(Andrew, 25, Boston)
To say that it’s easier to lose a loved one than it is to help a friend cope with such a loss is certainly an over-simplification. But having been on both sides of the equation, it can certainly be said that taking the job of being there for a friend dealing with a loss seriously presents complex challenges that differ in kind from personally coping with loss.
When I lost my father in 2006, at the age of 21, I experienced a variety of reactions from a variety of friends. In reflecting on the first 12-15 months, although the majority of people to whom I was close at the time were extraordinarily thoughtful and helped make my senior year perhaps my best of college, my stronger memories are of older friends who decidedly did not step up to the plate.
Falling out of touch with friends as we get old is a fact of life. Normally, we can blame geography, busy schedules, changing interests, lifestyle differences, and the like. These things happen, and although they are unfortunate, they are a mere byproduct of growing up, and as long as naturally drifting away from friends isn’t precipitated by any sort of ill will, it does not have to be permanent.
However, when falling out of touch coincides with the loss of a loved one, this can compound the feeling of loss. After my father’s two-year battle with cancer, his passing, and the aftermath, I was extraordinarily thankful for those who were there for me during the hard times, but I couldn’t help but take note of those who weren’t. None of the more innocent explanations discussed above were present. I was left with the sad reality that lifelong friendships deteriorated for reasons beyond my comprehension at a time when I needed such friendships most. These were, in fact, the friends who knew my father best.
My advice to people who are close to someone experiencing a difficult loss is simple: put yourself out there for them. Call, spend time, and email. Generally seek them out, and make them feel wanted. Having experienced loss, I know that it takes friends to take the first step in pushing you to resume ordinary socialization in the beginning.
It’s easy to think a person experiencing loss just wants to be left alone and to therefore delay calling. You might think that spending time with a friend experiencing loss is insignificant compared to what s/he is going through, and perhaps in the moment that is the case, but it’s gestures like this that help alleviate the inevitable lonesomeness that accompanies loss. The feeling of loss never goes away, and it might not be pleasant for friends (especially in the beginning), but being around is what will help reinforce for your friend that although his/her loss is immense, there remain living people who care for them.
I’m back in contact with the friends who were less of a presence in the wake of my father’s loss. I’ve gotten over it because they’re good people, it was nothing intentional on their part, and, while their inaction hurt at the time, I’m no different in the present than I would be had they been more helpful. Moreover, I know from having been on the other side of it – even after having been through it myself – being there for a friend is no picnic. It requires a willingness to act and become involved in an unpleasant situation. Doing nothing is forgivable because it’s merely the easy – and perhaps more natural – response, albeit not the best one.
For me, the take-away from thinking about this is that although being there for a grieving friend might not be pleasant nor seem to be beneficial in the short term, it is extraordinarily valuable in the long run. And conversely, while “giving someone space” might seem like the more natural reaction, it can exacerbate the feeling of loss. It might feel like being present for a grieving friend has no effect, but the mere act of reaching out serves as a bandage for the inevitable feelings of isolation that join with a loss, and it absolutely beats the alternative.
You don’t need the perfect words or actions, because there aren’t any. In the beginning, any words or actions will suffice.