Almost three and a half years ago I was thrown into the world of the grieving parent. At the time, I was in a highly alert state, taking words that were said to me and dissecting them one by one. Sometimes people said things that I found confusing, and maybe even hurtful. I started reading…
When it came to showing support to a friend going through loss, I thought I was well-prepared.
I’ve had grief training as a volunteer and facilitator for a pregnancy loss support group. I experienced five early pregnancy losses, supported friends through their stillbirths, and struggled with infertility. I write a blog, and have for the last five years, in which I have specifically tell people how to support their loved ones through pregnancy loss.
If you’re going by paper credentials, I should have known what to say and what to do to help a friend who went through loss.
But you know what? I still got it wrong.
I offered a friend what I thought was support through a loss — and it turns out, it wasn’t quite what she needed after all. Now that I’ve gotten it all wrong, I can better sympathize when support people express:
The paralyzing fear that you’re going to say the wrong thing, so much so you’d almost rather not say anything at all.
The awkwardness of admitting you were not what they needed, even as you know your motives and heart were in the right place.
The disappointment that your actions or words didn’t show them the love you felt for your friend or family member.
The heartache that you may have made them feel worse, and not better, in their time of need.
Being a support person is hard because you are very well aware that so much is at stake here, and what you do and what you say matters.
While this learning experience was a bit painful (I’m sure for us both), I’m thankful my friend is a gracious person and we weathered though it together.
The hard truth is: There are no easy answers when it comes to supporting a friend enduring loss. But it is important that we try.
I love the idea that I might be able to offer you a list of 1-2-3 things you can say and do, and “presto” — you have magically offered your friend comfort in the darkest time of her life.
But what feels comforting to some feels absolutely wrong to others. Personality types, the status of your relationship, the intricacies of the kind of loss — plus the fact that most moms don’t know what they needed until AFTER they needed it — all play in a role in this dance called grief support.
So I can’t give you a list that will guarantee you will say SAY the right things and DO all the right things. But what I can do is offer you a little of my hindsight, in hopes that just maybe, you might have a better chance of meeting your friend where they are. Here are my 4 simple truths to supporting a friend through loss:
1. Take time.
I was in a mad rush all day prior to first seeing my friend after her loss. All of the rushing around was well-intentioned, but the result of it was that I was already spent by the time I made it to visit her. What she needed was my quiet and calm presence. What she got was my frantic and hungry self who desperately needed a full tummy and a still mind. She got a friend who was so terrified of saying the wrong thing she talked too much and still said the wrong thing.
It’s sort of like the oxygen mask on the plane. Put your own on first. Make sure you have physically and emotionally what YOU need before reaching out. You cannot pour out from an empty jug, or so the saying goes.
If I could have a do-over: I would have eaten on my way the hospital, and taken at least 15 minutes n the lobby or my car to pray, to still my mind and racing heart, so I could just simply be with her. I would meet my needs first so I could better meet hers.
2. Don’t take too much time.
Once I did visit, I stayed too long. I have a horrible sense of the passing of time, and my frantic state of mind did not help. I can’t tell you what is the right amount of time to stay with someone during or after a loss, but the longer I stayed, the more I felt I needed to talk instead of just listen.
If I could have a do-over: I would have hugged her, told her how amazing and beautiful her baby was, sat for a few minutes with my friend to listen to whatever she wanted to say, and then left. Sometimes, I think, brevity is best.
3. You can’t do everything.
I was so afraid that something would go undone that I tried to do it all:
- gifts for her
- gifts for baby
- help arrange photography
… that I literally gave more than I had to give. I simply forgot that her network extended far beyond our mutual friends. I could do something, but I didn’t need to do it all.
If I could have a do-over: I would choose one thing, maybe two, and call it good. I would leave room for her other loved ones to fill in the gaps, even if I couldn’t foresee how all her needs might be met. My job wasn’t to make sure all her bases were covered. Only to show up and show some love.
4. But you can do something.
Even though I made mistakes along the way, I am glad I did something. Because something, even if it is not exactly what they need, shows more love than doing nothing.
If I could have a do-over: I wouldn’t. I would still show up. I would still love the best that I knew how. Even if I floundered a bit along the way.
Have you ever felt the fear that you wouldn’t show up in the right way for your friend? Have you ever had to offer someone else grace when they didn’t love or support you the way you needed?