In October 2018, my brother Jack passed away unexpectedly. He went to sleep one night and never woke up. Months later we learned he’d suffered a cardiac event that couldn’t have been anticipated or prevented. My strong, healthy, smart, loving brother, the person my entire family looked up to even though he was technically the youngest, was gone in an instant. The fragility of life is astounding.
In the days, weeks, and months following his death, Carla, myself, our husbands, and our parents, felt like our world had exploded and we’d been shot into space. I’ll never forget the morning after he passed away waking up to the sun rising and feeling so confused and betrayed. How could the sun rise again after the world ended? How could life continue around us when the life we knew and loved was gone forever? The pain, both emotional and physical, was all consuming. I truly did not think any of us would ever be ok again.
But as time has passed, we have moved forward carrying our grief and connection to Jack with us. It has been a very hard road, but one with many beautiful lessons.
Many people have reached out to me since that horrific time asking how to help a friend who has lost someone, especially if it was unexpected. I first have to say that if you are wondering to yourself how you can possibly help in a terrible situation of loss, what you can possibly do to bring a friend or family member comfort, just know you are a wonderful person for even asking these questions. Grief is so hard. It’s big and messy and intimidating to witness. A lot of people run away from it, understandably. If you are contemplating how to help, I’m sure whatever you do will be very thoughtful and provide comfort because you are making the effort to be there in whatever way you can.
In a situation where there is no fixing it, all you can do is find a way to show you care.
I can share from my experience the gestures that brought me some solace:
- Short visits from friends and family (a couple hours or so, not all day). It felt so painful for my family to be alone, just us. Jack’s absence felt even greater when there were only four of us in the house. I would just let your friend know you’d like to stop by ahead of time for a short visit and then head out when you sense they need to rest. Grief is exhausting.
- Flowers are lovely, but it was also really helpful when people brought useful items like basic groceries (eggs, bananas, bread), paper towels, toilet paper, paper plates… if it is a similar situation to our family, your friend is probably holding his/her parents up, so any day-to-day basics that can be taken off their plate is helpful.
- Bringing a meal that is on the healthier side instead of pasta based (though I can’t emphasize enough how much anything someone brought us was appreciated) helped me feel a little more energetic and normal.
- Share a story about their loved one. I was desperate to hear other people’s experiences of Jack. It helped me feel closer to him knowing how much the people around me loved him, too, and that they admired him as much as I do. I’ll never forget when his fraternity brothers drove hours on a school day to spend the afternoon with our family sharing sweet, funny, meaningful stories, and a lot of tears with us.
- Text them frequently saying they don’t need to respond, but that you love them and are there for them is incredibly comforting. My mother in law texted me every morning for weeks after Jack died and I rarely responded but it made me feel loved, anchored to something consistent, and comforted.
- My cousin brought us each a small gift of beautiful journals and pens. I found that really thoughtful and useful. If you give a journal, you could write a note in it sharing your love.
- Be present. Whether by phone or in person, ask how they are really doing, give them time to choose how to respond, and be open to any answer. Maybe they don’t want to talk about their loss and would rather be distracted by what is going on in your life. Maybe they want to retell stories, or cry, or cuss, or sit silently, comforted by your presence. I was so grateful when the person I was with would let me steer the conversation based on how I was feeling because one minute all I would want is to talk about Jack and the next I couldn’t bear to say his name.
- A note on what to say. I found it very comforting when people said something along the lines of “I love you. I can’t possibly understand what you are going through right now, but I want you to know I am and will continue to be here for you.” I know everyone has the best of intentions, but I thought I’d also share a few things that were hard to hear:
- Sentiments that minimized our loss. For example, any sentence that starts with “at least.” “Well, at least… it was in his sleep, at least… you have your sister, at least.. you got 21 years with him.” Or things like “we’re all going to die sometime” or “everything happens for a reason.”
- Hearing people relate it to another situation like when a grandparent or pet (not kidding) died. All loss is universal, yet unique, and especially in the immediate aftermath, it is incredibly painful to hear someone act like what you’re feeling could compare to a different situation.
- Phrases like “Wow, you seem great! I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed!” or “You need to keep busy” or “Why is your Dad working right now?!” can come off a bit judgmental of how someone is grieving. There is no rulebook on how to navigate loss and during a time of such heartache, I felt sensitive to when others implied I was doing grief “wrong.”
- On naming. Lastly, it shocks and saddens me to have to write this point. If you plan or hope to spend time with your grieving friend in the future, do not name your baby, dog, or goldfish after their late loved one. Just don’t. Pick from the other million and five name options in the world. Maybe it’s something people can’t understand unless they’ve been through it (..maybe?), but that name will forever and always be sensitive. It will always bring up memories. It will always be hard to hear. Of course, it is a different situation if it is a family name being used in honor of the late person and the grieving person loves and supports the idea wholeheartedly. It is also very different for me to meet someone now named Jack who obviously had that name before my brother died than for a friend to choose that specific name, out of all the names in the world, knowing it’s the name of my late brother. An insult to injury is to say, “we had a few names we loved equally, but he/she just looked like a [late person’s name],” like there was no choice in the matter. There is always a choice and just know it will make your relationship very difficult if you choose to use that name. If you really must use that name, at the very least ask if it’s ok beforehand. The look on their face will tell you before they even say a word.
My family and I agree that as the grieving person, you often feel like you repel people. Others are so scared to say or do the wrong thing that they sometimes do nothing at all. I have been that person in the past who opted to stay silent out of fear of “making it worse” or thinking I’d “remind” them of their pain. But I now understand that the person grieving is already living in a nightmare and you couldn’t possibly remind them of something that is constantly at the forefront of their mind. In my experience, you really can’t make it any worse. I hope you find that truth freeing and it empowers you to be there, in whatever way you can. When people shy away or don’t show up, especially those you would have expected to be there, it can feel very isolating, confusing, and disappointing.
I wholeheartedly believe that in the situation of loss, it is always better to do something than nothing. Even in the moments when I was frustrated by something someone said or generally hateful of everyone who gets to be alive when my brother doesn’t, I always knew that people were trying to help. I can’t express how grateful I am to those who were there during that time and I hope this list of ideas, based on my personal experience, encourages you to confidently support someone you love who desperately needs it.