In the past few days, several friends of mine have lost a parent or family member. Having been through that myself, and hearing what they’re going through now, I was reminded about a blog post I was planning to write: advice on what to do in these situations, depending on your position. So here goes.
If you are a friend of the bereaved
I heard from several people that they “didn’t know what to say” to me when my dad died. Maybe you will disagree, but I think the worst thing you can do is say nothing. Well, unless you’re a real asshole and come up with something horrible about the deceased, but at least you’re paying attention. I had some friends disappear when I told them my dad had cancer last year. Haven’t heard from them since. I guess they assumed I wasn’t going to be any fun anymore and they moved on. They can go fuck themselves, frankly.
But my heart was warmed by the care that everyone else showed me. Just a note on Facebook, a text message, a phone call, a card; it doesn’t take much effort, really. I got some really nice messages from the spouses of friends of mine, who I didn’t really know that well. That was unexpected and special.
So, don’t disappear, tell the person you’re sorry for their loss, that you’re thinking of them, whatever is sincere. Believe me, it will help.
If you want to do more than that, bring them food. Flowers are good too, though less edible. Offer to help in some way. Just be there for them. You don’t need to know what to say or do; just be a friend.
I suppose there was one annoying thing that was said to me by well-intentioned guy friends when I informed them of Dad’s cancer: “Take this opportunity to spend as much time with your father as you can, and cherish these last months together” or some such nonsense. No, really? I have to wonder what they thought I was going to do. But seriously, that’s the worst I got, and they did mean well.
If you are a friend of the deceased
Regarding the period of time when the dying is still alive, but on their deathbed: if invited, come and say your goodbyes, and then leave. Don’t come back the next day to say goodbye again unless for some weird reason you’re invited. This is such an intimate and overwhelming time for the family, and your showing up multiple times is disrespectful to them. I think I tweeted something about it not being a buffet, back in March.
If you are there in the hospital room, and the family asks you to leave, and the person in the bed can no longer express an opinion on the matter, leave. Your grief, though extreme, is not the same as theirs, and suggesting that your loss is on equal terms with theirs is selfish, even if you think it is.
After the death, don’t tell the family in detail how much you’re suffering while not asking them how they are doing; you’ll sound like an ass. Your pain is not their burden, and they are trying hard enough to keep themselves afloat. And yes, this means that you should remember them and their feelings in what you do in the following days. Don’t make yourself feel better at their expense.
If you are the bereaved
Don’t let anyone tell you how you’re supposed to grieve. I was told, the week of, that I was doing it wrong, that if I was grieving properly I’d be crying with wild abandon instead of suffering stomach cramps and insomnia. Well, the stomach cramps disappeared a half hour after the memorial, and the crying finally came last week, nearly two months later. Everything short of throwing a burlap sack of puppies off the overpass of a highway is probably an okay way to deal with loss. And who would do that to puppies?