Guide for Millenials with Grieving Friends

Simple steps for difficult times

For me, it started around the same time the first of my friends got married. Other friends were losing their parents. Mostly cancer, a few other illnesses, not as many funerals as weddings, but enough to make me think about how I was dealing with my friends’ grief. Not very well, I felt. Every time, I would be overwhelmed by what they had lost, and how little I could do to fix it for them. I would pull back for fear of imposing on them, and then worry that I was abandoning them when they needed help. I got some etiquette tips, but somehow those didn’t seem to cover it. And who knows what etiquette still applies for our generation anyway?

Then, just before Christmas, my brilliant, complicated, utterly irreplaceable father went into the hospital. He was eventually diagnosed with a very rare and fast-moving cancer, and died two days into 2015. The entire course of his illness took less than three weeks. I’m still struggling, still trying to grasp what it means to go through the world without his love and his confidence at my back. But I have been lucky in my friends, many of whom have been able to reach through my grieving and bewilderment. Not all of them can. I can see that they are so, so sorry and unsure how to express it, not wanting to burden me with their feelings about my loss. This guide is for them, because no one tells us how to do this. We’re all amateurs at grief.

First and foremosT. Reach out. Especially in ways that don’t require a response. Sympathy card, of course, but email and text are just as good if that’s how you and your friend normally communicate. And don’t overthink what you say. There is nothing you can say that will make it better. That is not the point. All you really need to say is, “I’m so sorry. I’m here if you need me.” That is all your friend needs to know, and that is probably all they will read anyway. If you have something more than that (especially a memory of the person they lost), that’s great, but you don’t need it. Just reach out. Your friend will probably (if unconsciously) be waiting to hear from you, to see if you’re someone they can lean on or someone who runs for the hills. Be the former.

Do stuff for them. They might need emotional support, but just as likely they need logistical support, especially in the immediate aftermath. When you ask if there’s anything you can do, your friend may be able to come up with things they need done. (I needed a black dress Fed-Exed from my apartment in New York, for example.) But they may also be reluctant to ask, or just too overwhelmed to come up with something. So keep offering (again, in ways that don’t necessarily require a response), and make your own suggestions. Food is a big thing. I never understood why people need meals. It’s because they probably have a ton of relatives in town and about a fifth of their usual mental capacity to deal with it. One friend heard me say I’d been meaning to cancel a subscription, asked if I wanted her to do it, and then did it for me. It was one less thing for me to worry about, which was actually really great.

If you’re not physically there to help, send things. As long as it is not demanding of the other person, there is no gesture that is excessive. Ask them what they need, and if they don’t need anything, send something anyway. A friend sent a care package of delicious foods and a book of short stories. It was wonderful. She actually organized a bunch of us to do the same thing for a mutual friend a few years ago, when that friend lost a parent. At that time I remember agonizing over what should go in the box. It doesn’t matter what goes in the box. What matters is that you send it with love.

Go to the funeral. There’s a lot of advice for people our age about being wedding guests and when you should and shouldn’t go to a wedding, but there isn’t much about funerals. Again, when it was one of my friends going through this, I worried that it would be an imposition on the friend to show up at the funeral. It isn’t. Your friend might not think to ask you to come, because they probably haven’t been through this either, but funerals are generally not invitation-only (nor do you need to RSVP). That means you will probably need to ask about the funeral arrangements—not being notified doesn’t mean you’re not invited. It doesn’t matter if you knew the person who died—people go to funerals for all kinds of reasons, but the main one is to support the people who are left behind. And it will probably mean a lot to your friend to have people there who they actually like, in between the hugs from randoms they’ve never seen before. So ask your friend (or, even better, their partner or a close family friend) about the funeral arrangements, and go if you can.

Take your cue from your friend. Losing someone you love, particularly if it was unexpected, can feel extremely surreal. You have moments where everything is normal and you just want to be normal, and moments where you need desperately to talk about how you feel. Those things can happen in the course of the same conversation. Just go with it. As with weddings, pregnancies, and pretty much everything else, avoid making assumptions about how they are feeling and on what timeline they are feeling it. There is no right or wrong way to feel about this, but it is amazing how easy it is for the person to feel that they’re doing it wrong. I have felt a million different things since my dad died, ranging from utter heartbrokenness to bizarre amusement to minor irritation. I have felt guilt that I had fun baking a cake, and guilt that I couldn’t bring myself to go to a party. What I have needed is my friends calmly, steadily, and repeatedly assuring me that all the feelings are fine.

A lot of this may seem self-evident. And in earlier generations maybe it was. But I have found that people our age are generally bewildered by these situations, have no idea how to respond, and sometimes end up doing nothing. Non-response tends to come with good motives, since the desire not to impose is often uppermost in our minds. But your love is not an imposition. It is a hand reaching out to support your friend at a time when they need a lot of hands.

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  • Eh

    ALL OF THIS! This is one of the reasons I love APW – posts about real life.

    I do want to add that these things also apply when someone is going through a traumatic or stressful situation. My mom passed away from cancer when I was a teenager after a four month battle. From that experience I learned so much about how to help friends and loved ones during their times of need. While she was sick people sent us food, offered to drive my mom to appointments, took care of the gardens, mowed our lawn, called us to check in on us to see if we needed anything. The support grew after she passed away. It was great seeing so many of my friends and classmates take the time to come to her funeral.

    Obviously sometimes loss is sudden but other time stressful events are longer-term or even anticipated. My friend has a daughter who was born with a medical condition. They knew before she was born that she would have to spend some time in the NICU. She has a son who was two at the time and they lived over an hour from the hospital where her daughter would be staying. To prepare for her daughter’s arrival I helped make freezer meals for her son and husband and we offered our house (which was 20 minutes from the hospital) as a place to sleep. Luckily the daughters medical condition was not as severe as expected and she was only in the NICU for about a week (and thankfully did not need surgery).

  • snf100

    All of this, exactly particularly the part about going with the flow and taking your cue from your friend. Emotions and actions might be all over the place, even in the course of a conversation. Continue to tell your friend or partner that you are there for them and that what ever they are feeling is normal and probably expected.
    Also remember your friend around their parents birthday(if you know it), their birthday, and other holidays, and the anniversary of their parent’s death. You friend might not want to be reminded of what they are missing on those days so don’t make yourself intrusive but recognize that they might be hard.

    • Eh

      Grieving is an on going process. I always have a hard time around the anniversary of my mom’s death and her birthday. My advice would be to be supportive and let them be how they are those days (or around those days as it might not be the specific day and it might be multiple days). If they want to talk, then listen. If they want an escape, then support them with that.

      I am pregnant and my daughter’s original due date was the anniversary of her death (it’s been pushed back 9 days now). Also, my nieces due date was my mother’s birthday (she was born 10 days late).

      • snf100

        I am trying hard to anticipate what this year will be like, as my father died last year, and I know that I can never anticipate everything. Adding to complications my wedding is the last time I saw him, so my anniversary a day I am supposed to feel nothing but joy and happiness is also tied up in something very sad. I am hopping that this gets easier over the years.

        • Eh

          It is impossible to anticipate. It gets easier but certain things still trigger it (we’ve had lots of triggers the last few years). On the 10th anniversary of my mom’s death my husband’s family had a huge fight. I wanted to tell them all off (I restrained myself but barely). Planning my wedding was hard (the day of was not as bad as I had expected). My sister’s wedding the year after mine was also hard. My niece being born was hard (my mom’s first grandchild and her middle name is my mom’s name). Going through this pregnancy has been hard (people ask a lot of questions like “how was your mom’s pregnancies?” or “how were your mom’s labours?”). My daughter’s original due date was a bit unnerving but few babies are born on the due date so that made me feel better.

