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.