“My friend’s husband died recently, and I have no idea what to say or do. How can I help her?“
A: Show Your Love and Support
I can imagine you might be worried about saying or doing the wrong thing, but first and foremost, don’t avoid your friend because of this fear. You aren’t alone in this worry, so imagine if most of her friends are in the same boat–is anyone talking to her? More than likely, she may feel shunned, or like an outcast, because the people around her are feeling awkward. This can make grief a lonely, even excruciating, experience.
Suck it up and talk to her. Be honest and tell her you aren’t sure what to say or do, but that you love her and want to support her. Here are some other ways to support her:
Ask and Listen
People may also worry that asking or talking about the deceased person will make the grieving person sad. I have some bad news for you: Too late. She’s already sad. And mad. And a million other feelings, possibly all at once. Asking about her husband isn’t going to make it worse. Likely, she wants to talk about him, so ask and find out. “Do you want to talk about Jeff?” is a fine way to start, or perhaps you could share a story about him, a memory, or something that reminded you of him.
Whatever she says, listen to her deeply and without judgment. Avoid the temptation to try to make her feel better; it may send the message that she shouldn’t express negative emotions. And it’s not like you’re going to cure her grief by getting her to laugh. Believe that what she is saying is true for her, and just listen compassionately.
Normalize and Validate Her Feelings
Grievers often feel angry, sad, lonely, and other feelings you might expect. But sometimes they feel relieved, happy, independent, or empowered–and this can lead to feelings of guilt and shame. You can help your friend by letting her know that anything she’s feeling is okay.
You can normalize her feelings by letting her know that anything she’s feeling is normal–even if it doesn’t mirror your experience of grief. She is the grief expert of her grief. Saying things like, “I’d feel the same way in your shoes,” or “That makes sense,” or even, “It’s totally normal to feel that” can help normalize her feelings.
You can also try validating her feelings. Affirm the feelings she is sharing with you. If she tells you she’s frustrated, you could share that you can see it in her body language or hear it in her voice. Alternatively, try to name the emotion that you are hearing from her. Naming emotions can be powerful, and she might not even realize that’s the emotion she is expressing. But leave room to be corrected. Using phrases such as, “it sounds like,” “what I’m hearing,” or “you seem” gives her space to correct you and retain ownership of her feelings.
Whatever you do, avoid minimizing or negating her feelings. For example, if she tells you that she is ashamed or guilty, avoid saying, “You have nothing to feel guilty about.” Again: Too bad. She feels it and it’s her right to feel it. These can be some of the hardest feelings to validate and normalize when you see a friend hurting. Again, it’s good to be honest with her. Perhaps you could say, “It’s so hard to see you hurting. What would Jeff tell you if he were here?”
Offer Tangible Help
Apart from the important work of listening to your friend and validating what she’s feeling, you might not know what else you can do to help her. As a result, you might be tempted to say, “Let me know if you need anything,” or ask, “How can I help?” The first statement is so broad it’s almost more of a cop-out–you offer “help” that she needs to name, think of you to do, and then ask you to do. It foists more work onto her and gives you a false sense of satisfaction. The question is almost worse because it puts her on the spot.
Instead, simply show up for her. Call her and tell her you’ve found some of those good Medjool dates and you’re swinging by with some for her. Drop by with a mug and some bags of tea and leave them on her porch if she doesn’t come to the door. (I will NEVER forget this gesture from my friend Jenny after my dad died. Every time I drink from it I think about my dad AND how kind and thoughtful she is!) Tell her your kids are getting cabin fever and offer to bring her kids along to the park for some Frisbee. Say you’re getting cabin fever and ask if she’ll go for a walk or bike ride with you; tell her you could really use the company.
Help her remember to eat, to sleep, to care for herself and her basic needs. As long as your help doesn’t create more work on her part, you’re golden. All of these actions show you care and you’re thinking about her.