When a friend is grieving, it’s hard to know what to do, how to act, what to say. There’s a lot of criticism for those friends who haven’t ‘been through it’ themselves. These are often the same people who say unhelpful things such as ‘they had a good life’, ‘at least… [insert anything]’, ‘God only takes the best’….
As a bereaved person, you suddenly realise that there are people out there who have been fortunate to live a long time without having to deal with a significant bereavement themselves. Suddenly, those people seem alien to those of us in the ‘grief club’.
However, the non-grieving friend is one of the most important people in the early stages of grief. How can that be when they don’t understand what we are going through?
Well, it’s exactly for this reason that they are so important to us.
When Abi first died, people who had adapted to their own loss offered me support, and as a now bereaved-adjusting mum, I too find myself drawn to support friends who are experiencing loss. Yet there’s something important I’ve noticed about the distinction between those of us who have been there and those of us who haven’t.
When sitting with a friend in their rawness of grief, they are able to open up about the experience, the emotions and pain of loss. But I often hear, ‘it’s not as bad as your experience (losing a child)’. The sense that they can open up and ‘complain’ about their grief is stifled by my own loss. That I had a rawer deal. That they shouldn’t grumble. And that’s simply not true.
By our nature, we compare ourselves to others – our relationships, pregnancies, children’s milestones, jobs, homes, lives… we live by comparison. Grief is no different.
There’s a period following the death of a loved one where the bereaved are in limbo – this is the period that holds the shock, despair, trauma and strain of the loss before the person is ready to join the ‘grief club’.
I am mindful of supporting friends at different stages of their grief.
The initial stage is fuelled by anxiety, anger and fear. No one will understand what the person is going through.
This is where the non-grieving friend can offer the best support.
Rather than stepping back, they should step forward.
Offer to sit and listen, for hours, every day until that story has been told. The bereaved will have a chance to ‘own their grief story’ – to talk about it as though they are the only person to ever have lost someone they loved, to emphasise all the trauma and stress that has impacted them as a result of this loss, to cry and say how much they miss them without fear of affecting the listener’s own grief story. This is their time, and it’s vital to helping them transition into the grief club.
Once in the grief club, they are welcomed by people who’ve been there, who have had loved ones die of the same thing, who are setting examples of how they channel their grief and how they live on without them.
There is a very good place for the people in this club, but initially, as a way to honour the departed and to process what has happened, the grieving need their story to be unique. We all experience loss but every loss is unique and deeply personal.
The death of my daughter, the loss of my pregnancies cannot and should not be compared to the impact of the death of someone in old age or someone who has died from illness. My loss is hard, of course it is, but so is yours.
My advice to the newly bereaved is to seek out friends, experienced or not, who are good listeners, who don’t mind sitting on your sofa for hours passing you tissues, nursing a cold cup of tea (cold tea means they’re listening not bustling around trying to be helpful which would only fog your brain further). Seek out those friends who won’t burden you with their own losses and problems, who say few words, who will smile and lift your spirits a little. It’s your turn to be listened to. And never, ever, apologise for feeling the way you do.