          Feel how you feel that day and don’t worry about it. I have had a lot of guilt about feeling sad on days when I was supposed to feel happy (I left my prom because my mom was in the hospital and I couldn’t celebrate while I felt so crappy).

          • snf100

            Thank you for your insight. I have been trying to give myself permission to feel what I am feeling, and my husband is great about allowing me to do so as well.

          • Eh

            Its great that he’s so supportive.

    • Cara

      Mother’s day is going to be incredibly tough this year, my first one without my mother. I don’t want to take away from my MIL’s day, but I also don’t want to have mom stuff shoved in my face left and right. Ugh, and everyone posting how much they love and appreciate their mom on facebook is going to be killer. It’s hard to appreciate a day to celebrate someone you no longer have.

      • snf100

        I understand, Father’s day last year was exactly 1 month after my father passed and it was so hard. Particularly b/c I have a wonderful stepdad and grandfather who I wanted to celebrate, but at the same time I was grieving not having my father around. I allowed myself to take breaks as I needed, I may have spent some extra time in the bathroom that day and I went on a long walk with my husband before dinner. Give yourself space and permission to be sad all day, maybe take a break from facebook that day and be upfront with those around you, asking them to give you space. If you need to take the day and get a manicure or a massage or just be alone with some wine and a book, then do it, everyone will understand that mother’s day just isn’t going to be a thing you can do. Similarly if you think it would help do something your mom loved or that you enjoyed doing together. Be honest with yourself and what you need to get through a really tough day. Sorry this got so long, apparently I have a lot to say on the matter

      • Eh

        Do what you are comfortable with. I did nothing for mother’s day for years (my dad remarried six or seven years ago and one holiday that we do not celebrate with my step-family is mother’s day). On certain days (including mother’s day sometimes) I post pictures on FB of my mom and me (this has only been in the last couple of years). I don’t live in the city where my mom was buried so I can’t go visit. My cousin actually goes every year to our grandmother’s grave and lays flowers. He has done this for years and never told anyone until a couple years ago.

      • Amanda

        I’m so sorry for the loss of your mom. I lost my cousin/best friend right at Christmas time a few years ago, making Christmas the hardest time of the year for me. I have felt pressure from my partner’s family to participate in their celebrations, but I just don’t have it in me to be with them during a time that means something so different to me than it does to them. Maybe someday, just not yet. I would say to treat Mother’s Day in whatever way makes sense to you and try not to worry too much about your MIL. She will (or at least should) understand. The “firsts” are always the hardest, at least for me, and you can always do things differently as more time passes.

  • heatherlers

    This is so spot on. Last December our son died two weeks before his due date. We were so blessed to have people who wanted to help, wanted to do something, but when someone asked “what can I do?” I’d freeze up. Closest I’ve ever felt to a panic attack. Trying to think of something or coordinate something was so beyond what I was capable of in those early weeks. My best friend (who lives a state away and could not have come as she was a week away from her own due date) sent some cookies and brownies for snacking, no asking, just perfect. And so your closing line is basically my mantra for traumatic events in my social circles now, “But your love is not an imposition. It is a hand reaching out to support your friend at a time when they need a lot of hands.” Whether as small as a note of love and condolences or food just delivered, the important part is doing whatever small thing you can to – however briefly – lessen the burden of grief.

    • Meredith

      Thank you for sharing your story – our friends are going through the same with the loss of their daughter 1 week before she was due. They live overseas and we had no idea how to help, reach out, or what to say. We sent food and flowers and I send weekly “checking in on you, we love you” quick emails, but I truly don’t know what to do. I’m glad to hear, from you at least, that what we’re doing isn’t wrong or meaningless.

      • heatherlers

        Not meaningless, not even slightly!! I’ll also add, when/if they share her name, don’t be afraid to use it. There can be a hesitation there, that it might be painful to hear or bring up hard feelings. The sadness will be there for them regardless, so when people use my son’s name (for me at least), there’s a comfort there. As if I’m not the only one remembering him, thinking of him by name, as the person he was, the piece of our family that will always be missing.

        • Ashley

          I used to work with bereaved families who had lost a child to cancer and this was the most powerful piece of advice they gave me. Don’t be afraid to talk about the child they lost. Use their name, tell stories about them if you have them. Just because no one is talking about them, doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten so don’t be afraid to bring them up and knowledge that they lived and that their parents are still parents.

      • When I was going through a time of intense grieving (for other reasons), those kind of emails (the checking in ones, people saying they were thinking of me, etc.) were the things that got me through the day. I would re-read them too when I needed encouragement and to know I was loved. Never underestimate how much a simple email might mean to someone….

    • Eh

      Thank you for sharing. One of the first big losses in my group of friends was one of the first babies to be born. He was born at 24 weeks gestation and passed away a few days later. Many people did not know how to react. When he was in the hospital I was trying to think of something I could do for my friend and her husband. I sent them emails letting them know I was thinking of them. Then when he passed away I sent them a gift card (through email) to their favourite local restaurant and a note. The next day (I was shocked to get a response so quickly) she emailed me to thank me for the gift card and how it meant so much to them because that is where they have celebrated so many events (including buying their house) and it would be nice to go there and remember their son and have a nice meal. Five years later she had a baby girl and she told me again how much she appreciated my support during that time. She said that so many people just didn’t know what to do that they just did nothing and she felt very alone. They frequently talk about their son by name – they remember him on his birthday and they planted a tree on their property for him.

      • heatherlers

        Ah, yes, the restaurant gift card! We got one of those as well early on, and it was probably one of the most welcome gestures – and not something I ever would have thought of before.

        I’ve found that once it happened to us, I was amazed by the stories that come out of the woodwork. It is so, so much more common than I ever would have guessed and the likelihood is that between friends, family and coworkers everyone is likely to know someone who goes through the loss of an infant. For me, I try to talk about him as freely as I feel I can (without being the wet blanket at every turn). This is my grief that I will carry with me always. Sharing stories and remembering feels like it’s a critical part of “community”, of knowing that sorrow is sorrow, in whatever corner of your life the loss makes itself known. And in that, none of us should feel alone.

        • Eh

          Another one of my friends had a miscarriage and had a similar experience with people coming out of the woodwork with stories. She felt so alone right after her miscarriage because she didn’t know of anyone else who had had one. Then she was open about her miscarriage and a number of her friends and family started telling her their stories. She is very open about her loss because she doesn’t want anyone she knows to feel like they are the only one they know that had a miscarriage.

          My theory with the gift card was they could use it when they need it. Being sent food is great but it has to be used in a specific time period (obviously if it’s frozen it will last longer) and you have to be at home. A restaurant gift card could be used later when they want to escape or right away if they don’t have time to cook or they are away from home and need to have supper.

          • heatherlers

            Agree wholeheartedly, on both counts!!

          • The gift card is an excellent idea! I will have to try to remember that!

      • Cara

        Restaurant gift cards are a great gift! My mom was so sick for several months before she passed that we spent all our time at her home, caring for her and being with her, so when she passed away, we kind of wanted to get out of the house and all the sadness that was there. It was tough because people were sending meals, and it was weird to be out and about where real life was happening and people would ask how your day was going. But a restaurant gift care is such a nice way to tell someone you’re thinking about them and want to make sure they are being taken care of.

        • Eh

          I think another thing that is great about them is that they aren’t just for “sad” times. We give/receive them at Christmas and birthdays too so if the person does use it later or even if they use it right away (e.g., to escape and get out of the house and all the sadness that was there as you said) it doesn’t have that same stigma. Sending food is generally reserved for sad times.

