Helping a Friend Through the Loss of a Parent
I hope this question isn’t too personal, but you are really the only person I can think of that may give me advice. One of my closest friend’s dad died yesterday. He had cancer for a while and they knew this was coming. She got to spend the last week of his life with him (she lives about five hours away from her parents). Over the last week I helped out as much as I can with little things, but I want to do more. I have no idea what to even say to her because I have no idea what that is like. I talked with her briefly today and asked some questions and let her know I am thinking about her so much.
What helped you? Is there anything I can do? She will be away the rest of the week with her husband and kids. I thought about making some food and stocking her fridge while she is gone. Any suggestions would be really appreciated.
Here’s the big distinction I learned about offers of help while you’re in the early, heavy grips of grieving: Make your offers as specific as possible, and frame them in the declarative. Don’t ask. Just do.
If people asked “what can I do?” or “do you need anything?” I was very likely to insist that oh, no, nothing, thanks for offering, that means enough, blah de bloop blah. I don’t know why I responded that way, but I did. A weird determination not to inconvenience anyone with my loss and sadness, I guess.
The same went for specific offers, like “I’ll come babysit” but if the offer required any kind of specific follow-up or request from me — even just “thank you, how about Friday?” — I never took them up on it. Because maybe they meant they’d babysit just for explicitly death-and-funeral-related reasons? But not just because I was sad and exhausted post-funeral and wanted a night out to see a movie with my husband? Was three weeks after he died still covered by the offer? What if it had been a really long time since we had a girls’ night out together and yikes, I would feel like a jerk to hand over my kids and head out without her. I should probably figure out a night we could hang out instead.
I know these reactions probably sound ridiculously neurotic and over-thinking-ish, but that’s how I felt. I wasn’t processing things very well, and while the loss of a parent is incredibly personal and everybody grieves differently, your friend might be feeling something similar. Especially after a long, drawn-out illness, she may feel — like I did — that she was supposed to somehow feel “prepared” or “ready.” Therefore she shouldn’t need friends to rush to her side to make sure her kids get to soccer practice or there’s non-expired milk in the fridge.
The best offers of help I received were the help that arrived sans offer. A friend who simply showed up to drop off a container of matzo ball soup, because I made an off-hand comment about it being my favorite comfort food. People who simply sent things, like baskets of pasta and sauce or gift cards for Target or grocery stores. Our babysitter who completely cleaned and organized the clutter in the basement one afternoon, just because.
If your friend is going to be away for awhile, gift cards or arranging for a maid service are nice…or just figuring out a time when you can arrive and vacuum and help with the laundry when she’s not there to feel awkward or like she needs to entertain and/or dissuade you with assurances that she’s “fine.”
My mom definitely appreciated folks who dropped by with meals or cards…and who then LEFT, rather than plopping down on the couch to “talk,” which always turned into my mom having to re-tell the details of my dad’s final days for the millionth time or listen to the person’s own sad story about a lost loved one. This drove me insane during my days up there: long-lost “friends” who saw my dad’s obituary in the paper and decided to drop by unannounced and sit and stay and talk…and talk…and talk. I lost my voice from all the talking. Just because I felt the need to be polite and a good hostess when really my mom and I wanted to be left alone for a couple hours and watch a DVD together.
So. Aim for being a quiet, behind-the-scenes angel for your friend. Stock the fridge, mow the lawn, empty the laundry hampers while she’s gone. Leave a stack of your favorite books or other little gift for her on her nightstand. Make sure she and her husband know that you are available to help with the kids if she needs or wants to stay away longer than planned.
When she comes back, she’ll probably still be struggling with how she “should” feel. I remember feeling almost guilty that I got to come home and basically resume my life as if nothing happened. Back to the grind of work and shuttling kids around and appointments and meals and such. I felt weird. Things were fundamentally different forever and yet…there I was, going about my days like always. But that’s what I needed, though it may have seemed like I was pushing people (and their offers of help) away. Mostly I just wanted to keep my mind off it during the day — I thought about it all enough at night, while trying to sleep — and really, REALLY didn’t want to face people who thought like they should get me to “talk” about it. If I wanted to tell the story, I told it. If not, please don’t give me knowing, prodding looks and remind me for the millionth time that you’re “there for me.” I KNOW YOU ARE. SO IS THIS BOTTLE OF WINE AND REAL HOUSEWIVES MARATHON. STOP TALKING SO MUCH NOW.
My mom was different, because she didn’t have a full busy household to go back to. She had the opposite: a big empty house that forced her to confront his death at every single turn. So she wanted to talk about him and look at pictures and do things that kept his memory alive even after the funeral was over and the flower arrangements stopped arriving. It was a difficult time in our relationship because neither of us could give the other what she needed. We fought a lot. I wanted to focus on my kids and pregnancy and sort of mash the grief under the rug most of the time. She wanted hers out and laid bare and to talk about my dad all the time.
I don’t know if there’s anything anyone could have “done” to help us through that period, but it was a time that I no longer needed tangible offers of “help,” but absolutely needed emotional support from a judgement-free friend whom I could confide in that things with my surviving parent weren’t so hunky-dory. (Things are fine now.)
Anyway. That’s my sermon on Helping Friends Through The Loss Of A Parent. Do whatever you feel that you can do, and whatever you think she needs…and then remember to back off and let her feel and do and need different things, if that makes sense. She might not necessarily know what she feels and needs, but as long as she somehow knows that you are help and support her no matter what (even if those needs and feelings seem “weird” or “strange” to her or you), you’re being a good, good friend and you’ll both get through this difficult time.