When a close friend is bereaved – especially when the death is traumatic and unexpected – what's the best way to offer support?
Is emailing appropriate? Should you phone or rush round? What if they're far away? It's easy to feel paralysed and hopeless when everything you say sounds trite. If all you can come up with are glib phrases like 'I can't imagine the pain you're in,' or 'I'm thinking of you constantly', is it better to keep quiet? It's essential, says integrative psychotherapist Sue Cowan-Jenssen, to realise that offering support is better than withdrawing. 'You can't make it worse than it is.
For your friend to know that you're thinking about them and their loss is immensely sustaining, whether it's an email or a phone call. And when the weeks go by and people start forgetting, support is even more necessary. '
Maybe so, but it's easy to feel British-ly stymied by embarrassment and fear of seeming tactless. Your life is carrying on as usual while your friend's is shattered; is it OK to mention everyday things? 'They're in pain, but they're not incapable and shouldn't be treated like children,' says Kitty Hagenbach, psychotherapist and founder of babiesknow.com. 'You can write to them about ordinary life. But what people need is to hear your positive memories of the dead person. Talk about them, provide anecdotes, as if they were still there. It's the connection, both with the friend and with the dead person, that's important.'
Whether this kind of conversation is welcome is easier to gauge if you're face to face with the bereaved person. 'Some people may feel too fragile, they may want to stick to light topics, and it's obviously easier to pick up on cues when you're with them,' says psychotherapist and Cruse supervisor Sue Marshall. But, she agrees, no one wants to feel that the loved one has been blotted out. And sharing one's story can be a crucial part of healing, as writer and therapist Diane Martin, whose son committed suicide, explains on opentohope.com, a website devoted to finding hope after loss.
You need to tell your story over and over again, she says, to people who will listen. Listening can be hard, harder than doing practical things like bringing over a casserole, though of course that has its place. 'There are no narcissistic rewards involved in supporting a bereaved friend,' says Cowan-Jenssen, 'no “I've phoned her 12 times and made her feel so much better." She may not feel better for a long time. It's a slow, painful process.'
Every bereavement is different, so ask your friend what kind of support would be most welcome. A visit? Lunch? A Skype call? And don't be afraid of silences; sit with them in their pain. It may uncomfortable for you, says Hagenbach, but it will help to have someone with them on their journey. Don't talk about your own experience of bereavement or say that you know how they feel; be honest and say you feel useless and that you know words aren't enough.
Sometimes, if you can't visit them in person, a letter can be the best way. 'Emailing is efficient but not emotional. A letter or beautiful card, handwritten and from the heart, is very welcome.' But email is fine for maintaining contact – and mailing poems is a good idea. And Facebook? Can posting a message of sympathy there be appropriate? If someone has a constant online presence and announces the death there, then why not? A friend was buoyed by the number of posts he received after a relative died. And of course there are now memorialised accounts – at least 3 million of them - where friends can view a page as it was left as well as use it to celebrate the dead person with memories and photos, though someone has to moderate and 'impression-manage' to make sure comments aren't offensive. Grieving is not a mental illness, it's natural and appropriate, says Sue Marshall. We mustn't let our own fear of death stop us receiving whatever our friend wants to share. 'Don't try to make things better for them. Just reflect back and empathise, allowing them to feel anger, guilt or relief.' The main thing, it seems, is to show up, not to shut up.