    • Shortnsweet

      I lost my daughter at 4 months old in January, and the most supportive thing people did was simply remember her. On the day she would have been six months old, a family member sent flowers, and I nearly collapsed with gratitude. So often, I think people shy away from bringing up a memory because we don’t want to remind anyone what has been lost, but the truth is that when you have lost someone you love, you are always thinking of them, always remembering. When I got the flowers, I was so grateful that she was remembered. I had gone through the whole day grieving her, but the flowers let me know I was not alone. Anything you can do to let a grieving family know that you too remember the one they have lost is a gift beyond measure.

      • Emma

        yes!! sending you lots of love, so sorry for your loss.

      • heatherlers

        My heart goes out to you! I’ve been astounded how the grief ebbs and flows, that the remembering can have such sharp, painful edges some days and not on others. And how my desire to share with someone or to hold my thoughts close to really varies day by day.

        I had someone tell me that the intensity of the sadness would never go away, just come less and less frequently as time goes on. That’s held true for me, even just four months later. . .It’s hard to articulate, but there was definitely something comforting in being told that.

  • pajamafishadventures

    I would add: Follow up. Grief doesn’t end with the funeral. Your friend may be fine, your friend may be unbelievably not fine but unsure of how to articulate. Just checking in and asking how they’re doing specifically in the wake of a loss can allow them to articulate their struggles.

    I lost my grandparents almost a year ago, and still feel completely not ok with the entire thing, and it was that lack of follow up or acknowledgment afterwards that I struggled with just as much as not having two very important people in my life (and most frustrating of all was that not even my parents felt the need to check in and follow up). After being ignored about my desire to not celebrate the holidays because they felt emotionally overwhelming I stopped trying to voice my struggles. It’s only when someone reaches out and shows that they want to know how I’m dealing that I feel confidant talking about how I’m still grieving.

    • lottie

      Yes. There’s often a lot of support in the immediate aftermath, but it’s the friends who stick it out over the long haul — whether that means checking in via email or phone, bringing over dinner, sending some flowers just to make you smile, etc — that can really make a (positive) difference.

    • I think this is an excellent point. Grief can last a long time, and the healing process is not linear. It’s been close to 2 years since I went through something traumatic, and I still have days where there grief is strong. And it is still something I think about every day. Healing is such a long and complicated process, and I so appreciated the friends who got that and did not encourage me to “move on” too quickly. Yes, I have been rebuilding a new life, but the wounds will always be there. Complicated.

  • Meredith

    Thanks for writing this! I lost my dad suddenly when I was 20 (suicide) and none of my friends had ever gone through that. Since then, two of my bridesmaids have gone through some painful family health issues, that have thankfully not ended in sadness, but I felt like I had to “step up” and be the friend who could relate to them because of what I had learned before. I’ve had friends ask me for advice when a parent of one of their friends passes because they want to know what I found the most useful when I was going through it all 7 years ago. I think your advice is spot on – I remember feeling overwhelmingly loved at the funeral when random friends had showed up and I was simply not expecting to see their faces. I remember feeling cared for when they would randomly bring food by my dorm room in the weeks afterwards. I remember every kind thing that was said or done for me, and even those times when a friend would simply let me sit with him/her and keep me company in my grief. Love is never an imposition.

  • Sara

    I will say I’ve never lost a parent, but I was close to my grandmother who I lost a few years ago. And while friends texted or called, the thing that meant the most to me was two cards from girls I had worked with a couple years prior. We weren’t especially close at the time, but they both sent such lovely sentiments that it almost completely renewed our friendship. That and my two college girlfriends that sent flowers that they specifically knew I liked.
    For me, my go to is always making food for people in times of crisis. I tend to be a ‘solver’ so I have to reign myself in to make sure i”m not overwhelming other people with my ‘help’. When my college roommate’s father died suddenly, the funeral was in the middle of the week in another town. I couldn’t get time off to go to the actual funeral, so I went the weekend before and help her get everything ready, plus helped run interference with her somewhat overbearing mother. She said just having me there for her mother to talk to so she could deal with her own grief helped her a lot.

  • Emma

    Thanks for sharing this. My mom passed away six weeks ago.

    The only thing I would add is…keep it up. Keep texting your friend to say I’m thinking of you (I’m praying for you, I’m sending you good vibes…whatever it is you do). It’s really hard to feel like everyone else has forgotten and you are still stuck in this place. When people tell me that now that they are thinking of me it makes me feel like I’m not alone.

    • Em

      Yeah. Yes yes yes. This.

      Last spring, I lost an old dear friend and ex-girlfriend. Right after she died, there was a big outpouring of support, but it dropped off fairly abruptly after a few weeks, and of course I was still totally in the middle of my grief – but now I also stupidly felt like I had to justify still being stuck there, and I struggled with feeling guilty for “wallowing.” (I know.) This was especially prevalent at work obviously. It really, really, really means a lot to acknowledge that grief is not tidy and takes up a lot of space for a long time.

      I’m so sorry about your mom by the way. <3

      • Emma

        thank you <3

      • My take on this is that it is good to take the time you need to grieve and heal than to try to rush through it. The only way out is through, and I figure if I had tried to rush through my process, it would have come back later because I wouldn’t have properly healed…

    • Meg Keene

      Yes, for sure. I think with all the big things: death, childbirth, illness… the hard part is what happens after the first few weeks of hubbub are over. You’re still in it, but everyone else seems to have moved on.

  • A single sarah

    I’m so sorry for your loss. But grateful that you wrote this from your experience.

    The instruction to go to the funeral reminded me of my favorite This I Believe essay Always Go To the Funeral. I’d add that funeral homes often put the obituary online along with the funeral announcement. If you know the deceased’s name, google may help you find funeral arrangements.

    • ItsyBit

      What a great article. Thanks for sharing.

    • Emma

      This is such a great article! I can’t help but agree. I was blown away by some of the people who came to my mom’s funeral and shiva (and slightly hurt by some people who didn’t).

      • lottie

        My dad died suddenly, right before Thanksgiving, and I was amazed at all the people who not only came to the funeral (including some who managed to find last-minute and what must have been exorbitant plane tickets right before T-day) and who changed their T-day plans to make it to shiva. It was remarkable and meant so much.

    • mere…

      My best friend showed up to my grandmother’s funeral last weekend. She had never really met my Grandma and definitely just came to show me support. Having her there was one of the most comforting things I experienced during that awful week. I know I will never be able to express just how much her showing up meant to me and my family.

  • This is very timely – one of my friends lost her mother two weeks ago, and I have been unsure of what to do.
    Thank you for sharing, Abbey, and I am so sorry for your loss.

    • Emma

      Hi Moira,

      I would say that the most comforting thing that people say to me is simply “I’m thinking of you [insert heart emoji if texting]”. It let’s me know I’m not alone and it doesn’t require a reply if I’m not in the mood. On the other hand, if I do want to talk, it opens the door for me to say “Thanks….”

      Also, just keep being there and being a good friend – she really needs you right now!

  • BB

    When my father was diagnosed with cancer on a Sunday, and passed away that Friday my best friend had gone to our place and did the dishes. The horrible, disgusting, piled up dishes that never got done before we rushed to the hospital and never left for 5 days.
    My fiance and I cried over the clean sink when we got home. I mean! The dishes! Who would have thought that would mean so much?!

    • mere…

      I agree with this sentiment. My grandmother unexpectedly passed away last week & my family was caught so off guard. My husband and I ended up driving my mom’s car home for one day (it wasn’t emotionally safe for her to drive herself home and my dad had picked her up, abandoning her car). Her tank was getting low and I stopped to fill it up on the way home. I knew she’d be driving around for a lot of errands and didn’t want her to overlook her gas gauge. The next morning when she got in her car she called me crying just because she was so grateful she didn’t have to make a mundane stop in the midst of everything. Sometimes those little things can just get in the way of your grief and it is such a relief to have them off your to do list!

