“There Are Some Things You Learn Best In Calm, & Some In Storm” – Willa Cather
My family lived in South Carolina when I was a teenager. Many years, during hurricane season, a tropical storm would strengthen, and our community along the beach would need to batten down the hatches, or if the storm grew into a hurricane, evacuate. My parents would board up the windows on our house, gather emergency supplies, and hope for the best when they surveyed the storm’s aftermath. Oftentimes, when a personal crisis strikes, it doesn’t give ample warning and we must rely on loved ones to weather the storm. Keep these 5 things in mind to help your grieving friend heal.
Helping a Grieving Friend
1) Anticipate Needs
When a person is in crisis, they often aren’t able to plan ahead or address details in their lives. This is known as “decision fatigue,” which is a reduction in the ability to organize and execute day-to-day tasks. It’s helpful to ask, “how can I make your day easier today?” or “I’m at the grocery store, can I pick up anything for you?” If you know your friend well enough, it might be more helpful to anticipate upcoming obligations and just take action. Grab groceries, drop off a meal, or notify them you are handling carpool for the week.
2) Be Present
If we watch a friend in pain our instinct may be to try to offer “the perfect advice” or to give just the right anecdote to make things better. This is understandable. But simply being present in and of itself plays a large role in healing. You may be surprised how watching mindless television together, working a puzzle, or taking a walk provide structure and a welcome distraction in a moment of crisis. These are ways to remind your grieving friend that they aren’t alone.
3) Balance Emotion-Focused vs Solution-Focused Coping
You may find yourself focused on wanting the other person to feel better or to take away their pain. We love silver linings. You may be tempted to say something like “everything happens for a reason,” or “it’s getting better, right?” These kinds of comments can serve to invalidate feelings. Instead, listen and give the other person a chance to express what they need to express, without judgment. They are likely to discover the silver linings as they move through their grief. This is referred to as emotion-focused coping, rather than problem-focused or solution-focused coping.
4) Provide Support Beyond The First Month
In the days immediately after a tragedy or loss, there is usually an outpouring of support. But in the weeks and months that follow, support often wanes. The grieving process is often long and arduous. I have worked with clients who aren’t in a place to adequately address their grief until months or even years later. Continue to reach out and check in on your friend through the first year and be a stable force in their life, especially around significant dates (birthdays, holidays, anniversaries).
5) Know Your Limits and Help Your Friend Build A Support System
If you find that you are the go-to friend for lots of people in crisis, watch for signs of caregiver burnout in yourself. This includes withdrawal, emotional exhaustion, feelings of overwhelm, and changes in sleep patterns. Instead of attempting to shoulder your friend’s crisis alone, help your friend identify and build additional sources of support. If your friend has suffered a loss (the death of a parent or child) or a major life change due to an illness, there are a number of in-person or online support groups for added emotional support.
A beautiful aspect of humanity is our connection to others. Grieving together strengthens those connections. By being present, open, and available, you are making a difference.