Monday, 5 September 2016

It sucks, I'm here, I love you - or What to say when you don't know what to say

A good friend sent me a text message yesterday letting me know that her dad had died. I felt terrible for her, as I do now for anyone who has lost someone close, and wanted to respond immediately but I paused before I started typing, edited and re-edited before I pressed 'Send', trying to apply what I have learned. Maybe I got it right and maybe I got it wrong. Everyone is different in their grief. I can only speak from my own experience of the recent, shocking loss of my partner and the loss of my parents from terminal illness, but, for what's it's worth, these are my tips on what has helped or not helped me. I share them in case they help someone else to help someone else who is suffering the agony of loss.

Firstly, whatever you do or say, there is a good chance that you will get it wrong. When someone is in extreme pain having lost someone they love, there is NOTHING you can say that will make it okay. So, it is fair to assume that, at some point in your friend's grief journey, you will offend them. Give them a break if they're over-sensitive. Their world has been blown to pieces and their mind and nerves with it. Bearing this in mind, here are some things you might like to avoid:

1. Beginning sentences with the words 'I hope.....' It is such a natural instinct when we see a friend in pain to want to offer them some hope but when someone you love with all your heart has just died, there is no hope. It is much better to just sit with the person who is in pain and acknowledge that it sucks and is hopeless. Anything else feels undermining. If you must hope for something, make it something small: 'I hope you can sleep tonight,' or, as a widowed friend of mine has said to me, 'I hope you have some moments of peace'. In the early stages of a violent grief, moments of peace are as good as it gets.

2. Beginning sentences with 'at least': 'at least you still have the children,' 'at least you had his love', 'at least you got to say goodbye', 'at least they'd lived a good life'. None of these things change the reality for the bereaved. The person they love is dead. This is all that matters. Children, a nice house, a good job.....none of these things are compensation for losing your loved one. One day, there might come a time when your friend is grateful for the love and able to simply cherish what they had, but probably not now.

3. If your friend's partner has died, unless they bring up the subject, please don't tell them that they will meet someone else. There is no guarantee that they will ever meet someone new and even if they do, that someone new will never replace the someone who has gone. Especially in the early days, all I wanted was for the person that I love to return. That this is impossible is irrelevant.

4. Don't tell your friend that their loved one is at peace or in a better place or that the angels needed them. You don't know that. No-one knows that and, even if you think you do, that is not much consolation for the person left behind. For more on this;

5. Please don't tell your friend that this is part of a plan, that it happened for a reason or that it happened to teach them something. What kind of god/universe would take my partner's life just so that I could learn some kind of lesson? Maybe you believe that but I doubt it is comforting to many people who have just lost someone who was a cornerstone of their world.

6. Please don't make judgements about the relationship of the person who has been bereaved.  As my Grandma used to say, 'no-one knows what goes on behind closed doors'. Your friend's relationship may have been 'better' or 'worse' than it appeared to you. Just because the relationship was short or had some issues, doesn't make it less of a loss. Don't make assumptions and judgements full stop. Some people might be relieved at the death of a long-term spouse while others might be bereft and heartbroken at the death of a partner they'd only known for a week. How they feel is up to them and actually not something that is within their control. I had only been with my partner for eight months and we were, in some ways, an unlikely pair but I have been utterly devastated by his loss in a way that I didn't know was possible. My loss is no less valid than someone else's just because the relationship was brief and because I may have told you that we both had doubts. In my case, I hadn't told many people what my partner meant to me because I was scared to jinx it having had my fingers burned too many times before but I loved him very deeply and my grief has been similarly deep. Likewise with other bereavements. The apparent closeness of the relationship is no indicator for the violence or longevity of the grief that follows.

7. Don't judge your friend's grief. People grieve in different ways for different lengths of time. Contrary to popular opinion, there are no neat stages to grief and no linear timeline. Grief is messy and complicated and unruly. From my own experience, one minute I can feel ok, so much so that I actually wonder what on earth I've been making such a melodramatic fuss about and the next moment it is like someone has opened up a trap door and I have fallen into the deepest darkest hole. At those moments I can't see the light or a ladder and it is hard to remember that, only recently, I thought I was doing well. Grief is a tangled mess, a complex maze and a confusing whirlpool of emotions. It is full of ups and downs where the ups are mountains to climb and the downs are the deepest troughs imaginable. In between there are pauses and plateaus where you can occasionally have a tea break and look at a view of devastation.

8. Don't say those words: 'how are you?' especially not by text message. In my case, I'd prefer that people just assume that I am desolate until I have told them otherwise. By all means ask your friend what they've been up to because, of course, the days are going by and they are still living, but how they are is likely to be complicated and will take some time and energy to explain. If you want to know how your friend is, go round, make a cup of tea and prepare to mop up the tears. Or, in my case, read my blog. I'm much more articulate in writing.

9. When your friend is obviously down and weeks or months have passed, don't ask them what's wrong. Just because the funeral is over doesn't mean they're fine now. They're still sad, about the same thing. They will be sad for a long time.