  • ItsyBit

    Thank you so much for this. While I have not dealt with this type of grief, I watched a friend recently deal with the sudden loss of her father. It was so hard to know what to do, what not to do, etc. I so identify with not wanting to impose & not knowing the “right” thing to say. This is really helpful.

  • Carolyn S

    Ugh so good. I lost my father on a similar timeline when I was 20, and was the first among my peers to lose a parent. One piece of advice I can give is use caution in how you relate to someone’s grief. Our tendency can be to try to relate “oh I know when I lost so and so,” but at 20 I had people relating with a lose of a grandparent, and even a bad breakup. The rational part of me understood, and still does, that the best you can relate to grief is through the worst you ever felt. However, as someone who isn’t quite as close to their grandparents, my internal response to those sorts of comparisons was… unappreciative. Stick with “i’m so sorry, this is the worst, what can I do.”

    • carissa

      Yeah, when I lost my mom when I was 23, my boyfriend’s mom compared it to putting their dog down. And I’m not even a dog person. I know she meant well, but it was extremely hurtful and insulting.

    • Annie

      Exactly, and well put. Unless you’ve gone through the same kind of loss (death of a parent or spouse) or relationship to a person with illness (parent or sibling or partner), it can feel frustrating, and as Carissa said, even insulting, to hear people equating your experience with the death of a grandparent or distant relative. No one’s loss is “worse” necessarily than anyone else’s, but it’s often better to simply offer condolences and keep your own experiences of grief to yourself.

    • diana

      at my dad’s funeral (I was 20 and my dad was 53 when he died), some rando from my church cornered me and told me all about how her dad had died too recently and how sad she was. She was in her 50s, and her dad was like 80 when he died. I know she meant well, but I wanted to punch her in the face. Needless to say I am now VERY careful about not ever equating my loss with someone else’s loss. And if a friend loses a loved one, guess what, it’s not about me and my loss right now!!!
      Also, I was surprisingly insulted when and acquaintance found out my dad died and asked if we had been “close.” Like I had to justify my grief to her by explaining what a great dad I had.

  • jashshea

    So sorry for your loss, Abbey. This is all terrific advice for all people young and old.

    When I was in college (way back before cell phones and texts and normalized home internet), I had a friend/roommate who suddenly lost her mother. We were all absolutely devastated and had no idea what to do with ourselves while she packed to go home. Your advice is perfect – offer to do the things that need to be done. Don’t delay getting in touch. Keep staying in touch. Let the impacted person guide the conversation and be willing to be whatever you need to be to support that person.

    There’s this really amazing graphic/article I saw a couple years ago about concentric circles of grief that:

    • ItsyBit

      I really loved that LA times article & infographic. It’s just so perfect and should be required reading for humans.

      • jashshea

        For sure! Felt like I was reading something I should have figured out years ago!

        Some people (like my mom) know this stuff innately and I typically just use her as my guiding principle – “what would my mommy do” – when shit gets real.

        • ItsyBit

          That’s an excellent guiding principal. Go mom!

        • Lizzie

          Yes, for me it’s “what would my grandma do?” She had that spidey-sense about social interactions and the Right Thing To Do in every situation, and I’m a bumbling idiot about those things, but I try to channel her as much as I can.

    • Laura C

      I have a friend who recently had a couple major losses and he has repeatedly shared that article — I sort of don’t want to know the experiences that made him focus so much on it, but I guess it was really, really helpful to him to read.

    • Annie

      Thanks for sharing that article – it’s been shocking to me how often people are incredibly off the mark in responding to grief and illness. My partner is a young (under 30), active, athletic, otherwise healthy guy being treated for cancer, and so many of the responses I’ve gotten from casual acquaintances and coworkers have been wildly inappropriate, from miscast victim blaming (“It’s no wonder people are getting cancer these days with all of the crap we eat and sitting behind a desk we do” or “was he a smoker?”) to minimizing or trying to dictate our feelings (from my older boss: “well, when you get to be my age, almost everyone you know will have gone through cancer, so you learn to get used to it” or “you should be happy it’s not something worse like XYZ cancer”), or asking very detailed, invasive questions about stage and treatment course.

      You really can’t go wrong with the response, “How awful, I’m so sorry to hear about that. Is there anything I can do to help? How are you doing?”

      • Annie

        Another thing I would add to the “avoid!” list with regard to illness is offering advice. If you’re not a medical doctor, specifically an oncologist, I’m not interested in hearing your recommendations for drinking green juice, or your cousin’s brother-in-law’s decision to forgo chemotherapy for homeopathic treatments, or details and suggestions related your coworker’s experience with a completely different type of cancer. I know it’s meant well, and people hate feeling powerless (and giving them advice makes them feel like they’re doing something helpful), but it really isn’t productive or comforting in my experience.

        • Cara

          Yes, advice is the WORST. I had a coworker try to chat about cancer about a week after my mom died, and I didn’t have the heart/guts/whatever to tell him to shut up and leave me alone. I really wanted to punch him in the face, though.

          • DG

            You’re much better than I would have been. It’s been a year since my mother died of leukemia and I still get riled up when I even sense someone trying to discuss points about illnesses they obviously know nothing about. Particularly the person who believes that only people with bad karma get cancer, they got a mouthful.

      • I wish I could say that it is unbelievable that you have been having those kind of comments, but unfortunately I believe it. And it’s awful. I am sorry that you and your partner are having to deal with that on top of cancer. Sending you positive thoughts…

    • AGCourtney

      Thanks for sharing that! That is fantastic, succinct advice.

    • kate

      i loved this and i thought it was generally all great advice – but the part about not crying kind of rubbed me the wrong way. if i’m visiting a friend in the hospital and they aren’t doing well – i’m going to cry. even if their family members are in the room with me.

      • Anon

        I don’t think the point of the article is specifically that you shouldn’t cry. Of course you’re not expected to sit beside your friend stoicly, showing no emotion. But you shouldn’t, for example, collapse into such a puddle of tears that your hypothetically dying friend or her family needs to comfort you. Your role as a friend is to hold it together, at least well enough.

        It’s very easy for difficult situations to feel like they’re about you (your friend dying). But it’s about your friend. I think if you haven’t experienced complex grief & haven’t been in the center ring, it’s difficult to understand why making it about you can really be a burden on the bereaved. But it is.

        An aside, which is a story that author John Green tells about his time as a chaplain at a children’s hospital. His supervisor said to him once, “John, just don’t do something, stand there.” Sometimes standing there is the best we can do for the ones we love.

        • ItsyBit

          (I’m late to respond, but regardless..)

          Re: “standing there,” I think that’s such an important thing to remember. A friend of mine who works as an oncology nurse was talking to me about her interactions with grieving patients and families, and the way she put it really stays with me. She said that in those moments, it’s her job not to try and “fix” anything, but just to bear witness to their pain. The idea of “bearing witness” made standing by feel so much more active than I ever realized that it was.

    • Mandi P

      That article from LA Times – yes.

  • Amanda

    This is all such good advice. The day after Christmas 2011 I lost my cousin who had been my best friend my entire life. My boyfriend (we had not been dating long at all at that point) took care of my cat for me while I was basically living at the hospital, and he also dropped me off and picked me up a lot so I didn’t have to bother with driving and paying for parking, and that meant the world to me. That is easily something a close friend could do as well. Think of the small day-to-day things that need to get done but that a grieving person can’t/shouldn’t have to focus on and help with those if you can.

