How To Help A Grieving Friend

Losing her husband taught her much about how to help friends navigate loss. 

by Christine Styes • Member { View Profile }
Photograph: iStock

“Call me if there is anything I can do.” That statement seeks to offer comfort to a hurting friend. But the truth is, someone who is truly in the throes of grief can’t think, sleep or quit crying, let alone call someone to ask for something. They are shattered, broken, shell shocked, and vulnerable. They can’t ask for, yet need you — their friends and family more than ever.

A little over a year ago I lost my husband of 37 years to an aneurysm that crept into our lives and took him in minutes. Just that quickly, and before my eyes, he was here and then gone. He was my best friend, and I spent more than half of my life with him.

As I headed down the road that I didn’t want to travel, (the one called life that forces you move forward whether you want to or not), I learned that some people knew exactly what to do to help me. Others said the wrong things such as: “It’s a great day to go to heaven.” That phrase made me feel that perhaps I should be happy about the situation?

But most people had no clue of what to do, and I began to understand why.

A few months after my husband’s death, I went to the large and nearby Barnes & Noble and found about 10 books on the shelf in the grief section. In fact, I don’t even think it qualified as a “section.” And not one of them gave any advice of how one might help another.

So it is from within my shroud of grief — a lead veil at the beginning that is now lighter but still very much with me — that I made some observations. These are observations that will guide me in how I respond to others in the same or similar position.

I, of course, received the normal condolence cards, which were appreciated. But then, a month or two after the funeral, I received different cards. I mean, personal cards, in the person’s own handwriting, and they expressed concern for me. They seemed to come at the time when most people had probably forgotten my grief and was coincidentally the time when the magnitude of the loss was really starting to hit home.

A few months later, I received additional cards from the same people. I thought about this. These people didn’t just care about me at the time of the loss; they were walking me through the aftermath.

Some of the most treasured notes came from high-school friends, people I hadn’t seen in years who live at the opposite end of the country. This gesture meant so much to me, and it re-kindled some old friendships.

One day I received a call from a neighbor. She told me she had not wanted to disturb me, but that she had left something for me on my porch. What I found was a basket, with the following items:

  • Warm homemade chili in a pot ready to put on my stove.
  • Small containers, one with chopped onions and one with shredded cheddar cheese.
  • A loaf of artisan bread.
  • A bottle of Chardonnay.

How touched I was from this gesture is hard to put into words, even now. 

On another day, my doorbell rang, and when I opened it, two young, teenage-appearing girls stood there with some bags in their arms. They quickly explained who they were:

“I am Chelsey, and this is my sister Miranda. We are the grandchildren of Chris Boucher. Since she is in Tucson, she had us go buy this food to bring to you since we live in Phoenix.”(Where I reside.)

Again, a hometown friend had touched my heart.

When I was in the thick of grieving, I felt guilty for feeling sorry for myself. Some grief counseling helped me understand that I had every right to feel that way, and that it was very, very normal. My children and my church facilitated that free counseling.

In my case, following the funeral, my telephone rang less often. There were some notable exceptions. One very special person in my life called me twice a day, every day for the first year. It didn’t matter if all I did was cry. She was there for me.  Aren’t daughters wonderful?

Conversely, I ran in to friends who had attended my husband’s funeral, but I had not heard from them since. You can’t imagine how many times I heard, “I meant to call you, but didn’t know if I should.”

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