10. Don't ask your friend if they're feeling 'better'. You don't get better from grief. Maybe it gets easier to deal with or maybe it doesn't. In my experience, asking me if I'm feeling better just makes me think about how far I still have to go and, if I was feeling ok when you asked the question, most likely I will feel worse because you asked it.

11. Don't assume that someone else is looking after your friend. I was living alone when my dad died and will never forget how it felt. About twenty friends sent text messages but no-one called to see me and no-one phoned. Three days later, I called two of my best friends in tears and they said that they assumed I was busy with family. Nope. That's not the kind of family I'm from. Some of my best support since my partner died has come from people that I had only just met. There's no hierarchy of support. If you feel for someone, see if you can help.

12. Things don't necessarily get incrementally better. In fact, it is probably more common for things to get incrementally worse. At best, it is one step forwards and two steps back. In the early stages of grief, especially unexpected grief, your friend will be in shock. They will also have a lot of practical things to do and, hopefully, a lot of support. Once the funeral is over, the shock has worn off and other people's lives have returned to normal, your friend is forced to confront their new normal on their own. The reality might not sink in until three months or six months or even twelve months later. In fact, for me, it is sinking in slowly, day by day, as I gradually realise that I have to find a way to forge a new life that doesn't involve the man that I thought was my future. Be there for your friend at three months and six months and twelve months when people are no longer rushing round with flowers and hot meals. The point at which you're really bored of your grieving friend and thinking that they ought to get a grip, is probably the time when they need you the most. Believe me, they are thoroughly bored of it too.

13. Don't avoid the subject. Your friend's loved one and their grief is the main thing on their mind and they are, most likely, desperate to talk about it. It doesn't matter how well you know the person, you can still ask. If they don't want to talk, they won't.

14. Don't expect your friend to be able to function normally. There is no normal anymore. Things that seem simple to you are loaded with land mines to your friend. They may not be able to go to the pub or to a party or do any of the things that you're used to them doing. They will at some point but please be patient. Unless you have been through the same experience, you have no idea how difficult it is. Sometimes, just getting out of bed in the morning is enough of a challenge. Your friend is not avoiding you for any particular reason or because of anything you have done, it's just all too difficult sometimes.

15. Don't ask your friend to call if they need anything. Most likely, they won't call and, more importantly, they probably have absolutely no idea what they need. They probably don't even know what day it is. Come round, bring food, walk the dog, play with the children, tidy up and, most importantly listen. And then repeat, over and over again for months on end.

16. On the other hand, sometimes, you could try asking. I'll never forget the friend who said to me, 'what single thing could I do that would improve things?' It took me a while to think what it was but then she remembered and did that thing and it really did improve things.

So, that's a lot of stuff to avoid. Is there anything you can safely do? Yes.

1. In the early stages, do rush round with flowers and hot meals - meals more than flowers. It is easy to forget to eat or drink in the early stages of grief. I was so grateful for people who brought food.

2. Do phone or call rather than sending text messages. As in my case with my dad, a flurry of text messages over an hour or two, do not make for great support. They're better than nothing, but, if you can, go round or pick up the phone.

3. Do keep phoning to check your friend is still alive. I have been so grateful to the friends who have done this, especially the friend who always phoned on a Tuesday knowing that this was the night that the children were with their dad and a night that I used to spend with my partner.

4. Do offer practical help. Grief is exhausting and blows your brain to bits. Ordinary everyday tasks can seem insurmountable. It is so helpful to have someone share the load even for a moment. Pick your friend's kids up from football training, walk with them to school, go with them to appointments, wash the pots. A little goes a long way.

5. Send love. If you can't think of anything to say, send love. A little love goes a long way. Especially when you have lost the person who used to say 'I love you', hearing those words from someone else is very powerful. When you feel like you just want to dive into the grave with your partner, knowing that you still matter is essential.

6. Do offer hugs and kisses. Especially in the case of losing a partner, your friend has lost the person who used to do this. When my partner died (and still now, six months later) all I wanted to do was curl up in his arms and feel safe. The touch of someone else can't replace the warmth of his embrace, but it helps a little.

7. LISTEN. It is the biggest gift you can give your friend to simply listen without judgment or agenda, without offering your opinions or platitudes. It is incredibly hard to do but so essential that grief is witnessed. And actually, in reality, it should be easy. The best way to avoid all of the mistakes listed above is to say very little. Just sit with your friend, listen while they talk and say, "it sucks. I'm here. I love you."

If you're a friend of mine and you've said any of the things to avoid, don't worry. As I said at beginning, you were bound to get it wrong and, let's face it, anyone who knows me, knows that I have the worst case of foot in mouth disease around. And if you're a friend of mine and you have done any of the things that help, then thank you from the bottom of my heart. With no parents and no partner, I feel like friends (and my brothers) are all the support that I have. It is just as well that I have some great friends.

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