    Also DEFINITELY go to the funeral. It was a big secret fear of mine that hardly anyone would show up, so seeing my old friends as well as the friends of hers from college who made the drive to our hometown meant so very much to me.

  • Jenny

    My father died when I was 20 and all of this advice is spot on. I might add avoid asking them how they are doing, I got so sick of answering this question from every person I saw multiple times every day that once I answered how do you think I’m doing, I’m really shitty (not my finest moment). I also support the sending support through things that don’t require a response, and when possible send things to people’s homes. For both my mom and I, work/school was an escape/reprieve from grief and it was difficult to be reminded about it there, plus who likes crying at work. But if that’s the only place, reaching out is better than not reaching out.

    Since that time, when I’ve had friends going through similar grieving times. I’ve told them that I’m here to be whatever they need at that moment, if they want to go to coffee and talk about all the feelings even those they are having they can’t tell other people (anger, relief, feeling things that aren’t about the death of your loved one), I’m their person, if they want to do something and have me be the one person who won’t ask them how they are doing or mention that anything might be different than a few weeks ago, I can be that person too.

    Also if in the next few years you think of a funny story or touching story about the person who died, text or email your friend, after the first month pretty much everyone in your life moves on/forgets that that person died, and you don’t, it’s nice to be reminded that other people still remember them fondly.

    • Cara

      That is a great point to not ask how they are doing. Just saying that you’re thinking about them is so much more helpful than asking them to reflect on how terrible they feel. If they need to talk about how they feel, they can bring it up, but I just remember trying desperately to not think about how sad I was but also feeling so guilty that I wasn’t crying constantly and it was just awful and such a struggle and I didn’t want to talk to anyone about feelings!

    • Caitlin

      Yup, and then you have people who haven’t seen you recently ask how you’re coping like 3 months after the funeral and you’re like “oh thanks for reminding me my Dad is dead, I had managed to get through the past hour without thinking of him”. I got so tired of explaining the progression of his illness, whether my Mom was OK since they had been divorced…

  • Laura C

    I’ve lost two good friends. One of them was the sister of another friend, the other was the wife of another friend. Juggling your own grief and the grief of someone else you love who was that much closer to them (and, in the first case, doing it while in your early 20s) is a beast. I don’t think I’ve ever heard pain like my friend whose wife died when he called to tell me (though I knew; the friend whose sister had died a few years earlier had called, with his permission, to tell me, and I guess he’d been in too much of a haze to know). I mean, just, hearing the voice of someone you love who is in so much pain you can hear that he doesn’t quite know what’s going on and definitely doesn’t know how to go on.

    One of the most powerful memories I have, though, is that the next night, two days after she died, was a weekly informal social singing thing with a community around it. And everyone showed up. I mean everyone. And they showed up serious, and focused, and grieving, but so much there for my friend who’d lost his wife. People I’d never thought much of, people I thought of as attention-seeking and annoying, were there and they were there to let him set the tone. It was one of the most charged, intense things I’ve ever lived, and it was beautiful. But there are also the people who you call to tell them that someone has died and they act like they think you’re joking. Literally, my first friend who died, I got a list of people to call to notify and one of them said, in this kind of stagy voice, “say it ain’t so!” Um, I can’t? Because it is so, and it’s awful. You really just can’t predict how people will respond, I guess.

  • kate

    yes, such such good advice. my immediate circle of friends have all been lucky enough not to lose any parents yet, but i did lose my grandma this year and any/all of this would have been appreciated even at that time. i can only imagine how much more needed it will be when it’s someone’s parent.

  • Lauren from NH

    All this advice! Plus, for me, I can’t stand the pity face ever! also people long after the fact saying “I’m sorry.” I know this is a go-to polite phrase, but I can’t stand it. So yes be there and be aware, but people don’t have to be broken and feel like shit, don’t box them into that. Some people can look at the positive and just move on. A few too many people have died suddenly and tragically in my life and my response is not to argue with death, not to fight it. There should be room for all kinds of grieving, coping, processing, is my point.

  • Readers may be interested in the Lisa Frank Mix Tape Tumblr, in which 20-somethings write in with letters remembering loved ones:

  • IAL

    I don’t normally comment on APW (I’m more of a dedicated “lurker”), but as a millennial who has herself experienced the loss of a parent in the last five years, I just wanted to say: thank you so much for sharing this. (And I’m so sorry for your own loss.)

    When we lost my dad, I was overwhelmed by the thoughtfulness of my friends. Small gestures meant so much. Friends who are medical professionals sent me articles upon my request and helped me to process his illness by explaining what was going on with his body (note: understanding the science was helpful to me, as it gave me a measure of feeling like I had more of a handle on the situation; but that may not be the case for everyone). One friend (although she’d never met my dad) translated the lyrics of a Chinese song for his memorial service into pinyin. Several of my HS friends quietly modified their plans and made time to come to the service, and my best friend even stood up and said something to comfort me specifically. A group of church friends (knowing that I didn’t drive at that point) pooled their schedules into a timetable during which each of them were available to give me rides.

    I will add two things that I found helpful:
    1) If you send food, please send things that do not require a lot of cleanup and/or immediate attention by the family. Several extremely well-meaning people sent us edible arrangements all at the same time, and unfortunately, because those baskets consist of cut fruit and must be eaten immediately, we spent a lot of time trying to finish it all quickly, and still, much of it went bad before we could get to it.

    2) Please do follow up with the person in the months that follow their loss–and not just immediately after. I was touched by people who asked about how my mom was handling things even six months to a year down the road, by my friend who continually took me out for girls’ outings as a quiet gesture to get my mind off things, and by those who called or sent notes on the anniversaries of his diagnosis and passing, Father’s Day, and Christmas–knowing that those times would be very difficult for our family. Also, be patient, and be okay with people not responding immediately. I didn’t always have the energy to reply to everyone promptly, but I saw and deeply appreciated every note that was sent.

    • IAL

      Addendum to #1: one of the sweetest things someone sent me in the aftermath of my father’s passing was a giant (anonymous!) care package full of my favorite Chinese snacks. It was such an incredibly thoughtful personal gesture, and she did it in a way that made me feel really loved (I did figure out who sent it eventually and was able to thank her!)

    • Glen

      Maybe it’s because we only received one, but we loved our edible arrangement. We were all so stressed at my Dad’s visitation that we barely ate (and most of the food there was junky snack stuff), so it was nice to come home and be able to have some healthy fruit. I can see how receiving multiples would be annoying. People could send them to the funeral home for the visitation — in my family, those last hours, and it’s too late to go out for dinner afterwards.

      P.S. For those who don’t know, a visitation is held before the funeral for friends and family to say good-bye. The funeral is usually the next day, and, in our family, is a religious event for mostly family.

      • IAL

        I am so sorry for your loss; and I can see how receiving some refreshing fruit after the visitation must have been very sweet! (I do realize that it’s impossible to predict whether people will send multiples of anything–not to mention that it would be rude of me to be picky about people’s kind gestures; I guess it was just unlucky coincidence for our family that several people had the same idea!) We also really enjoyed and appreciated the edible arrangements received (we love fruit and and didn’t feel annoyed by them); we just felt terrible that so much of the fruit went to waste because we couldn’t eat it fast enough! The experience just made me more sensitive to the fact that every grieving family’s needs are different; it sounds like for your family, a little fruit at just the right time was just what you needed. :)

  • Sarah E

    Spot on advice. My best friend’s mother passed away last summer after battling cancer for a few years. It was heartbreaking. Knowing that her health was declining, I absolutely put money away so I could afford to travel for the funeral– most of our friends, particularly those who were local, were locked into regular 9-5s with very little vacation time, so I knew I was the one with the most flexible schedule.

