How to be present for a grieving friend

Cards, flowers, and meals help. Listening is even better.

I got her text message early in the morning. “I’m not going to be able to edit the newsletter this week,” Becca wrote. “My dad isn’t going to make it.” The message transported me back to 2013, when I received similar information about my own father.

Before I could respond, Becca sent another text: “Can I call you?”

We hopped on the phone, and I answered her questions as best that I could. Yes, this is awful. No, you shouldn’t have to deal with all the logistics on your own—here’s how to get some support. Yes, this will get harder before it’s easier. No, I don’t know what it’s like to lose someone in the middle of a pandemic—but I’m here to listen.

Becca’s dad, James Vitt, passed away on Sunday, May 3, 2020, due to complications following surgery. It’s a huge loss, and my dear friend is feeling every bit of it.

The support I’ve been able to offer Becca so far has been practical, based on my own experience of losing a parent and handling most of the death-related tasks after my spouse died. I’ve offered edits on the obituary; reminded her what to expect at this early stage; sent a couple of my favorite grief books and a gift card for food deliveries; and reassured her that everything she’s feeling is normal.

I know the things I’ve done have been helpful. Still, I feel helpless. Witnessing someone you love be in pain while not being able to do anything to lessen that pain is an incredibly difficult thing to bear. No matter how hard you try, you can’t take the sadness away.

Over the past few years, several people have asked me how to support grieving friends, coworkers, and relatives. I’ve given them the best advice I can, recalling what was most helpful for me after loss. Now that I’m on the other side, though, I realize how limited that advice is. I actually feel a bit sheepish about the tips I’ve offered. No amount of flowers, letters, or meals will provide the thing that Becca wants most: To have her dad back, or, at least, to not feel the horrible sadness of losing a beloved parent.

The hard truth about grief is that you have to go through it. There’s no shortcut, or path of least resistance. There’s no rulebook you can follow that will make the mourning process go by more quickly or feel less terrible. It sucks, and there’s no getting around that. 

The most important thing you can do for a grieving person is to be present—to witness and bear their pain, and to offer comfort as best you can. Doing this in a socially distant world is more difficult, but it’s not impossible. Being present can be as simple as sending periodic text messages, especially no-strings-attached notes, like, “You don’t have to respond to this. I just wanted you to know that I love you, and I’m thinking about you.”

You can offer to talk on the phone, or—more accurately—to listen as your friend talks about their loss. Your job isn’t to fix the situation or offer advice, it’s to hold space for their pain. You can send letters or small gifts—not because they will make the loss easier, but because they might make a hard day a little bit brighter.

You can take note of and acknowledge the dates that may hurt the most. If a stranger peeked at my Google calendar, they might be a bit alarmed. Amid various meetings and deadlines, I have a variety of reminders about different deathversaries—not just for the people I’ve lost, but for the people who friends have lost. On those days, I reach out and tell my friends I’m thinking of them. If I knew the person who died, I share a favorite story about them (stories are a precious gift to a grieving person). Are these reminders macabre? Maybe. But personally I know how much it means when others acknowledge the days that are hardest for me.

You can check in on random dates, too. Especially in the first year of loss, there’s a fear of the rest of the world moving on while your world seems stuck. Reaching out to check in and say hello on an arbitrary date, months after the death, means so much. It’s a welcome reminder that other people remember the loss, too.

Last but not least, don’t forget to identify someone you can talk to. By being present for your grieving friend, you’ll be taking on a lot emotionally. Because you can’t lessen their pain, there might be moments where they lash out at you, or are less than grateful. It has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with their sadness. (For what it’s worth, Becca is an angel and hasn’t done this to me! I, however, had some less than angel-like moments during my heaviest grief days.) Having someone who can listen to your own gripes and fears will help lessen this burden.

We all lose the people we love most. It’s a terrible fact about life, and also what makes life and love so incredible. Being present for others in times of loss isn’t just the right thing to do—it also gives you valuable experience in sitting with discomfort. 

In the very short time that Becca has grieved her dad, I have softened toward myself. I witness her guilt, and in telling her that she shouldn’t feel that way, I give myself that same permission. I hear her fears, and in reassuring her that things get better, I reflect on the ways that my life has improved. I see her pain, and in my attempts to envelope her in love, I feel the same compassion toward myself.

We grieve deeply because we loved deeply. To be present for grief is an incredible act of love.

I love you, Becca. I’m so sorry you’re hurting, but I can reassure you it will get better. You will never get over the loss of your dad, but you will get through it. Grief is a long and winding—and, eventually, rewarding—path. I promise to be present as you navigate it.



p.s. What were the most helpful things people did for you when you were grieving? If there’s an act of kindness or piece of advice that helped you during a tough time, I’d love to hear about it. Share your stories by replying to this email, leaving a comment, or sending me a message. I’ll compile some of your best replies in Thursday’s subscriber-only newsletter. (Also, if you want to send a message of support to Becca, I’ll make sure she gets it.)

My Sweet Dumb Brain is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. Today’s issue was guest edited by Billy Mays III, who could teach a master course in how to be present during grief.