(Story shared by John, 25, Seattle area)
It was one of the best weekends of my life. I’d spent it hiking, camping, swimming and hanging out with my now wife, whom I’d just started dating. Then I got the calls. Five voicemails and more missed calls than I cared to look at. Shit. Something happened.
It was Dave.
My summer boss, climbing model, inspiration, best friend’s dad, roll model. Gone. Avalanche.
After the initial shock, my first thoughts were of Katherine and her family. How could I help, and what could I do 700 miles away. I knew I couldn’t get there that second, and the best I could do was call. And so I did. And left a message. I felt horrible for not actually talking to her, but soon realized that it was more important that she knew I was thinking about her and her family than just talking for a quick second.
That was the first lesson I learned. There weren’t any magical words I could say to Katherine on the phone that would make her feel better, but my effort to let her know I cared and wanted to help was all I could offer from so far away. I still believe that simply making an effort is important. When someone is sad and hurt, he/she want to know that he/she isn’t alone. Those calls, though short and seemingly shallow, let he/she know that his/her friends are there in spirit and care intensely about the pain. And that is important.
Once I finally arrived in Colorado, everything seemed more real and final. There were people all around, sad and grieving. And all I wanted to do was say some magic words to dissipate the pain. But those words did not exist and do not exist. Giving advice and pretending that I understood was worthless because I did not know the magic answer and I hadn’t lost my father. I could only imagine what it would feel like to lose my own father. What I did that I think made a difference was just being there. Helping out in little ways, not trying to paint a Norman Rockwell of the situation, and freely giving hugs when I saw the pain in Katherine’s eyes was more than she wanted to abide alone, was all I could do.
I’m not sure if my actions truly made a difference for Katherine and her family. Watching my friends react to and support her, they did about the same things I did. Support, don’t bully or preach, listen, react, support some more.
While I was trying to “Be Strong” and support my friend, I realized that I was grieving, too. That’s when I realized I needed to find help for myself. If I wasn’t healthy, emotionally centered, and grieving, I couldn’t be a help to my friend. That’s when I turned to my father who has a lot of experience helping people grieve, through years of crisis counseling. I needed to talk, get my own emotions out before I could hope to help Katherine.
It’s hard to give blanket advice for helping a friend. All people are different, all situations are different. However, I believe there are better and worse ways to help your friends. Some people will not want to talk, and that’s OK. Some people will want their friends around all the time and will want to talk constantly, and that’s OK, too.
The most important thing is that you are there. Mentally, emotionally and physically. You know your friends best. It will be awkward because you will search for some divinely inspired advice or proverb that will make the pain stop. But, those words and that proverb do not exist. It’s hard to accept, but there’s nothing you can do to make the pain stop. All you can do is support your friend and yourself through the grieving process. Find someone who can support you, who is slightly removed form the situation, who can keep you balanced and give you an outlet, so you can be the outlet for your friend. Understand that if your friend seems angry at you, it may not be anything you did. Odds are your friend is probably pretty pissed they lost someone they loved. That anger isn’t directed at you, although it may come out that way. If you can keep yourself balanced through another friend, it will be easier for you to accept these outbursts and understand them.
The most is important thing is that you don’t give up on your friend. He is extremely hurt, vulnerable, emotional, angry, sad and who knows what else, all at the same time. There’s no way to predict how he’s going to react, so you have to be ready to react to any behavior he exhibits to react. As long as those actions are not self-destructive (Alcohol and Drugs, specifically), do not judge those outlets and support him in them. Sincerely be there for him and understand that grieving is a long process. It takes more than a village to raise a child, and it takes more than a day to grieve. It won’t be an easy process, but if you support your friend, you will discover a place and person inside yourself who is not always evident, who can do amazing things for those you love.