In the early weeks after my best friend, Heidi, died, I was surprised by the different ways in which friends and acquaintances approached me. Some didn’t bring up Heidi’s death at all. It was if there were a huge elephant on my back that no one wanted to acknowledge.
Others looked me in the eye and said, “I am sorry.” They brought me flowers, fragrant soap, food, and special tokens to remember her. A snow globe with a photo of Heidi and me with the words to my favorite poem engraved on it. A coffee mug that had photos of us in healthy times. An anchor bracelet, a special symbol of hope for so many of us during Heidi’s illness. All of this filled me up; it was as if these gestures said, “I see you. I support you.”
It wasn’t always those closest to me who reached out. From time to time, it was an acquaintance or neighbor. People I had little connection with were so kind, and others who I thought would reach out did not. It felt random. In reflection, I see it differently: I see that those who had experienced grief knew how to show up.
I saw myself, me before death and loss, in the people who didn’t know what to say. Before Heidi died, I avoided those who had gone through difficult experiences. I would send cards that read “Please let me know what I can do.” When I did see the bereaved, I made small talk about anything and everything except what was really going on. I told myself that if they wanted to talk they would but that I shouldn’t bring it up because it would make them too sad.
The truth was that I was scared. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing or make someone upset. I couldn’t take in the idea that this loss was so large that it was always on their mind. I couldn’t yet grasp the level of loneliness one experiences after a loss. Or that the loneliness is compounded by others’ discomfort and distance, not alleviated by it.
I couldn’t truly empathize with loss or sadness because I had not experienced it. Then, my own loss broke me open, and empathy poured in. I suddenly saw so much of what I had done wrong in the past, and I vowed to start fresh, to show up for people who needed me.
The issue with “Please, tell me what I can do” is that it puts the pressure on the grieving person. They are lost with how to answer. “Can you bring my best friend back from the dead?” “Can you make my birthday not feel so lonely?” No.
Now, rather than simply offering to do something for a grieving friend, or asking them what they need, I just do. When my friends face adversity (not just death, but all hard things–divorce, surgery, injury), I make food. I no longer say, “Can I bring dinner?” I make soup, and I drop it off on their porch. I just show up.
Be brave, talk, and have the hard conversations: “I am so sorry. I want to help. I am going to make dinner. Is that okay?” Pause, and sit with people. Sometimes, that is all we need. To be seen. Send a card or a plant. If a necklace or a book speaks to you, buy it; give it to them. Share a magazine, a gift certificate for coffee, an inspirational picture frame–no token is too small. After Heidi’s death, I received Kohl’s cash in the mail; at the time I thought it was a bit odd, but the retail therapy was a welcome, much appreciated distraction.
Another way to help can be as simple as asking “Do you like to talk about her?” Not everyone will want to, but others may find solace in conversation about the person they’ve lost. It may comfort the bereaved to share your memories, allowing them to share their own. Some may want to avoid so openly addressing their loss, but others may find relief.
Showing up takes so many different forms and means something different to each of us. We may offer food, tokens such as coffee cups and snow globes, or simply the opportunity to share memories and grief. What matters most is that we do show up.