It is something we don’t talk about often, because it is sad and hard to handle.
When your friend has lost a loved one, when a department is grieving an on duty death, you know you can’t just leave them alone and not say anything.
But how do you know what to SAY? How do you know what to DO?
Unless you have experienced this kind of loss, you cannot fathom the pain and heartache your friend has experienced. And even if you have, even if you are grieving alongside them, your experience is very different than your friend's. You know this. But you are a person who is compassionate, a person who loves and cares for this friend.
And you want to help.
Here are 6 ways you can support your friend who is grieving:
- Be the first to bring it up.
- Be honest.
- Be okay with silence.
- Don't be patronizing.
- Help them find a way to memorialize their loved one.
- Know when to refer them to a professional.
1. Be the first to bring it up.
One thing I have noticed is how people worry that "if I bring up the loss, I will be “reminding” my friend of the loss."
Read that again.
We fear that mentioning the loss will REMIND my friend that their loved one is gone.
Now that we see it written, can we understand how ridiculous it sounds? Believe me, I laughed the first time I said it out loud to my mentor when I was trying to be supportive of my friend after a miscarriage.
Your friend will NEVER FORGET THEIR LOVED ONE.
When you are the first to ask how they are doing, or the first to bring up their coworker who is gone, you are the one saying, “I am okay with you being sad, I am okay with you talking about something that is uncomfortable for others, and I HAVE NOT FORGOTTEN OUR COWORKER EITHER.”
Do you understand how freeing and wonderful that can be for your friend who is grieving?
Now, there are times when you should be cautious about bringing this up, such as at gatherings with lots of people, right in the middle of a shift, or right before an important meeting.
Bring it up one on one at your favorite local coffee shop (mine is PG Juice and Java, with a popcorn latte!), or while you are out walking.
Bring it up around birthdays, anniversaries, milestones (graduations, weddings, new babies, just remember to bring it up one on one).
If you aren’t sure how to bring it up, say something like, “Hey, I just wanted to let you know I was thinking of JD (if you know, say the name) the other day. Just wanted to check in and see how you are doing.”
And if they say they aren’t wanting to talk about it, just remind them that you are here for them when they are ready or need the space. And that you care. Don’t talk excessively, just short and simple.
2. Be honest.
When it comes to talking about our feelings, especially around traumatic grief and loss, it is hard.
I know for me, my brain can start racing and over-thinking, “What do I say? How do I help them feel better? How do I fix this? What do I do if I can’t fix this? What if I say the wrong thing? What it? What if? What if?”
And then I freeze. And then I feel confused and overwhelmed. And then I just stop.
Don’t do this.
Instead, BE HONEST about what you are experiencing and how you want to help your friend.
Saying things like, “I could never understand what you are going through, but I want you to know I am here for you, whatever you need.”
Or, “honestly, I don’t know what to say. I just know I care about you and I want you to know I am here for you if you need some space.”
Even saying very honestly, “I wish I could make this better for you. But I know I can’t, I just want you to know I love you and I am here for you.”
Many folks feel completely lost and overwhelmed by their emotions. By you being honest, it gives them permission to be honest with you, too. To know that you are not here to “fix” their feelings, or to “take away their pain” (because, let’s face it, you can’t and you shouldn’t try).
Your honesty gives them a true connection with a safe person who they know they can trust and be vulnerable with when things get hard.
3. Be okay with silence.
This one is hard. I know. I used to hate silence.
Silence can be uncomfortable.
And yet, there is so much HEALING in the silent presence of someone who cares.
Sitting silently on a bench, next to your friend who has lost a colleague, watching the waves hit the shore, just sitting and breathing and being present.
Walking silently, through the trees, noticing the ways the rays of sunshine hit different parts of the trail ahead, just walking and breathing and being present.
In those moments, your friend is thinking many confusing thoughts, experiencing confusing feelings, things they would do alone in a dark corner of their house.
But in those moments, it is in the safe and caring space of a friend. Not alone.
You are letting your friend know that when they are confused, when they can’t bring their emotions and experiences to words, or say them out loud, you are there for them.
Silence in these moments isn’t awkward, it is healing.
4. Don't be patronizing.
This may seem self-explanatory, but you would be surprised at how inconsiderate many common phrases are when someone has lost a loved one.
The first example that comes to my mind is, “Well, at least he is in a better place.”
When I had my second miscarriage, someone said this to me. They meant well, I know now, but in that moment, I didn’t care. My mouth was silent, but my brain said, “How the eff is that supposed to make me feel better??? They should have grown up and lived life and made this world more beautiful!”
Another thing to NOT say is, “At least it wasn't you.” Or “You still have so and so at the department.” Or “At least you weren't there.” Or any other variation of this statement regarding other relationships that can essentially "replace" the one they have lost.
When people say this, folks usually respond with something like, “I don’t care, I wanted THAT friend to be alive!” Whether or not they say it out loud.
Most of the time, these patronizing statements come from a place or a desire for making your friend “feel better”.
Let me be quite clear:
They LOST A LOVED ONE. You cannot MAKE them FEEL BETTER. PERIOD.
So don’t try.
5. Help them find a way to memorialize their loved one.
Some people plant a rose bush or a tree. Some people will have a teddy bear specially made from clothing or blankets. Some people will have a piece of jewelry made with the name of the loved one.
I have two Willow Tree figurines for each of my angel babies.
Around the loved one's birthday or anniversary of their death, light a candle every year. Visit the person's favorite place and bring flowers. If you can, talk about what you love about the loved one who is gone, and how much you miss them.
It’s okay to ask your friend if they have thought about a way to memorialize their loved one.
Just don’t push your favorite way onto them. This is their grief, not yours.
6. Know when to refer them to a professional, and help them find one if you can.
When someone has experienced traumatic grief (a sudden and sometimes senseless death of a loved one), they need professional help. Almost every single time.
This is a loss that people need to process with a professional, whether one on one or with a group.
But if after they end their counseling support groups, and some time has passed, you notice that your friend is changing in concerning ways, you may need to do some research.
Some warning signs to watch out for include significant increase in isolation from others, significant changes in moods or behaviors (they used to be bubbly and now they cry every time you see them), they present as hopeless about the world, they are no longer patient or have intense anger outbursts, they seem to be stuck in that first few months after the death and can’t seem to get out of it, or they even have suicidal thoughts.
If they have active suicidal thoughts, call 911. No matter what!
For the other warning signs, before you suggest professional help, do some research yourself. Find counselors who specialize in grief and bereavement, even better if it is around traumatic grief. Find local support groups for bereavement. Find people who are in your friend’s insurance network.
If you bring them the list and show them that you have already done the research for them, it can make it easier for them to reach out for help, knowing the people they are calling might be able to understand.
You are a good friend. You care enough to learn how to be helpful. You care enough to read over 1,000 words about how to help your friend.
Just remember, you can’t fix this for them.
The best thing you can do is be present, be honest, and be kind.
Take care, friends!
Alisha Sweyd, LMFT
Alisha is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She is also the Director and Co-Founder of Code 3 Counseling. Alisha specializes in working with first responder trauma. You can contact her through our website.
If you find that this exercise or these conversations brought up some stuff you are struggling with, either individually or in your relationship, please do not hesitate to reach out to us for help. We are here to support you, and we understand that this can be a challenging issue to face.
Remember, it may be your battle, but you don’t have to fight it alone.