Living Gently: When a Friend is Grieving

“After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” ~J.K. Rowling

One of my dearest friends, who is also a Harry Potter aficionado, has pondered this quote much in the last few months.   Because she recently lost her two-year-old son after a tragic accident, the question of “why?” lingers on many of our conversations. But one thing she has told me several times that she no longer fears death. Because she longs for the next adventure she can experience with her son in the hereafter.

I’ve lost loved ones, as well as comforted friends who have lost their own. I’ve watched people I care about grieve parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends. When my grandfather passed (my closest, personal loss), my friends were there for me. I thought I understood grief. I know the textbook stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. However, watching a friend mourn for a child has taught me that grief is never textbook.

First, I’ve learned that grief is the quickest way to truly put daily annoyances and petty complaints into perspective. While I’ve fretted about mundane matters, there are those who are truly suffering from excruciating emotional pain… a pain from which there seems to be no escape. It really does make some of our own personal worries seem trite and unimportant. I remember thinking this when I sat by my own grandfather’s deathbed over four years ago. Time stood still for an entire week. And nothing else mattered save the fervent prayers for a miracle and the burning question, “Did I tell him I love him enough?”

Second, sometimes (and by ‘sometimes,’ I mean ‘usually’), it’s okay that you don’t have all the answers. A friend in grief knows you can’t realistically answer some of the questions they have. They want to know “why?” or “what if?” and maybe even question what the purpose of their loss means. They don’t expect a reply. This is the best time to employee active listening – truly hearing without formulating a response or solution. The important thing is that you let your friend ask the questions knowing it’s okay that you can’t provide an answer. You can encourage them to lean on their faith, but you can’t fix what they are going through. Offering solutions isn’t helpful.

Third, it’s okay to say the name of the deceased. I think most of us, after watching someone go through a loss, tip-toe around the name of the one who died, afraid that saying it will cause the one who is grieving additional pain. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most people want to know their loved one will be remembered. Saying the name of the one who is gone isn’t insensitive, but rather it further imprints their legacy and existence.

Fourth, when someone is grieving, it’s okay to sit with them in silence. You don’t have to fill every part of your time with them with conversation. Sometimes, silence itself is healing because your friend knows, when they are ready to start talking, you’re there. And if they just need to cry, you’re there for that, too.

Fifth, grief is measured in two steps forwards, and five steps back. There is no time frame or agenda to grief. It goes at its own pace and as much as we want those we care about to feel better, we can’t hold anyone to a schedule when it comes to dealing with loss. The common saying is “time heals all.” And while time may alleviate some kinds of pain, there is some pain from which there is no recovery… only learning how to live within a new norm. We can’t expect people to recover the way we expect them to, and it’s not fair to assume they will.

It’s okay to say you don’t know what to say. It’s okay if they don’t laugh. It’s okay to ask your friend to share memories. The answer in being a friend to someone who is grieving is being there. Present. In the moment. And giving them the gift of patience.