What You Can Do for a Grieving Friend

What You Can Do for a Grieving Friend

From Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul

What You Can Do for a Grieving Friend

The most precious moments in friendship were not when I laughed with a friend, though those times are so good, but when I cried with a friend and she reached out and listened and understood.

Fran Morgan

The husband of my best friend called me from the hospital. As soon as I heard his voice, I knew the worst: Their lovely nineteen-year-old, Hilary, was going to die. “It’s spread,” he said, sounding rough and angry. “They’re going to try some experimental drug, but they don’t hold out much hope. Molly’s with her now.”

“Oh, David . . . David . . .” I whispered, searching for the words. What does one say at such a moment? What phrases could possibly be a match for the enormity of the plain and awful facts?

None. A man whose son was killed by a drunk driver had taught me that. He said, “I hated people saying, ‘I know how you feel’ or ‘I share your pain.’ How could they know the misery as sharp as a thousand splinters of glass inside me? How could they be sharing that?”

“What could they say?” I asked.

He thought a minute before answering. “All I wanted them to say was, ‘I’m sorry.’ It was the only thing that meant anything to me, just a simple ‘I’m sorry.’”

Remembering his words, I said, “David, I’m so sorry. I’m so very sorry.”

And later that night, when I met Molly at their front door and we clung to each other, I said, “I’m so dreadfully sorry.” After a while I told her, “I’ve made fresh coffee. It’s on the stove. I’ll be back about nine in the morning.”

That’s something else I’ve learned. I try not to ask, “What can I do?” Instead, I think of something that may be welcome like fresh coffee, then go ahead and do it. “The best thing a friend did when my mother died,” said a teacher, “was to call and say, ‘I’m bringing dinner tomorrow night. If you don’t need it, just put it in the freezer.’”

People in crisis may be in shock. They can scarcely hear the well-meant “What can I do?” let alone summon up a vision of what needs to be attended to. Thus, the biggest help may be to make a specific offer such as “I’ll walk the dog, shall I?” or “I’ll stay here to answer the phone if you like.” The suggestion allows the person not to have to think if it seems beyond her at the moment, and the question allows her to say no if what you’re offering is an intrusion.

Molly could have said no to my coming at nine in the morning, but she didn’t. I thought she might want to talk, but she barely looked up when I came in. She was on her hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor. Only when I noticed she was polishing the same spot over and over did I realize she was scrubbing to keep from going to pieces.

When there was nothing more to clean, I said, “Come on, Molly, we’re going for a walk.” I didn’t ask if she wanted to; how could Molly be asked to want anything but her daughter well and alive? I got her coat, held it as she put it on and took her arm.

We walked through the pine woods in the back of her house, our footsteps so muffled by the needled path that a doe and her fawn didn’t take alarm until we were almost upon them. When we came out at the shore of the pond where our families often picnicked, we stood staring out across the winter water. Dark and still, it was not the friendly pond of summer but cold and bottomless.

“I wonder if death is like that,” Molly finally said.

I longed to cry out, No, no, it must be kinder. But I echoed, “I wonder.”

She said, not really to me, “How am I going to get through the next weeks?”

I forced myself not to be reassuring. “I don’t know, Molly,” I answered quietly. “I just don’t know.”

Months later, she told me that was the moment she knew she would find a way. It’s hard to describe, but I knew what she meant because once it had happened to me. People said kind, well-meaning things like “You have to be brave” and “You’ll get over this.” But all I thought was, You’re not me. You don’t understand. Then someone said, “It’s going to be very, very, hard; you’ve got a long way to go,” and suddenly I knew I was going to make it. Someone had listened to me, had heard my despair, and instead of trying to talk me out of it, had accepted it.

To listen, to be there, to accept—that is the emotional first aid we can offer each other when a bad time comes.

Molly asked whether I thought she and David should be honest with Hilary or try to pretend her illness wasn’t serious. In talking it over, I described a former neighbor, a much older woman, whose husband lay in bed with stomach cancer. She often came into my kitchen and slumped down exhausted, needing a few minutes’ rest from the effort of keeping a cheerful face. Even when her husband said, “Look, Reb, you and I both know what this is,” she couldn’t give up the game. “No, no,” she insisted, “you’re going to be all right.”

Do people want to be spared the knowledge they are dying? If you listen carefully, the dying person himself will often let you know. Doctors say they hear it in how a question is phrased. If a patient says, “I don’t have cancer, do I?” it is likely that he does not want to know. But if he says, “I have cancer, don’t I?” then he may be ready to talk about it.

Dying is a lonely business if you can’t share your feelings. Physicians at the University of California Medical Center found that, of a group of children with leukemia, the ones whose parents denied the seriousness of their condition were the loneliest because they had no one to talk to about their fears.

This is not to say that family or friends should be aggressively frank and insist on the truth even if the patient doesn’t want to hear it. That happens sometimes, I think, when people want to prove they can talk fearlessly of dying and death. But you should not be brave on someone else’s time. Let them tell you what they want to know.