    I’ll add that what everyone else is saying about following up is really important. It took a few months for my friend to process her grief (an ongoing struggle), and she and her dad, who live together right now, were handling it in very different ways, which only added to her hard times. We keep up long email chains to stay in touch, and I knew that for a couple months, it was on me to just keep sending emails, even when it was “her turn,” because she just wasn’t up to it.

    • It was so thoughtful of you to save in advance so that you would be able to travel to the funeral to be there for your best friend.

  • Michelle

    This is a wonderful and much needed topic of discussion. My dad also died of a pretty fast moving cancer (three months from diagnosis to his death). I was 18 at the time, in that awkward phase when you have left high school and are starting to lose touch with your high school friends but haven’t made close friends in college yet, and I think a lot of folks had no idea what to do or say. I did have one friend from high school that heard what was happening when my dad was still in the hospital and just showed up. She didn’t ask. She just did. She brought food for myself and my whole family and made sure we ate.

    I haven’t spoken to her in years now, just from a cross-country move and the passage of time, but I will never forget her willingness to show up and just be there. I also echo everyone else’s comments about continuing to stay in touch. It’s been 7 years for me now, and it is still so meaningful when friends reach out on tough days like Father’s Day or holidays.

    • Eh

      Your story sounds very similar to mine. My mom passed away (after a four month battle with cancer) the summer before I moved away for university. It was the summer so everyone was busy with work or away or moving across the country. I was totally amazed by the people who showed up at her funeral.

      The some of the stores in the town where we live post obituaries in their windows to spread the information. One of my friends was walking by and had a feeling of dread when she saw that an obituary was posted. She called me that night and we talked. I told her this silly story from when my mom was in the hospital and she lost her small stuffed bunny (my mom was blind from the tumour so she liked to hold the soft bunny and it was scented with lavender). We were pretty sure that it was probably taken away with the laundry when her sheets were changed but no one at the hospital seemed interested in looking for it (she lost it at another hospital and an orderly looked every where for it, including through the laundry and garbage, and we eventually found it in her bed – my mom named the bunny after the orderly in honour of his effort to find the bunny). After my friend heard this story she called the laundry service at the hospital and told them the story and the person dropped the phone. The person knew actually what bunny she was talking about. It was at the top of their lost and found. My friend drove two towns over to get the bunny and then reunited me with the bunny the day before my mom’s funeral. We have both moved all over. We briefly lived in the same city and got together a couple of times. We still talk occasionally on FB. But I will always remember her for finding the bunny (which sits on my dresser to this day).

  • Not Sarah

    “Take your cue from your friend.”

    This is SO important. Everyone grieves differently. When my grandmother died a few years ago, I was nonplussed – my grandmother had been sick for years. My mom, on the other hand, was really sad, which I was not expecting and so most of my sadness around my grandmother’s death was for the fact that I couldn’t do much to help my mother. My mom told me I didn’t have to go to the funeral, but I went anyway and held her hand the whole time.

    People assume when someone dies, that you’re sad and grieving and constantly would tell you they’re sorry for your loss and all that stuff. I didn’t grieve in a way that anyone expected, so the only way I could find to deal with this was to just not tell anyone that my grandmother had died. This was then super awkward when I last minute decided to go to the funeral and had to tell my boss I was taking bereavement days and my coworkers had no idea why I just disappeared at 3 pm one afternoon and didn’t come back the next day.

    I have small things around my apartment that were my grandmother’s, which is a nice touch. I have the mirror from her front entryway in mine. I have her canisters. I have her cereal container. I’ll have some of her wall decorations soon, probably after my next visit to my parents. I got a small-ish inheritance from her and I’m going to save it for my future wedding dress, whenever that may be, as I know she would have loved to see me get married and go shopping with me for my wedding dress.

    The hardest part about her being gone is watching friends get married and their grandmothers be at their weddings when mine won’t be or meeting my boyfriend’s grandmother and realizing that he still has his in his life and probably will for many years, considering that his is 13-16 years younger than my grandmothers.

    • scw

      I’m getting married in a few weeks and none of my grandparents are still alive. it is really hard for me to think about, so I feel you.

      • KH_Tas

        Me too, I thought I had gotten used to the idea until someone asked if they were coming yesterday. Lots of internet hugs, it is so hard.

    • Eh

      My mom passed away 11 years before I got married. In those 11 years both of my grandfathers also passed away (I didn’t know either of my grandmothers as they passed away before I was born). The three of them were people I had always just expected would be there when I got married. Most of my friends have four grandparents and two parents so it was hard for them to understand. (My husband has two grandparents but he doesn’t really remember his other two since he was pretty young when they passed.) It’s sad that my husband and my (future-ish) children will never meet my mom or my grandfathers but I share stories of them and that helps.

      I think it’s a great idea that you are using your inheritance from her to buy your wedding dress. That will be a nice way to honour her.

    • Lizzie

      That’s such a nice idea to use the inheritance from your grandma to buy your wedding dress. It’s a different kind of legacy than heirlooms or photos and will make her love a visible part of your wedding.

  • carissa

    I lost my mom to suicide after a long battle with mental illness when I was 23. The funeral was across the country from where I grew up, and where many of my friends lived. I was incredibly touched by all the people (even acquaintances) who reached out through email and facebook to send their condolences. A few friends drove over three hours to attend the funeral, and one flew in without asking. Their support meant so much, and the fact was I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t have coordinated it or told people how to help. My best friend from growing up who actually knew my mom, had offered to fly in, but I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t even get back to her to confirm that yes she should come (although I would have loved it if she were there). It took me months to realize that I never got back to her, and I eventually apologized for it. So yes, just do things! People who are grieving will be so appreciative of anything you do; just knowing you are thinking of them means so much.

  • Spot

    I remember two gestures the most from that foggy stretch of time immediately following my father’s death from cancer:

    1) Totally forgetting to remind my best friend of the date of the funeral until the morning of, feeling like a failure as she apologized and frantically tried to arrange a ride, and the rush of relief and gratitude that washed over me when I saw that she and her mother had made it. This was before Uber was a thing and a long cab ride to and from her house to our church was no small last-minute expense for a student, and it meant the world to me that she was able to make it happen.

    2) The neighbor who had not only provided us with a delicious homemade meal with minimal cleanup, but also a mason jar with two servings of ready-to-pour whiskey sour complete with cherry garnish. It was delicious and felt like a needed treat, and depending on the family I’m sure a pre-mixed cocktail or a bottle of wine would also be much appreciated.

    That said, people I barely spoke to in regular life coming out of the woodwork to tell me “I’m here for you” was weird and rubbed me the wrong way. But I’m sure some people deeply appreciate that kind of show of support.

    • Alyssa M

      I’m glad to see this on here. My response to grief is very typically Southern Baptist… I never know exactly what to do or say, but I can make a pretty decent casserole/plate of cookies… I’m never quite sure it’s the right thing to do where I live now, but it’s how I was raised so it’s all I know.

  • anon for this

    Thank you for posting this. I’m always that awkward friend who has no idea what to do, and this is especially timely for me.
    A woman who was a guest at our wedding (the date of one of the groomsmen) died suddenly and unexpectedly two weeks after the wedding while we were on our honeymoon. We didn’t have phone or internet while we were traveling in a particularly remote area, and heard the news a few days later when we returned to a town where we had internet access. We were just shocked and made sure to send flowers to the family, but felt terrible that we couldn’t do more. I feel completely terrible that I didn’t get a chance to send her a thank you note, and I’ve been really hung up on that. Now I’m back in my current city (far away from the wedding city and my people) and I just don’t know what I can/should do, especially for the groomsman who was close with her.

