While I made sure to thank the people who were there for me, I noticed that most remained worried about doing and saying the right thing. Ninety-five percent of the time, they naturally did. But sometimes, they absolutely didn’t. As in, really, really didn’t.
I understand the concern. And so in case you’re concerned about how to help a loved one who’s going through something awful, here’s a quick guide based on what I learned from being on the other side.
1. Don’t be sensationalist about it.
I’ve had conversations with people who seem to love bad news and enjoy being shocked. I don’t think they know they do it, but you get the impression your pain is their gossip, some kind of bad-news porn or something. Though if you do enjoy that type of thing, you’re probably not reading this now. Besides, with everything going on in the world today, I’m sure there are plenty of sites catering more for those tastes.
2. Don’t tag grieving relatives in photos of the dead online.
I know the people who put up photos of my father on Facebook after he died to say they missed him thought they were being kind, but every time it knocked the breath out of me to see his face. I was never ready for it. I’m also saying this because I unthinkingly did that exact thing to my brother recently, by sharing an Instagram a photo someone had taken of our dad years ago. Though it was a lovely photo (and a nice reminder of where we get our brown eyes and butt chins from), my brother was at work and not expecting it, and so had gotten pretty upset. Next time I’d message ahead to say I’m about to send a photo to look at in his own time.
3. Don’t only focus on the good.
Finding positives can be great (“they were so loved”; “what a full life they lived”; “this will bring you closer together/make you stronger”; and the like), but don’t Pollyanna the situation. I ran into a neighbor the day after my dad died who was gushing with the stuff she’d read about him in the papers. “I hadn’t realized he was on TV! He did so much! Can’t believe I knew him the whole time and didn’t get him to sign anything! You must be so proud…” Again, I know she meant well, and it’s lovely to celebrate someone’s life, but pick your time. That was not the time.
4. Similarly, don’t put a positive spin on what they’re saying.
Talking to a friend on a particularly tough day once, I gave up trying to keep things light when the situation wasn’t. I told them the truth: “It’s awful. The cancer’s spreading further. His treatment isn’t working. The NHS might not fund a new one, and we might not be able to cover it ourselves. He’s sick, in so much physical pain and growing increasingly depressed. Next week he’s going on vacation with my mum, but he’ll be too weak and uncomfortable to enjoy it, and she’ll be too worried to have a nice time, too.” My friend was sympathetic, but keen to focus on the holiday aspect. When I spoke to a mutual friend a few days later, she said, “So glad to hear your parents are going away! That’s great news!” Both of them love me and my family, and they just wanted to be happy for us for the first time in a while. But I felt like I hadn’t been heard and that I couldn’t be fully honest with them.
5. Don’t compare it to your experience, unless it really is a fitting comparison.
No matter how close you were to your grandparent, Aunty Janet and favorite pet, please don’t liken our experiences. It’s such a natural instinct, but if someone you know died in their 90s while asleep (or was a dog), as opposed to in their 60s after 3.5 years of cancer gradually crippling their system gradually, I’m just not going to want to hear it.
6. Don’t say anything to diminish it.
So their step-mother not their biological mother died? Or something happened to a friend from college they don’t see so much anymore? Perhaps to an ex rather than current partner? It doesn’t matter. If they’re sad, they’re sad.
7. Don’t cross the street to avoid talking to them.
I know quite a few people who have had this happen to them after bad news. My cousin’s wife lost a baby and noticed mothers she knew backing away from her to avoid a chat. What they’re going through is not contagious — but what you’re doing is alienating, insensitive, rude and really hurtful.
8. Don’t push your faith on them if they don’t share it.
“Part of God’s plan” could be the worst thing you can say to a non-Christian at this time. If they’re interested, they’ll ask. I found support in the yoga and meditation community, and I think part of the reason why is that I found it by myself without anyone preaching to me.
9. Don’t comment on their appearance.
You may think it looks like they’re doing well, smiling and laughing down the pub at the weekend. But unless you check on them at 3 a.m., when they’re alone in the dark crying to their cats about the pain of grief, you do not have any idea. What we all do know, though, is that appearances can be deceiving. And if there are physical indicators that they’re suffering, don’t comment on that either. I lost weight and hair and, for a while, also my period. I did not appreciate the compliments or criticisms I received — nor did I have plans to give Bereavement Diet tips, agree that it’s great that I’m saving money on tampons or probably ever forget the things said to me.
10. Don’t wait.
My mother got a “sorry to hear he’s ill” message the day my father died. The sender had three-and-a-half years to send it. Any day before that one would have been fine. We’re all busy, but no-one’s that busy. Just do it.
1. The do’s:
11. Just reach out.
You might feel the urge to hold back, out of fear that you’ll remind them of the bad news again, but it’s probably always inescapably in their minds. So just say something. The feeling that someone cares about you and your pain can be so comforting. I had people I barely knew express sympathy, and it definitely really helped.
12. Then, judge their reaction.
I also know people who don’t like discussing this sort of thing at all. I tend to still reach out to them, but quickly afterwards back off. If you’ve said something kind, and they don’t want to hear more than that, they’ll make it clear. Be sensitive to this and change the subject if you sense that’s easier for them. Then you can rest assured that they know you care, and they can rest assured that you’re there if they change their minds and do want to talk.
