THE BLOG

What To Do (And Not Do) When Your Friend Is Grieving

Never, ever tell a grieving parent that their child is "in a better place".

08/12/2016 04:58 SAST
AP Photo/Hussein Malla
Iraqi Omar Ali grieves as he holds his dead daughter Amira, 15 months, who was killed by an Islamic state mortar shell in the Al-Tahrir neighborhood, at a field hospital set up by the Iraqi special forces medical unit, at the Al-Samah front line neighborhood, in Mosul, Iraq, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016.

On the afternoon of 15 September 2015 our lives changed forever. Our beautiful, perfect daughter Isabella, 7 ½ months old, died tragically. "Belsie" asphyxiated on her own vomit in her cot and help was too late to bring her back.

On the morning of 4 May 2016, our son Thomas was born prematurely at 26 weeks and 3 days. We had much hope for his survival but he only lived for a few hours before joining his sister in heaven.

I have read so much about dealing with grief, what to do, what not to do, tips on what people should remember when somebody they know has experienced grief. In all my reading I have found that while everybody's journey is unique, there is a huge amount of commonality in what people feel and what they wished others knew about grief. My journey of grief is still relatively new, and I feel like I still have a long way to go, but there certainly are a few things that may help those dealing with grief in some shape or form to remember.

Dont try to "fix" the situation or the person. This is human nature, and is something which is very difficult to steer clear of.

When you see someone who you know has experienced a loss, even if you don't know them well, always acknowledge it! More often than not it will be so appreciated. Remember, you aren't "reminding" them of their loss by mentioning it. It's with them all the time, pretty much every second. And so by you acknowledging it, it's making the other person feel okay, their feelings allowed and validated, like they can be real and authentic with you, and for most it will feel like a huge relief.

Not knowing what to say is okay! In fact, there is no right thing to say. As I have written before, saying nothing is the only wrong thing to say. "I am sorry" perfectly suffices! You don't have to find something profound to say, just those 3 simple words are perfect.

Dont try to "fix" the situation or the person. This is human nature, and is something which is very difficult to steer clear of. More often than not the person just needs to be able to be. To not feel pressure to try to be or feel something that they don't. Just sit there quietly with them. Remember that often the smallest things can feel like too much, can seem overwhelming. We struggle to be happy every single day.

Our loss will change us forever. Be patient with us and understand that. Don't expect your "old" friend to emerge again after the socially allowed 2 weeks of grief.

Don't ask what you can do to help, take the initiative and just do it. Mostly it will absolutely be the right thing and will be so very appreciated!

Say our loved ones name often, over and over again. While it may make you feel uncomfortable it will be so much appreciated.

Our loss will change us forever. Be patient with us and understand that. Don't expect your "old" friend to emerge again after the socially allowed 2 weeks of grief. It's very rarely going to happen that way, especially in the loss of a child. A loss that is not within the "normal" course of life will change you forever. I will grieve for a lifetime. There is no "moving on" or "getting over it". There is no fix. The loss of a child is not one finite event. It's the continuous loss that unfolds minute by minute over the course of a lifetime – it's every missed moment.

Sometimes the only people that you will find comfort in are those who have experienced a similar loss. And the scary thing is that there are many more people than you think that are part of this "club" that no parent wants to be part of.

Know that there are at least 2 days a year we need a time out – your loved ones birthday and the day they died. And the days leading up to these 2 days can often feel like impending doom, like its impossible to breath. Sometimes worse than the actual day itself. Be particularly gentle around these times.

Social situations that you can't control or predict can often be extremely challenging. You don't know if people know, how they will react, how you should react. It's easier if you have "your team" of people around you who can shield and protect you but sometimes that isn't the case. Be sensitive to this when including somebody who has experienced a loss into a group event of any sort. Perhaps give the other people who might not know what happened a heads up so that difficult questions can be avoided (eg. how many children do you have? How old is your child now, last time I saw you you were pregnant?). And understand that there may be many invitations that they may turn down, pull out of at the last minute, or leave early from. Be patient, kind and understanding.

And ensure that you are consistent in your support. And I know that this can be really really hard. Because while for those who are not directly impacted, you grieve and then get on with your life. You don't mean to forget, but you do. Be there, not just when it happens, not in the weeks after, but in the months and years to follow. The grief gets worse in the months after the event, once the shock has worn off and the terrible reality starts to set in. Once everybody moves on and you are still stuck in your dark, deep hole. That's when a grieving person really needs you. If you contact someone asking to meet for coffee, offering to bring a meal or pop in – do it!! If you feel unable to follow through on this, rather don't offer!

More often than not people are surprised by their own resilience, what they can withstand, the fact that life actually can carry on and you can find joy again. This feeling can often make you feel guilty as well.

Most people who experience grief will probably feel some sort of depression and/or anxiety. For some people this may be relatively short lived and for others this may be very protracted. Understand that in this time, this depression can really fundamentally change your brain. You will not retain anything, you will have pretty much zero recall, and unless things are written down they absolutely won't happen! You will feel like you are standing above yourself, looking down on your life, existing but not partaking in any way. You will feel like you are going crazy, and sometimes, maybe you are, but for most this cognitive gap will get better. But it's real, very very real. If it's you, try and be patient with yourself, and if you are watching somebody experience this, have zero expectation of them.

Sometimes the only people that you will find comfort in are those who have experienced a similar loss. And the scary thing is that there are many more people than you think that are part of this "club" that no parent wants to be part of. Bereaved parents share an unspeakable bond and there really are some shining stars in this club who just "get it". Who you can say things to that you could never say to anybody else. Because until you have said goodbye to your child, held them in your arms knowing it will be the last time, you will never know the extent of this grief.

Don't ever tell a mother that her child is in a "better place". Because while we know you mean it in the best way possible, no mother will ever believe that any place other than right there with her could possibly be better.

When you're face-to-face with an undeniable sorrow that you can neither alter nor reverse, you're given a unique opportunity to learn what many are (fortunately) spared. You learn about yourself, the people around you, the potential of the future, and your undeniable strength; all beneficial as you move forward with your life, an altered life, but life nonetheless.

Grief gives you a resilience you didn't know you had. I think more often than not people are surprised by their own resilience, what they can withstand, the fact that life actually can carry on and you can find joy again. This feeling can often make you feel guilty as well. That if you enjoy yourself, sing along to a song in the car, enjoy dinner out, just feel lighter, that you are forgetting your loved one, that you are moving on. And one needs to keep on reminding yourself that this is not the case at all. That being able to live again, in an altered reality, doesn't mean that you have forgotten the person, or love them any less. It just means that you know that life is worth living, that the person who has left our earth wouldn't want you not to carry on. That they would want you to live your best life, if for no other reason than in honour of them and the life they didn't get to live.

"All I know from my own experience is that the more loss we feel the more grateful we should be for whatever it was we had to lose. It means we had something worth grieving for. The ones I'm sorry for are the ones that go through life not even knowing what grief is." – Frank O'Connor