    • Eh

      A suggestion: write her a thank you note, or write a note to her family and/or the groomsman telling them how much you wish you had a chance to thank her, maybe share a memory of her from your wedding or another time you saw her, in addition to sending your sympathy. Especially for the groomsman that might be a nice since friends are frequently forgotten about when sending sympathy notes.

    • Cara

      When you get your pictures back, it would be really nice to print out (or just email) any with her in them, especially where she’s smiling and having a good time, and send them to the groomsman (and he can send them on to her family if he would like). And be sure to say what a joy it was to have met her.

  • Annie

    For myself as a person going through the experience of a partner with illness (in treatment cancer), this advice really rings true. We got a lot of support from our community in the early days of diagnosis and initial chemo, but at times it feels like people, even close friends, stop wanting to ask – the most meaningful and appreciated thing has often been for people just to ask how he (and I) are doing. Talking about the struggle of illness (and grief) isn’t something I always feel comfortable bringing up in casual conversation because I worry that it feels like a “downer” for the people around me, but it’s very much the center of my world. The people who give me direct opportunities to talk about his progress and struggles and our feelings about the whole process are the ones I’m most grateful for. There are times when I don’t feel like talking about it, and in those instances I’m able, I hope, to tactfully communicate that, but it’s lovely to be given the chance to talk – the worst thing for me has been feeling like some of our friends have “moved on” or “forgotten” about us. Thanks for this lovely post, Abbey, and I’m sorry for your loss.

  • Cara

    This is such a great thing to talk about. It’s so hard, and so confusing, and you don’t want to do the wrong thing or not do the right thing… Thank you for posting this.

    My mom passed away last summer, and it was so bizarre. The best thing for me was hearing from people that she made an impact on their lives, or remembering something about her. Any and all stories were wonderful, even if it was a friend who met her only once, but to tell me how she made them feel welcome, or how her smile lit up the room, it really helped (and still does).

    We received a lot of meals, some actually from her company, which was nice, but I remember thinking “I really just want some snacks or cookies to grab, not a huge thing of enchiladas” A friend gave me a dozen frozen cookie dough balls so I could make fresh cookies easily anytime, and that was AMAZING.

    Finally, once some time has passed, be sure to continue checking in and inviting the person who has lost someone out to things. I kind of retreated into my own little grief world for quite awhile, and feel like I have lost some friends because they didn’t know what to say or didn’t want to impose or anything. It’s been several months, and I still feel isolated. It’s mostly my own doing, but it’s hard to pick up where you left off almost a year ago. I don’t know if/how I still fit into my friends’ lives, and don’t want to make a big deal of it, so it’s been tough.

    I probably still will be awkward and not great at being there for someone if they experience a loss like that, but it really is just the thought and being there that helps. I mean, it doesn’t help, but it is nice to feel surrounded by love and support.

    • Robyn

      Yes, exactly. There are some friends that I just don’t know if we are really friends anymore. I am sure they meant well by “giving me space” but I just don’t know how to pick up where we left off 5 months ago now. I know it is likely up to me to reach out because they just have no clue what they should be doing, but I do feel like I gave them chances and hints that I wanted them to stop giving me so much space and they still stayed away. Previously thoughtful friends who brought me flowers when I had my wisdom teeth out could barely muster an obligatory 2 sentence email and then disappeared out of my life. Something huge happened, I’m changed forever, and it’s not something that close friends are just allowed to ignore. It’s hard and it’s sad that in losing my dad I also lost a few more people that I cared about.

      On the more positive side, the stories from other people were so healing. I am in the process of putting together a memory book about my dad and I asked for stories and tributes from family members and friends in the community, and some of the stories I got from people I didn’t even know existed blew me away. When people gave cards that had memories or stories in them it meant so much that they took the time not only to send the card but to think about how he made a positive impact on their life or even just a funny new story I hadn’t heard before.

      When you don’t get to make any new memories with the person who is gone, hearing stories you didn’t know is almost like having them back again for a minute, and it’s POWERFUL.

  • AGCourtney

    Thank you for this. My closest friend since fifth grade, the kind of friendship where we always picked back up right where we left off, we both had children and were going to be each others’ maid of honor and live near each other and be those awesome best friend parents with best friend kids — she passed away suddenly in the night from an undiagnosed heart condition nearly two years ago. I’ve never been the same since.

    The first two weeks were drenched with grief, but I was surrounded by others who were grieving. It was in the weeks and months following where I felt truly bereaved. And no one got it. Bless my now-fiance, he just did NOT get it. While he didn’t use these precise words, I often received an uncomfortable: “It’s been two whole months, why are you still thinking about it?”

    So I think this is totally necessary, this guide to understanding grief. I went to a fascinating session at a sociology conference the other weekend about the sociology of emotions and emotional work surround grief – the particular issue was after a stillborn/miscarriage, but nevertheless, I think death – particularly how to deal with it and how to react to others who are dealing with it – is such an enigma, and it makes an already difficult thing far more complicated. So kudos for putting this together.

    • Amanda

      I’ve found that to be the case too; people who you’re close to but who were not close to the person you lost (and who maybe have never experienced that type of grief themselves) just don’t understand. I have definitely felt the “why are you still thinking about it” vibe you mentioned, and it is terrible. You kind of eventually just want to yell, “why are you NOT still thinking about it?” And it really doesn’t help with any other feelings of guilt you might be experiencing on top of your loss.

      • AGCourtney

        Yessss. Precisely. Her cousin and I had many a Facebook chat about this, and that really helped, that we understood and we understood that we understood and that others didn’t.

        My fiance’s uncle-by-friendship passed away last year, and while it wasn’t quite the same sort of circumstances, he was at least able to better realize that he’d been a dick. This may have been helped by my pointedly asking, “Really? But it’s been a whole month” at one point, but still. If you haven’t had loss, you don’t understand, which is fine, but then you need to read things like this to at least intellectually grasp it so that people who are already neck-deep in grief don’t need to explain it to you.

        • Violet

          I’m really sorry for your loss.

          My grief “timeline” (or whatever) has less to do with how much time since the death occurred, and more to do with the future that will never happen. So for me, yes, two months later, of course I’d still be sad and in shock, because I thought that person would be alive. Even years later, if I had the expectation that the person would be alive, then yes, I’d still grieve.

    • jubeee

      My good friend also died from a heart condition last summer. I still think about him once a day and miss him like crazy.

  • av

    Very well done!
    For me, when my fiance’s father was rushed to the hospital, the most wonderful thing was my friend who lent us her car when we missed the last train of the night to get there. She was so amazing and when I called her the next day saying that I wasn’t sure what was going on, she said to use her car for as long as we needed. That week was horrible as my fiance and his siblings ended up having to make the decision to pull the plug, and then make funeral arrangements, and so on. I have no idea how we would have dealt with everything without her car. This was a few years ago now and we are no longer close friends, but I will never forget how she just let us use her car for a week.

  • This article is amazing. I remember with complete clarity my grandmother’s funeral (when I was in 5th grade). My parents’ friends who attended … I will never forget that. They were the ones I knew I wanted at my wedding last summer.

  • Aubrey

    Thank you for sharing. Without much experience so far, I wasn’t sure how to handle if/when these things come up with friends. Now, I know.

  • Lizzie

    Abbey, this was all so well put, and so needed. It’s been more than two years since I lost my dad but grief comes out in different ways all the time. Many of my friends did exactly the things you recommend and were there for me in ways I couldn’t have imagined. One thing that still helps today is when they let me talk about my dad or ask something they didn’t know about him. It’s easy to shy away from talking about loved ones we’ve lost, but as all these comments show, we want to talk about them and keep them alive in our memories.

