Friends share their lives with each other. You swap stories, laugh at silly jokes, and discuss tough issues. Whether it’s before death or after, no issue is tougher than grief. “Close
friends can make the critical difference in our coping with grief,” writes Judy Tatelbaum in “The Courage to Grieve.”
You want to help your friend, but may not know how to go about it. Where do you start?
Helen Fitzgerald, Training Director of the American Hospice Foundation, thinks you start with preparation. You review your own grief experiences and how you felt at the time. You also become familiar with the grief process [including anticipatory grief]. “Helping a bereaved friend is hard work,” says Fitzgerald, so you need to pace yourself.
Now on to the “tried and true” suggestions.
BE DECISIVE. “One of the mistakes we make is asking people in deep grief how we can help them,” notes David Kessler, Director of Palliative Care for Citrus Valley Health Partners in the Los Angeles area. But your friend may be so lost in sorrow that he or she doesn’t know what is needed. Kessler’s solution is to “step in and help.”
BE PRACTICAL. Offer to help with daily tasks, such as watering plants, mailing a package, and buying pet food. You may also offer to grocery shop, baby-sit kids, make phone calls, and prepare meals. Appetite wanes when someone is grieving so if you prepare meals fix plain food and package small servings in freezer cartons or bags. Label all cartons.
BE AVAILABLE. Because your friend is stressed and preoccupied you will have to spell out the ground rules. “Call me before 8 a.m.” “Email me any time.” “I’ll be the car pool driver next week.” Write these things on a sticky note and put it on your friend’s refrigerator. Remind your friend of these arrangements.
BE ACCURATE. When you’re helping a grieving person it’s important to “use the correct language,” according to Helen Fitzgerald of the American Hospice Association. Fitzgerald says you should avoid the word “passed” when speaking of post-death grief and use the word “died.” With anticipatory grief you may use words such as “close to the end,” “near death,” and “dying.”
BE A LISTENER. The National Mental Health Association says you help a grieving person by encouraging them to talk about their feelings of loss. The gift of listening will help your friend to ventilate, identify feelings, and see things more clearly. Ask prompting questions to help your friend reminisce about his or her dying loved one. Your listening may also serve as a reality check.
BE PATIENT. It may take a long time for your friend to come to terms with reality and impending loss. That’s why the National Mental Health Association says you need to be patient. You may hear the same stories over and over again and that’s okay. Obviously your friend needs to tell these stories and he or she has chosen you.
BE ACCEPTING. Bettyclare Moffatt writes about accepting friends in her book, “Soulwork.” There was a time when Moffatt got caught up in a “pity party” and cried uncontrollably over her losses. Though Moffatt expected rejection from her friends their reaction was the opposite. “They took me just as I was,” Moffatt writes. You may do the same for your dear friend.
BE SOCIAL. Your friend may be in so much pain that he or she pulls back from social contacts. Isolation is no friend of grief. Social contacts help your friend to stay in touch with the world. Chances are your friend doesn’t want to keep all social contacts, but you can encourage him or her to keep a few. Arrange to attend events together and provide transportation.
BE HONEST. If you think your friend is depressed or needs professional help, be honest and say that. “Don’t hesitate to recommend professional help when you feel someone is experiencing too much pain to cope alone,” advises the National Mental Healh Association. You may offer to get information on support groups and bereavement counselors.
According to an old saying, “A friend in need is a friend in deed.” Your friend needs you now. Still, you need to be aware of your needs and take care of yourself. You want to be ready for the day when you and your friend swap stories, laugh at silly jokes, and celebrate life together.
Copyright 2005 by Harriet Hodgson
Harriet Hodgson has been a nonfiction writer for 27 years and is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists. Her 24th book, “Smiling Through Your Tears: Anticipating Grief,” written with Lois Krahn, MD is available from http://www.amazon.com A five-star review of the book is also posted on Amazon.
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