How To Help a Grieving Friend

A few weeks ago, we scattered my uncle’s ashes into the beach. We all grieved differently. My mum quivered on the edge of the pier. My 12-year-old cousin quietly sobbed. And someone scooped a portion of my uncle’s ashes to keep in a plastic zip-lock bag. At the get-together afterwards, my grandparents refused to cry. “That isn’t what he’d want,” they nearly yelled at my mother. “Just stop.” Then, to my semi-horror, my grandfather went around pointing at individual family members, shouting, “You’re going to die, you’re going to die, you’re going to die,” then pointed at my three-week-old niece and announced, “She’s going to die!” I held up my hands. “Nobody’s going to die!” I said. But clearly, someone had.

And my grandfather was right: everyone will die. Though we can’t prevent death, we can help the living. Here are a few ways (I think) you can avoid sucking at it.

HONOUR THE PAIN Hitting up a grieving person with platitudes ripped straight from a greeting card – or worse, Instagram – is the verbal equivalent of vomiting in their mouth. If they decide to punch you under these circumstances, that’s kind of your fault. Also: it’s not your job to ‘fix’ their pain. They’ve lost a loved one. They haven’t dropped their iPhone in a puddle. So give that some respect, ditch the advice, and above all, ditch the ‘it gets better’ bullshit. Because it doesn’t get better; it gets different.

ASK QUESTIONS I can count on one hand how many times people have asked me, “How are you going without Dave?” Maybe folks are scared to open up a conversation, or even just acknowledge death – but frig, I wish they would. This question is ace because it gives the grieving person a chance to talk, remember and reflect on how they’re feeling. And even if they don’t want to say anything at all, it’s still nice for them to know that yes, you give a shit.

DO SOMETHING TANGIBLE A standard line to the grieving is: “Let me know if I can do anything to help.” Yes, there are lots of things you can do to help – starting with not making me think of that for you. You’re not the one grieving, so you have the brainpower to come up with obvious solutions, like buying groceries and/or walking the dog. Text them saying, “I’ll be at your place at 6pm to make dinner,” or whatever – but remember to check before you jump on housework, e.g. laundry. That jumper might be the last thing that smells like them.

CHOOSE FILMS CAREFULLY Because even if something is billed as a comedy, it might contain scenes of people dying in ‘hilarious’ ways. Or, you could do what my friend’s family did, and take your grieving grandmother to see Muriel’s Wedding. Spoiler alert: Rachel Griffiths gets cancer, which was probably a bummer for everyone in the cinema that day, and definitely a bummer for my friend’s grandmother who was rendered inconsolable. Check out Rotten Tomatoes for some narrative detail, and stick to movies where everyone lives.

BE THERE FOR THE LONG HAUL It’s been a year since my uncle died, but I’m still registering the fact that he’s dead. In the past few months, I’ve opened up to strangers – such is my need to talk and to share. Few people continue to check in months down the line, but I really think they should. To this day I haven’t touched any of my uncle’s stuff in my house. It’s still there, talking to me. Now, more than ever, I wish someone would hold my hand, help me to pack up those DVDs and return that library book. It’s funny the stuff you don’t want to do alone.

Image: Katherine Squier

This article first appeared in frankie magazine issue 77 (May/June 2017).

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