I can assure you that “Writing advice columns on grief” has never been something on my bucket list. But, then again, it probably hasn’t appeared on anyone else’s, either.
The loss of my 20-year-old brother has taken me to places I never expected to go in my twenties—empty bedrooms, church podiums, lonely nights, and rainy cemeteries—but it’s also challenged me to find deeper friendships, more purpose, and greater empathy for others experiencing their own unique shades of pain.
While always acknowledging that grief isn’t linear and is different for everyone, I’ve found that the difference between losing myself in the misery and finding purpose in my pain is almost always the people who showed up for me.
One of my favorite terms, post-traumatic growth, is defined by Sheryl Sandberg as taking one or more of five different forms: “Finding personal strength, gaining appreciation, forming deeper relationships, discovering more meaning in life, and seeing new possibilities.”
I want to believe that when we show up at a grieving friend’s door, these are the kinds of things we desperately want for them . But how do we get from point A (chicken soup deliveries) to point B (cheering our friends on in seeing new possibilities)?
While there’s no magic formula, here are 10 things I wish my friends knew about my grief (or I’m thankful they realized!) and suggestions of effective ways to show up for your hurting loved ones:
1. I feel just as awkward as you do.
When you’re standing in my driveway taking deep breaths and rehearsing what to say, remember that this is my first time experiencing this type of grief, too. I’m just as nervous about how to react when I see you, and I’m definitely not used to this much attention
How to show up for me: Give me a safe space to feel how I truly feel without putting on a show.
2. Know that addressing what happened will not increase my pain.
The death of my loved one has already happened, and I haven’t forgotten about it. Don’t worry that bringing it up will catch me by surprise or cause a “grief burst.”
How to show up for me: Don’t avoid talking about the situation or try to distract me from it. Talk about it openly and don’t be afraid to use my loved one’s name. Over time, I’ll hear it less and less, and it will be a gift for my sadness to feel seen by you.
3. Recognize that my decision-maker is broken.
Just because I haven’t responded to your invitation to hang out doesn’t mean I don’t want to. My feelings are unpredictable, and I’m not sure what I’m going to feel up to day-to-day, but keep the invitations coming.
How to show up for me: Instead of, “What sounds good for dinner?,” text, “I’m ordering pizza tonight. Any favorite toppings?.”
Instead of “Let’s hang out this week!,” say, “I’m going to yoga at 8 am today and a walk at 2 pm tomorrow. Care to join me for either?”
4. Thoughtful details mean so much.
A few days after sharing that my brother only wore yellow socks when he was a little boy, a friend of the family showed up with pairs of yellow socks for my parents and me. “Wear these when you want to feel close to him,” she instructed.
How to show up for me: Bring my favorite snacks when you come over, tell me something you loved about the person who passed away, include a favorite movie quote or a family picture in a card.
5. Ask me “How is today?” instead of “How are you?”.
Sometimes the answer to “How are you?” can seem obvious or overwhelming, and there’s no room for me to talk about how I am aside from the huge elephant of grief in the room.
How to show up for me: Know that I may feel a responsibility to acknowledge my loss in general questions, but I also may be longing to talk about something simple and light for a moment. Remember that silence doesn’t mean my loss has gotten easier.
6. Some sympathy cards and grief books may make me feel isolated.
Anything labeled “grief” or “sympathy” could be a little bit overwhelming, especially when I’m still in shock. Books on the topic of death and black-and-gray cards may not be the most encouraging right now. Send me something unique that makes me feel known and cared for as an individual.
How to show up for me: Send me a card with a beautiful scene or a picture of a place I love. Offer to read a grief book with me so I don’t feel so alone. Or, give a beautiful and thoughtful book! Win-win.
7. Mark the anniversary on your calendar.
I’m probably not going to bring it up, but the anniversary of my loved one’s death will be on my mind a lot during that month, and there are also probably other birthdays and holidays that are harder than others.
How to show up for me: Let me know that you know it’s a hard day and you’re thinking about me. Ask what my plans are for the day and if I need any company.
8. I both long for things to be normal and am acutely aware that they aren’t.
When I ask what you’ve been up to, I’m not just changing the subject—I really want to know. Talking about something else can feel like a huge relief, and if you’re someone I feel comfortable with, I’d love to hear about you.
How to show up for me: Be willing to participate in awkward conversations and try to read how I’m feeling. Offering to do a side-by-side activity, like going for a walk, can take some of the pressure off and be restful for me.
9. Consistency is key.
The more I hear from you or see you, the more comfortable I’ll feel and the sooner we can find a new pattern in our relationship. Thank you for sticking it out with me when many people have given up.
How to show up for me: Don’t give up if I don’t text you back right away. I’m reorienting myself in my new normal, but I do want you to be a part of it.
10. Just keep showing up.
I rarely remember any of the things my friends have said when they haven’t known what to say, but I’ve always remembered who was there with me.
How to show up for me: Remind me through your actions that we’ll remain close friends.
On the other side
The thing about grief is that you never become an expert. Just recently, a few of my friends have been through heartbreaking losses, and I’ve been unsure of how to show up or what to say.
But thankfully, our job isn’t to fix their pain or prescribe a remedy; it’s just to do what we’ve always done—show up and be their friend.