13. Find your own way to express your love.
I’ve had friends force themselves into my room to hug me even though I’ve said I’m fine, because they knew it wasn’t true. People who’ve held my hand when I’ve cried, and sometimes cried along with me. Cookies baked for me by an American who said that’s what Americans do when someone’s sad. (Is it? I approve.) Postcards, formal bereavement letters, emails, WhatsApp pings, texts and Facebook messages. Vouchers for yoga classes and theatre tickets from a group of old schoolmates who wanted to cheer my whole family up. One really broke friend spent money she shouldn’t have on organic pampering products I didn’t even know existed, but found comforting to use when I didn’t know what else to do with the empty hours in my days. My aunt moved in with us, memorized how we all take tea and coffee, made every single meal for us and, one evening, dragged lamps from all around the house into the bathroom so I could bathe in more luxurious lighting. Why this helped, I couldn’t say — but it did (and no I wasn’t electrocuted in the bath, though thank you for your concern if you were wondering). I had books sent to me, so many bouquets of flowers that every morning it felt like I was waking up in a garden, old essays my dad wrote at university (not very good, though that doesn’t matter now) and more cookies again (thanks again, Yanks!). I’ve had crazy nights out to distract me, wine-fuelled heart-to-hearts, meaningful shoulder squeezes and awkward pats on the head by (usually male) colleagues. Some of this (the last two, for instance) didn’t really do much. But if there was any good intention there, whatever it was, I appreciated it. Even if it only helped slightly, that was something, and I haven’t forgotten.
If they do initiate a conversation, make space for their words without necessarily feeling the need to interject. We have such problem-solving attitudes in our society, but it’s unlikely that you can fix this situation. Without any magical thing to say to make it all better, just give them the space to express themselves and feel heard.
15. Acknowledge just how bad it really is.
I personally found comfort in others agreeing that things were shit. This will usually be infinitely more supportive than telling someone that it’s not that bad or “could be worse” — a phrase that should be eliminated from your vocabulary, thank you.
16. Offer to connect them to people going through something similar, if you do know anyone.
They can always say no if they’d rather not. I personally felt very isolated being 24 and not knowing anyone else going through the same thing. At a ripened 31 now, this has changed quite a bit, and I gain a lot from talking to other members of the Dead Dads Club. No, this horrible society doesn’t technically exist, but it somehow sort of does as I always feel a connection to other people who’ve lost their fathers. No one asks to join us, but once you’re in, there’s so much support and understanding available. Linking members to any community like this could be hugely helpful.
17. Give little and often.
Being sad is lonely. I loved any text I ever received saying “thinking of you” or expressing love, particularly the regular ones. My family started staying overnight in the hospital with my dad on New Year’s Eve in 2013. The London streets outside were a mash-up of fireworks, cheering and loud gales of laughter following the popping of bottles and smashing of glasses — all while I lay in a ward bed wondering if my father would make it through the night. So I was surprised to realize suddenly that this was the most loved I’ve ever felt. All night long, I received messages from close friends and family — most crazily drunk, a few probably high, all just lovely. Knowing the world goes on despite your pain can feel alienating, but voices from the outside reminding you that they care, is the technological equivalent of having your hand held through it all.
18. Prepare for the worst.
My mother found comfort in an SOS system some of her girlfriends set up for her. She just had to text them SOS, when it was really, really bad, and they’d drop everything and call her or come around, any time of the day or night. She said she never used it, but slept better knowing that she could. Back in the stone age (or around then) when people used Blackberrys, one of my best friends (also going through something ghastly at the time) and I changed our contacts settings so that even when our phones were on silent, the other’s call would get through. This is possible on an iPhone, too; use your favorites and “do not disturb” settings. Just make sure the other person knows you’re doing this, and then remind them to try and avoid butt-dialing you. (Shout out to readers out there with first names also beginning with “A”!)
19. Just do it.
Someone on Twitter told me this: make the casserole; tell them when you’re coming round to cut the lawn; offer to pick their children up from school that day. Don’t just say “if you need anything.” Actually do it.
20. Be sensitive linguistically.
This one’s really hard. I flinch every time anyone uses a euphemism for “death.” I don’t want to hear “passed away,” “no longer with us” or “lost.” My English, manners-conscious family taught me it was rude, so maybe it’s a snobbish thing on my part. But it definitely made me feel like death was dirty and that there was something unsayable about what was happening to us. If you’re talking about my father dying, please say “died.” That’s what happened. You can say it. Pussy-footing around the subject doesn’t bring him back or help me forget. However, I’ve also noticed that some people (I think in the United States, for instance) sometimes flinch at my directness. For some people, it’s rude to be explicit in these sort of situations. So try to figure out what they want to hear. It’s tricky, but have a go, or even just ask them outright which they’d prefer. Over-the-top? Maybe! I just hate further upsetting already absolutely devastated people.
21. Bonus suggestion that contradicts all other suggestions and could well be an absolutely dreadful plan.
If you think they can take it, make a horrible joke. My already-grim sense of humor only darkened during this period. I still make jokes about my dad dying and found myself laughing through my tears every day in the hospital at the end with my family. Sadness and joy are intertwined and I know this not just from my own experience, but also from the label of a yogi tea I drank last week. When British comedian Richard Herring returned from the funeral of his beloved grandfather, his roommate, comedy writer Peter Baynham, told him he was “delighted your grandad’s dead.” A very bold move, but it made Richard laugh and cry simultaneously. When Peter’s father died a couple of months later, Richard worried it was too tragic to make a similar joke, until Peter asked “so are you delighted, then?” I laughed for so long when I heard this story. However, when I got in touch with the two of them to ask if I could repeat this, Peter did add that he hasn’t tried such a risky approach to helping a grieving friend since. Your call. Again, this depends on the person, and could be better included as a don’t. (What a helpful list this is!)
If you’ve read this, you probably aren’t the bad person you fear you’ll be. Anxiety about doing and saying the right thing is really natural. But trust your good instincts in wanting to help. Be your kindest self and either ask them directly or try to figure out what they need. There’s probably little to worry about if your intentions are golden. And when you go through your own turbulent times, know that there’s support and community for you, too.