It’s a horrible feeling when someone you care about has suffered a loss. You want so much to help, but you feel powerless. So what’s the best way to behave when you want to comfort the bereaved?
• Don’t take the attitude that you have to ‘cheer them up.’ You can’t take their mind off this experience by trivia and silly jokes. Possibly the worst thing you can do is to try to pretend this hasn’t happened.
• However, you don’t have to join them in their unhappiness, either. By all means have an empathic cry, if the tears won’t be held back, but don’t wallow. The loss is theirs, not yours, and it’s important to remember this.
• Stay balanced and be the person you always were. Your friend’s world may have fallen apart. Just knowing you are there, same as always, can be a comfort.
• Let go of the idea that you can, and should, ‘make things right.’ Part of your challenge in this situation is to realize and accept that there are some things you just can’t, ever make right. We all have a journey in life – your friend’s is now about coping with the loss, and yours is to be witness to this bereavement process. Be brave.
• Try to be empathic. This may come naturally, or it may not. If your role in the friendship has up until now been that of motivator and organizer, maybe you need to make a bit of a shift. Accept that for a while your friend may need stillness and the simple fact of your presence. Or they may need something else. What they want on one day may be completely different from the next, so be open and flexible.
• Don’t take anything personally. However close you’ve been, your bereaved friend may not want you around all the time. They may be snappy, or may ask things of you that are unexpected or even unpleasant. Bear in mind that your friend is in a new and bleak place emotionally, and be forgiving and tolerant.
• Having said all of this, there is no call for you to become a doormat. Loss does not always bring out the best in people, and if your friend becomes manipulative or attacking, it is fine to set limits on what you’ll put up with.
• Do ask what you can do to help. The answer may not be immediate, or clear. However, if you make it obvious that you’re at their disposal, sooner or later ways that you can be of service are sure to arise.
• Make it clear that you are open and accepting of any way they feel, and that you are happy to talk about it. Don’t assume they necessarily feel the way you would expect. Don’t assume they feel the way they would have expected! Grief can take people in surprising ways, and it can be hard to cope with ‘unacceptable’ emotions. If you can show your acceptance of anger, resentment, panic – or even relief and satisfaction – you can be an invaluable stabilizing force. But be careful not to pre-empt their explanations! Don’t assume that someone who is desolate is hiding buried anger for they probably aren’t and to suggest it would be hurtful and potentially damaging.
• Offer practical help with things like shopping, housework and general errands, if this seems to be needed. When the world has gone crazy, the last thing your friend may be thinking of is meals, but they need to eat, and if they have dependents, such as children, they certainly need to be fed. Take meals round and leave discretely, if they want to be alone. Offer to entertain the children. Give lifts and cope with admin – all of that is very valuable.
• When the time seems right, motivate your friend to positive activities, such as mindfulness classes, yoga or country walks.
• Finally – and this can be hardest of all – don’t assume that your supportive role will necessarily strengthen the bond between you. Nine times out of ten it does, and a friend in loss is a friend for life. But occasionally loss can change a person to such a degree that they never recover what they once were. Or sides to them may surface that you can’t relate to. Or they may even resent you because it didn’t happen to you. None of this is your fault, and if all else fails you will at least be able to say you did your best.
Sometimes watching another person go through bereavement can be traumatic, and you may well be coping with your own anxieties and difficult issues. When this happens you may feel doubly alone, for you can’t turn to your distressed friend for help. But you don’t have to struggle. Put in a call to our wonderful readers at The Circle, and they will show you that better times are just round the corner.
PUBLISHED: 10 November 2014