Being there

One of the hardest things about grief is knowing how to help when the grief is not your own. When someone you care about is grieving intensely, it is incredibly difficult to know what to do or say. It’s awful to see them in pain, particularly when there is nothing you can do to relieve their agony. If you have unresolved grief of your own (and in my experience all grief is unresolved – how can you resolve grief??), it is particularly painful, because you know what they are going through, and it stirs up your own distress.
A natural response to pain is to avoid it, and when faced with the big unknown of what to say in the face of someone’s grief, people often wind up avoiding the issue. It’s easy, and natural, to put it in the too hard basket, put it off, and without ever meaning to, become an absent friend. We often spend a lot of time worrying that we will say the wrong thing, or somehow make things worse, so I want to share a little secret with you. You can’t make grief worse. But you can make it easier to handle.
The single most important thing you can do for someone who is grieving is to be there for them, and take your cue from them. If they want to talk about their loss, don’t be afraid of their tears. If they just want to be distracted, to talk and laugh, escaping their grief for a moment, roll with that, too. Above all, be present. Call regularly. Arrange to catch up.
Offering to help is lovely, but help is much easier to accept when it is presented as a fait accompli. “Call me if you need anything” is unlikely to work, because grief can be crippling. The act of picking up the phone and asking for help is, at the worst times, way out of reach. Even answering “how are you?” is difficult to do honestly, sometimes. It’s simply too big to handle. So to be supportive, we need to be present. Ready to talk about the big stuff, but equally ready to laugh and play if that’s what works. Cook meals, go for coffee, play with the kids, do anything at all, just be there. The worst thing that you can do is stay away, with the idea that someone who is grief stricken needs space. Of course, everyone processes grief differently, and if someone asks you to give them space, that’s a different story. But don’t assume. Ask. You can’t hurt them by asking.
It can be difficult to know whether to talk about someone who recently died, but it is an important part of honouring their memory, and of building their memory into your life. Of course, tears can be scary, and uncomfortable, and no-one likes to see a friend in distress. But tears are an important part of healing, coping, and expressing yourself emotionally. Being there for someone in distress is the greatest gift we can give (whatever Tony Abbott might say).
Grief often comes in crippling waves. One minute you are coping with the minutiae of life, the next you can barely walk, overcome by the trauma of your loss. To have someone beside you who can hold you up in those moments is truly priceless.
I have been amazingly lucky to have many dear, dear friends who have been there for me in times of trauma. Even more importantly, these friends have stuck around long after most people had moved on and forgotten. Grief is not temporary, like a wound that heals. It’s permanent – a price we pay for letting people in to our hearts. Just by sticking around you can make life more bearable for someone you care about.


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