Your friend has just suffered a severe loss. How can you help?
I stared at the empty chair by the coffee table. It was a comfortable chair. The oversized, red-felt cushion was worn from hours of sitting. As I gazed at the chair, I was assaulted with memories. Daddy had sat in that chair every morning, drinking coffee with Mom. I could remember playing checkers with Daddy, as he sat in that chair by the coffee table.
But now the chair was empty. And Daddy was gone. Sudden, hot tears came to my eyes and I couldn’t look at the chair anymore. But turning away did no good. Everywhere I looked, the house was filled with memories of him. That morning Daddy had died.
The next few days went by in a blur. I went through the motions somehow detached from everything. None of what was happening seemed real. It was all so strange, as if I were on the wrong side of a Hollywood camera. The funeral came and went. People sent flowers and cards. Relatives visited. And then, quite suddenly, it was all over. Silence asserted itself in our home. It was an awful silence, actually a stillness, which served to make the memories seem audible.
Mom and I tried to comfort each other, but neither of us seemed strong enough to support the other. We didn’t talk about it much. It was painful for Mom, and I was still too numb to know how I was feeling. My friends, who had been by my side during the initial few days of the tragedy, called less and less. When they did call, it was usually to see if I wanted to “get away,” go to a movie or out for a bite to eat. I began to feel as if they had forgotten that my dad had just died. I felt as if they just wanted to have fun like we always had before, and didn’t care how I was feeling.
No one seemed to understand me. I felt like a foreigner in my own life. And what was worse, I felt alone. Painfully alone. On reflection, I now realize that my friends didn’t mean to hurt me through their actions. Some were afraid they would “say the wrong thing.” Others didn’t know what to say or do. They simply didn’t understand what I was feeling, and they didn’t know how to help me. When they didn’t ask how I was feeling, or if I wanted to talk, I thought my friends didn’t have time for my pain.
Do you find you can’t relate to your friend’s loss, and don’t know how to help him or her? You can help!
Your friend needs you right now, more than he or she has ever needed you before. Your “being there” at this critical time can give your friend the strength to go on. A part of your friend’s life has just died, leaving behind only a hollow emptiness punctuated by scattered memories. Nothing is there to fill that void — chances are, your friend feels more alone than ever before.
It is unhealthy for anyone to be alone in life, especially during a time of severe stress. Depression and disillusionment will set in, perhaps even suicidal thoughts. “But what can I do?” you implore in frustration. You may be surprised to learn that there is very little you have to do. Your friend does not need profound utterances of condolence or expensive cards or flowers nearly so much as he or she needs you.
Your friend needs your genuine concern, not a superficial offer to escape reality. If you were to ask about your friend’s feelings, and then listen — really listen — to what is being said, your friend will be able to release some of the harmful emotions being held inside.
Being there is the most important thing you can do to help your friend. You can express your concern through the amount of time you sacrifice to be with him or her. Don’t worry about “saying the right thing.” Listen instead.
The right time to help
My father died when I was 19. He battled cancer for many years before he succumbed to it, but I still wasn’t prepared for the shock I felt when he died. In the days following my father’s death, I felt excruciatingly alone, surrounded by so many memories of him. I yearned to have someone to talk to, someone to tell how I was feeling. Frankly, I longed to have a shoulder to cry on. A phone call would have meant everything to me, even if the caller had been just an acquaintance.
The time to “be there” is during the trial. You may feel that you are intruding, or that the person wants to be alone. But you don’t have to force yourself on the person. Call often and show you are there and willing to listen if your friend needs to talk. Often the “little things” mean much more than anything else you could do.
To help your friend make it through the most difficult times, it is important that you persevere, maintain your patience and remain by your friend’s side all the way down the long road back. Giving of your time is giving of yourself, the best gift you can give.