Last week over at The Hairpin, Simone Eastman wrote a very simple, but supremely truthful piece on what to do if someone you know has just had a friend or family member die. I think the comments are a testament to how salient her points are; while there’s some disagreement, it’s primarily people sharing their stories of loss and what worked for them and has continued to work.
While 1, 2 and 4 are great, it’s really 3 and 5 that are the best, so I’d like to excerpt them here.
“3. Ask how you can help, but be prepared to just do something without being directed.
This is so tricky, because your instinct will be to say something like, ‘Please let me know if I can help,’ and you’ll totally mean it but there’s a really good chance that your grieving friend is not capable of telling you what you could do to help…. There are things that you can do, though, without being asked, which will probably be appreciated. Anything that helps a grieving person take care of herself — literally take care of her person — is a winner….Being specific matters — offer a specific day/time or a couple options. When you’re in a crisis it can be so hard to make decisions about little things.”
It’s the necessity of specificity Eastman points out here that is often overlooked. Merely telling someone you are there for them is great, but it requires them to do the heavy lifting much of the time; they need to reach out, they need to do the work to make you listen to them. Offering specifics, or just doing the specifics isn’t pushy, it’s helpful. And if the person doesn’t like what you’re doing, it’s pretty likely they’ll tell you so, as a lot of tact goes out the window when someone you love just died.
“5. Don’t disappear.
Sometimes stepping back after the immediate events that follow a death or crisis makes sense — you’re not gonna get up in your HR manager’s grill a couple months after her mom dies, you know? But if we’re talking about a friend, don’t disappear. They may not know how to respond in a gratifying way for a while, but they need you. It never bothered me when someone left me a message saying ‘HAY GIRL, just thinkin’ of you, you don’t have to call me back unless you feel like it.’ And sometimes someone offering to take me for a walk was an almost-literal lifesaver. Grief is very lonely, even if we all face it — it feels very, very singular and very alienating. Lots of crises do, actually. And if you can keep reaching out, you can help make it feel a little less lonely.”
This point is the most important one. Most people know to say sorry, to call, to send a card/text/email, whatever. What they say will vary, but most of it will be okay. What people seem unable to decipher unless they have experienced it (whether themselves or through past experience with death) is that pain does not drop away over time. It ebbs and shifts and the best way to be a friend is merely reminding people that you are there. This might seem in contradiction to point three (Didn’t I just tell you to DO things, after all?) but they live together simultaneously. Reminding people can simply be narrowing their options; remind them you’re there by offering to hang out or talk at specific times, and intersperse that with links or texts or whatever random stuff you’d send as friends anyway.
The bottom line is that you should attempt to know what people want before they know it themselves (I just totally cribbed that from Helen Mirren talking about how to be a good servant in Gosford Park, but it works so deal with it). And it’s good practice — many someones you love will die one day, even if you’re lucky enough to have avoided it thus far. Being a good friend when someone has had to deal with a death means stepping up your game and being more attentive. Otherwise you won’t see them anymore, and this might seem harsh, but you might not deserve to.