so lucky to have such supportive people helping you through this time! Your boss was nice to let you have an extra week off." Even if that is true, it doesn't take away from what the person is experiencing. We all face certain restrictions in our lives, and that sucks. No one really wants to go back to their desk job after a pivotal and sad event in their lives - it says a lot about the world we live in, the fact that understanding, generous employers are so rare that one is deemed "lucky" to have one.
It is important to remember that grief is a process. It does not stop when someone is buried or cremated. It does not stop when their affairs are settled, when the bank accounts are closed, and the house is emptied and sold. It does not stop when the grieving person's routine picks back up. In many ways, life after saying goodbye can be so much worse - having to go back to the daily grind, to the small talk, to the mundane chores, when all one feels is this void, and all these complicated emotions rolled into one: depression. Perhaps not everyone will go through this, but it is important to be prepared to care for someone who is. Make no assumptions about where your friend is in the grieving process and emotional scale, but treat him with utmost care.
Listen when your friend shares with you about what they are going through, and ask questions. Don't make assumptions about how they are feeling, or say anything that may suggest they should be handling things differently. If you don't know what to say, either admit this freely and authentically or say nothing.
Do talk about ordinary things, but try not to complain for a while.
It's inevitable that life goes on. Some facing a loss will not want it to, while others may feel some measure of relief by getting back into a routine. Some may feel trapped by routine, more so than before, given a new reason to press their lives for meaning. To live their purpose before time runs out. Grief can inspire a number of deeper thoughts; not everyone is willing to go there, and again, you can use your intuition to figure out which category your friend falls into. If he seems open to it, by all means, go back to talking about the things you normally discussed before anything happened.
The only caveat to this is, it may be better if you drop your inclinations to gripe or complain for a while. This goes back to the point about your friend changing - while you don't have to change, the nature of your friendship may change. If you ordinarily rely on your friend for support and guidance, you may have to go from leaning on your friend for support, to providing support, and save your complaints or heavier issues for someone who has less on their mental and emotional plates.
Do be thoughtful, but don't agonize over saying the right thing.
It is hard to be there for someone who is grieving. They can be more sensitive, and you may often feel as though you are not doing enough for them, or you're not doing the right things. It is more important not to do the wrong things than it is to get everything exactly right. Treat your friend with sensitivity, and let them show you, through their actions or what they say, how they need you to be. This will come more naturally to people who tend to be listeners, but everyone can struggle with it. We aren't often taught to settle into pain and silence. We feel pressured to be happy, no matter the situation, to cover up "awkward" silence with chatter.
Sometimes the best thing you can do for someone who is in pain is leave them alone. This is far more comforting than mindless chatter. If you truly do not know what to say, it is best to let the person know you are there for them, and back away. If they feel comfortable reaching out to you, or feel you are able to relate to them at all, they will ask for your help. If you know the person well enough, you can volunteer to do certain things for them - for instance, if you know they like a certain lunch spot, offer to go get food from there out of the blue one day. If you don't know the person well, they haven't reached out to you, and they don't respond to your small gestures of friendship, leave them be. No one wants to be rescued or feel as though anything is being forced upon them.
Do be considerate of their needs and boundaries, but not at the expense of your own.
If your friend is drastically changed by his experience, you may find that the two of you don't mesh as well as you did in the past. You may find that you prefer different activities, think differently about conflict and problems, and prioritize differently. It is important to look at this as part of the changes your friend is going through and part of his grieving process, rather than see it as being wrong. Both of you will change throughout your lives, and in some cases, this may be gradual, and in others, sudden. It can leave you wondering what happened or what you did, but in many cases, it may not be related to you personally at all.
Don't wait around for someone, especially if they tell you upfront not to wait or express that they won't be able to make plans with you. Your friend's loss can mean a loss for you as well - a loss of the person you once hung out with, a lessening or absence of certain traits that once brought you comfort. It is best to acknowledge this fact silently, as making it known aloud can seem like putting pressure on the other person to make himself be something he no longer is. People grow and change, and many relationships end because people are not growing and changing together. Whether or not you will grow together is, again, something that becomes more apparent through time. Don't feel as though you must slam any doors, but don't constantly hover around a door that is just slightly ajar, either.
Stay active in your own interests and your other relationships. To become overly worried about another person to a point where your overall contentment depends upon theirs is codependency. The last thing a grieving person wants to be is depended upon for anything, even small things. If you have been loving toward them consistently in the past, he will have no doubt that you care and are there for him. But some people prefer to help themselves, to process for themselves, to isolate for a while. In that situation, the most loving thing you can do is let them.
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© 2018 Holley Hyler