    Hugs to everyone here who’s gone through this. So much loss, but so much strength too.

  • “Your love is not an imposition.” <3

    Another piece of advice: Take note of the date the person died, and put an annual reminder in your calendar. Even a quick text to say you're thinking of your friend around the anniversary will mean the world to them (or at least, it did to me).

  • Caitlin

    Related: funeral procession etiquette.

    If you see a funeral procession coming in the oncoming lane, the respectful thing to do is stop. Not just for the hearse, not just for the cars with flags, but for everyone who has their four ways and high beams on.

    Also, the funeral procession has the right of way through an intersection even if the light changes. They are going to keep driving through that red light even though you have a green. Let them.

    Luckily for my Dad’s funeral the police chief ensured there were police officers stopping traffic at every intersection, because I know it would have infuriated me to no end when people who were clueless or just callous enough to break into our procession.

  • Robyn

    I lost my dad suddenly in November and shortly after tried to write something like this but couldn’t put it so well, and was worried it was too soon to be wisely reflecting. But what you said still rings perfectly true.

    It hurt more than I admit to most people how certain people didn’t make the effort to come to the funeral, either not finding out when it was (I was not in the mindset to be sending out invitations) or making a lame excuse for not coming. So absolutely 100% that is so important – don’t wait for an invitation! Just go!

    We also had a lot of “let me know what I can do” but we were never really coherent enough in the early weeks to even know what to ask for. The people who just brought food were so much appreciated. Especially appreciated were snack foods and tea – when you’re in shock, it’s hard to really want to put a whole lasagna or chili in the oven and feel like eating it. We went through a lot of cheese and crackers and veggies and dip those first few weeks, and the lasagnas came in handy when my dad’s family came into town. (Though, not to sound ungrateful but we did get so sick of lasagna after receiving about 6 of them – so bringing something not pasta-based would likely be appreciated more than you think.)

    It is a really lonely thing to be the first of your friends and similar aged family members to be experiencing such intense grief. To echo what most have said, don’t assume once the person “appears” better that they are now “over it and moved on.” In most cases nothing is further from the truth, they’ve just gained better control of their emotional responses and can push the grief away to be dealt with later, at home, where it’s more appropriate to scream into a pillow and sob. I’m not tearing up much in public anymore but I’m still having fairly regular sobbing fits at home.

  • Robyn

    I found some great books that helped me process my grief and own it better in the first couple months after shockingly losing my dad. In the future I will definitely be Amazoning them to my grieving friends with one day shipping :

    Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations for Working Through Grief (Martha Whitmore Hickman – super helpful daily paragraphs about processing loss. Has a spiritual aspect but I wouldn’t call it necessarily religious)

    On Grief and Grieving (Elisabeth Kubler-Ross – the five stages of grief book, so amazing and empowering)

    When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Harold Krushner – religiously toned for sure but could definitely be interpreted atheistically as long as one has an open mind)

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  • This is a great post, especially the continued reminders to show support in ways that don’t require an immediate response. Some people want to grieve privately, and a card or flowers sent to someone’s home allow them to consider and react without an audience.

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  • anonn

    Abbey, you write so poignantly and beautifully. It is such a useful piece. Sorry for the loss of your dad.

  • DG

    Yes, yes, yes. I lost my mother last year at 22 and couldn’t agree with these points enough. I had a few friends whom I thought were ‘close’ and yet I didn’t hear from until a few weeks later. After some discussion I realized that they didn’t want to impose, however at the time it felt like being left by the people I thought I could count on. I particularly want to stress the ‘send things’ and ‘do things’ parts- many people would say “let me know if there’s anything you need” or “I’m here if you need me” and while I wholeheartedly know they truly meant it, I did not want to bother people to ask for help or to talk, or say things like “I don’t feel like cooking, can you bring me dinner?” Food is excellent, especially things that you can freeze, and was so incredibly appreciated when it showed up without warning. I received cards, tea, and little things from friends across the country, which was really amazing knowing that you have people out there who are thinking of you and your grief. They didn’t need to write long letters, just small notes or a card sending love.
    In any case, I guess all I can say is- do something. Anything to tell them you know, and you care. And show up to the funeral, even if you’ve never met the deceased- we had 400+ people at my mother’s celebration of life and it was overwhelming in the best way possible to see all the people that care.

  • This post and the comments share so much wisdom and so many moving stories of friends stepping up to support their grieving friends. Sending wishes for continued healing to all who are grieving…

  • EF

    A couple of commenters here mentioned losing a parent to suicide. I’ve been there, in that my foster father (and I still tremble as I type this) committed suicide just over 2 years ago. I was literally as far away as I could be, across the world, and they couldn’t get in touch with me for 2 days. My world fell apart. But because of the weird circumstances (very few people who know me in real life know about my family history) it was really, really difficult to communicate the loss. When I got the email, at work, where I’d only been for about 3 months, a coworker sat with me and walked me home, and bought me water along the way. I don’t remember most of the walk — and I didn’t know at that time that it was suicide (the email was more of a ‘you need to call us NOW, he’s gone’ sort of message), and things were just so bad. My best friend sat with me on skype until my partner, in yet another time zone, woke up. Things were just so shitty.

    And to be honest, it’s not much better now. I have a couple of friends who check in, who remember to say I know you’re still hurting, and it’s ok. But not having him there at the wedding sucked. His partner there, telling me about a new boyfriend, sucked (I was happy for him, but it also meant there was only so much denial left in me). Anyway, I think suicide is a special beast, and that those feelings of abandonment can last a long time. People don’t like to talk about suicide, or think you shouldn’t grieve in a specific way because of it. That’s just…unhelpful. Also, asking what the note said, or if there was one, is unhelpful. Reinforcing that you, as a friend, choose to be a friend and will remain a friend, and aren’t going anywhere…that’s what’s needed.

    I wrote this a week after he died and I think it’s all still pretty accurate.

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  • Whitney Kerr

    My addition to the “let me know if there’s anything I can do for you” is, don’t leave it up to the grieving to let you know they need help. Tell them exactly what you can do for them in addition to the general offer. “I’ll make you a casserole, so you don’t have to worry about cooking for a bit” or “I’ll take your kids to the matinee so you can sleep/get things done”. It takes the onus off the grieving, and they can also still say no if that’s not what they need right now. After losing my father as a very young adult, my friends reacted in a variety of ways, not all of them helpful. In the aftermath, that was the advice that resonated with me the most.

  • kathee

    I remember lying in my room when I was in high school and writing in a journal to my future husband. I’d write all sorts of notes and questions and things I’d wonder or ask this man when I eventually met him. I would wonder where he was and what he was doing and if he was thinking abcout me too. It has always been such a strong desire in my heart to find a wonderful man to marry, someone who would love me and cherish me and appreciate me for the person I am. I always thought I would get married right out of college, just like my parents, so when that plan didn’t work out, I started to get discouraged. A school mate snatched my future husband away from my arms just because she had spiritual powers, all hope was lost to me before i came across the help doctor (
    ) who i confided in, i told him my long story and he helped me regain back my lover with his prayers which is now my husband today. if you have any problem email the help doctor (

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  • RBecks

    Thank you. It’s so difficult to tell people how much those (not so) little things mean when you’re in that blur of grief and disbelief, but all of this is wonderful. Not only a reminder for what we should do, but to remember what was done for us in our times of need.

    My now husband showed up a couple hours after my father died suddenly and cooked for my mom and I, who really hadn’t eaten much other than gatorade, tea, protein bars and a hospital cookie tray for a few days. I’ll never forget him digging through my mom’s cabinets and making us big bowls of pasta.