That’s what Molly decided to do with Hilary. As it turned out, though, the doctor had been in to visit Hilary and she had asked him. Not what she had—she had already sensed that—but how long. He had told her weeks. She was dressed when Molly got there. “Please, Mom,” she said, “take me home. That’s all I really want now—to be home with you and Dad.”

One evening after supper, Molly finished the dishes and went quietly down the hall. The only light in the living room was firelight. Hilary and her father, almost hidden in easy chairs, were talking—sometimes as father and daughter, sometimes as two people trying to find their way in a sea of mystery.

Quite easily and naturally, David was able to ask Hilary, “If this new drug doesn’t work as we hope, is there anything you want us to know?”

“That I love you and Mom, always,” said Hilary softly, “even when I acted like I didn’t. That I’d like to be buried in that little country cemetery we found that day we were driving in through the valley. And that I hope you won’t throw my diaries away. I’d like you to put them as far back under the eaves in the attic as possible—and to leave them there even if you move. Then maybe someday somebody will find them there and read them, and it won’t be like I never lived.”

“Imagine what we would have missed,” Molly said after Hilary was gone, “if we couldn’t have talked of her dying. We wouldn’t have known her wishes. We could have missed what, in a funny way, was the best part of our lives together because we were so extraordinarily close and open with each other those last days.”

That closeness, that openness, can come about not just with families, but also with friends. Critic Leonard Probst wrote that his own life-threatening illness led people he had known only in the context of success to share with him “litanies of fear, failure, anxiety and frustration they had never spoken of.” The point of visiting is not, of course, to dump your own burden of woe on the counterpane, any more than it is to match stories of sickness and suffering. But you can listen for cues. And if the person seems to want to explore deeper water and you are courageous enough to follow, it can be a time of intimacy and trust that is incomparable.

Even if all you talk about is everyday matters, however, your visit is still important. To convey love and warmth and respect is the most valuable kind of emotional support. Your presence alone does that, so don’t let worries about what to say keep you away. The one gift only you can bring is yourself.

After a person has died, your thoughts turn to what you can do for the survivors. Again, the answer is much the same: Be there. Listen to them. Accept their grief.

I was struck by the grace and simplicity of Hilary’s friends who came to the house the day after her death to say a few words and to hug Molly and David. They must have had thoughts like “Hilary’s parents won’t want to see anybody but family at a time like this” or “Other friends were closer than I was.” But if they thought of such excuses, they had the sense to ignore them. They came because they cared—and just coming showed Molly and David they cared. “I’m sorry,” they said. “I loved her, and I’m going to miss her.” It was enough.

Hilary’s tennis partner asked if he could have the small silver plate inscribed with her initials from the heel of her racquet; he wanted to put it on his own, he said, in her memory. A close friend asked for a string of azure beads Hilary often wore. And a neighborhood youngster said how kind Hilary had always been to her and could she please have Hilary’s yellow T-shirt to hang in her room. I was a bit taken aback at these requests until I saw how it pleased Molly and David to know that Hilary’s friends wanted to remember her.

A young man Hilary had gone out with a few times called from across the country to say how sorry he was. To my surprise, Molly started chuckling in the middle of the phone call, then laughed aloud. The young man was telling her a funny tale of a day he and Hilary went whitewater rafting and tipped over. For a few moments Hilary, young and laughing and happy, was alive again.

How kind and unself-conscious it was of the young man to call. Did he stop to think that he wasn’t a close friend? A friend of mine did, when she heard that someone she knew only casually had lost both her parents within the same week. My friend reached for the telephone, stopped, then reached again, thinking, Oh, well, she doesn’t have to talk to me if I’m intruding.

An hour later, they were still chatting, for the woman had been feeling terribly alone. The friendly, unexpected voice was a lifeline pulling her back to a warmer world. She still speaks of how grateful she was for the call.

Another friend had a similar experience on the receiving end. The morning the announcement of her mother’s death appeared in the paper, a woman she hadn’t seen since grammar school called. She spoke of butterscotch sundaes at Schrafft’s, ice skating in the park, a matinee of Pinocchio—kindnesses the mother had included her in.

“Ever since then, I haven’t hesitated to pick up the phone,” my friend says. No one else called that morning— they didn’t want to bother the family, I’m sure. But I can’t tell you how consoling it was to know that somebody who hadn’t seen my mother in years still remembered her with such fondness.

Curiously enough, our impulses in such circumstances are usually right. It’s our second thoughts that trip us up. We have to learn to ignore that self-deprecating voice that says, Oh, they won’t want to hear from me, or I’ll just be in the way, or Somebody else will call.

Do call. Do go. Do reach out. Don’t be put off by the thought that you won’t know what to say. To bring emotional support to someone in crisis requires only this: Be loving. Be there.

Jo Coudert

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