I’ve experienced quite a bit of sadness and grief throughout my life.
But the loss of a loved one is easily the most difficult. I experienced my first loss when when I was a junior in high school.
My father had suffered a severe stroke that left him paralyzed. A year later, he took his own life.
I remember coming home from school and hearing my mom hysterically yelling on the phone. She usually got home after me, but for some reason, she had gotten home first that day to find my father in their bedroom. I was told to stay out because she was on the phone with 911.
I don’t remember much more of that day except that my parents’ friends came over. One of my best friends also lived in the same building, and I remember going to her place.
The second tragedy happened when I was 30 I got a call at work that a good friend that I hadn’t been in touch with for a while had taken painkillers to end her life. She was 32.
This past year I lost another good friend, who was 38, to lung cancer.
And just a few months later, I got news that my mother, who had beaten breast cancer years prior, had now been diagnosed with lung cancer.
Through each of these tragedies, I mourned, cried and felt absolutely devastated. Grief took over. Through each loss, I felt like a part of me had died.
And although the people closest to me all offered different words and had unique responses to these situations, I wouldn’t consider any of them truly supportive.
When my father died, I felt deep shame, and it took years to be able to share it without feeling embarrassed. When people found out my father has committed suicide they just acted weird. I remember learning that the whole school had found out, but even though the other kids knew, no one would approach me. It felt like I had a contagious disease.
With the deaths of my friends, similar situations came up. The people closest to me just didn’t know how to be there for me. Some ignored it all together.
And now with my mom going through treatments, the same has happened yet again. People either ignore the news, or if they call and text, it’s only to know how she is and how her treatments are.
When I got the news about my mom, I could hardly function—even though I had to. I have two young children whom I didn’t want to know and a dear husband. I also teach yoga and have my own life coaching business. All I wanted to do for the first month was to cry (which I did when I was alone) and hide under my covers.
But I felt like I had to be something I wasn’t feeling. I had to stay positive when I was with my mom, my kids and the world. While I still am extremely sad, it’s been a couple of months now, and with the help of my life coach, meditation and yoga, I am no longer living under a dark cloud at all times.
In light of my experiences with loss, I’d like to offer some advice to people who might have a friend going through a similar situation:
1. Give them emotional space.
Let them have their sadness, grief and anger. Don’t try to change how they feel. Let them know you are there to listen to them without judgment.
2. Give them space physically.
Don’t call or text all of the time. Check in to see how they are periodically, and offer to take them for coffee when they are ready to talk. Or make them something to eat, at your house or theirs. Take flowers (or something else special) and leave them on their front door if you live close enough.
3. Don’t try to be funny.
There were people who thought sharing jokes and being silly would lift my spirits. It just made feel that they were insensitive.
4. Stop asking, “how is she/he?”
Instead ask, “how are you.”
5. Be available.
And especially, be available when they are ready to talk. It may take a long time for that to happen, but when they are, be ready to show up and listen.
6. Offer to help around the house or babysit.
If you live near your friend and they have young children, offer to watch them so she can have some alone time. Offer to pick up dry cleaning or to run other errands.
7. Do not give advice or make it about you.
This one is absolutely essential. Don’t give advice unless they have asked you for your opinion. I had people who gave me advice or compared my situation with something they had experienced. It just made me more angry and frustrated. I wasn’t looking for advice; I was looking for support.
None of these things take much money, but they are impactful ways to support a friend through an intense emotional time. It takes a long time to heal from loss. If you are close enough in relationship, it is always a good idea to keep an eye out that your friend does not fall into deep depression.
I am fortunate to have learned tools that I can use to help myself in these situations through self-coaching, or I call my coach when I need it. However, not everyone is able to do this. Eventually offering to enlist the help of a therapist or a life coach that specializes in grief might be a final thing you can offer your friend in this difficult time.
May we all become better and more supportive friends in times of grief, loss, and sadness.
Author: Sherry Ellingson
Image: Flickr/Hartwig HKD
Editor: Callie Rushton