How to lend a shoulder to lean on... when your friend is snot-sobbing all over it
when you tell a grieving person, “I’ll do anything!!!” you’re probably lying.
If your friend says that they’re exhausted from crying about their dead mom all day… will you get up at 3:00am to feed their ALSO crying baby so that they can rest?
If your mom says that she needs to start dating because she’s been lonely… will you set up her online dating profile and talk to her about her new sex life?
And if your best friend needs someone to wash their dishes and underwear (and hair and pits and mascara-stained face)… are you there ready and willing on your Friday night?
If you will do all of those things… good on you. And if you won’t or are hesitant to, that’s totally okay. We all have boundaries, fears about being a good support person, and sleep to get.
But! Even if you WANT to offer “anything and everything”, don’t do so just because you feel it’s expected. There are lots of helpful things you can offer in that condolence text/letter/email/FB message, and there’s no reason to go overboard when the little (and thoughtful) things count just as much.
Just be there
This sounds kind of lame, but it’s important to remember that grief can get really lonely. You truly can be helpful by just hangin’ around, especially if someone’s recent lost has left them alone in their house or apartment. You don’t have to talk at them every second of the day, cook a million things, help them choose caskets, or shuttle their family back and forth from the airport.
Sometimes showing up can just mean going over (with an invite, if necessary) and being there to answer the door for takeout when your friend finds standing up off the couch too exhausting. Or you can just be the person that says nothing for five hours, and then does running commentary on tv shows for the rest of the night to distract them from their grief.
It’s hard to say off the bat what will work for everyone, because all of our grief is so different. But if you just show up there’s a few things that can come up that end up working out better than assuming or expecting what your person will need.
Showing up might bring up a few things:
What they need might not be clear in the beginning, but become clear over time.
It might feel like you’re ill-equipped to handle grief and grieving at first, but once you’re around and identify ways to help, it’ll get easier.
They might not need any help at all, and by just showing up that one time you both know that you were willing to try and you can step back.
Offer realistic options for what you’re willing AND happy to do
When someone is grieving they will be going through a TON of emotions, some of which include: guilt, sadness, longing, anger, stress, and confusion. Up feels down and down feels sideways. So don’t pile on more by being the person who says they’ll take someone’s kids to school for them when you don’t have a car.
Situations like this can lead to 1.) you feeling overburdened while you’re trying to do something helpful (in turn, you’ll feel regret, frustration, and overwhelmed) 2.) the grieving person feeling like they’ve put you out when you had to rent a car to follow through with your (unrealistic) promise.
If you’re trying to figure out how to help someone, I’d start by asking yourself a few questions and really planning ahead to gauge what you can really do, and do well.
What kind of relationship do you have with this person? Will just showing up to let them cry or be frustrated be comfortable for both of you? Or are you in a professional setting where something like a note or goodies is more suited to your relationship? You don’t have to lend an ear to effectively help someone - you can do so in lots of ways that are comfortable for both parties.
What skills do you have that you could offer? Are you an artist willing to do crafts with their kids for an hour while they plan the funeral? Are you an event planner willing to be the point person on the day of the memorial? Are you super savvy and willing to teach them how to order some groceries online? Stick to what you know and your help will mean even more because it’s effective and personal.
What do you actually have time to do? Do you have a full day to help them get deep in cleaning out closets? Or do you really just have time for a quick chat on the phone? Both can be helpful, just be realistic about what kind of time commitment you can make to your offer so that you don’t have to cut them off or ditch them in the middle of a proposed “ALL-DAY MOVIE AND CHINESE FOOD BENDER!”