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Helping a Friend Through the Loss of a Parent

Jun25

by

Amy,

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.

Ally

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, nothingthanks 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.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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22 Responses to “Helping a Friend Through the Loss of a Parent”

  1. Carolyn Jun 25 at 1:15 pm Reply Reply

    I have no advice to offer, except to commend the OP on everything she’s doing to be such a good friend. I have a feeling that even if she doesn’t know exactly what to say or do, she sounds like she’s off to a good start just by how obviously she wants to be able to support her friend. 

  2. Brittany Jun 25 at 1:23 pm Reply Reply

    Great advice, Amy.  Thanks for sharing.

  3. Courtney Jun 25 at 1:37 pm Reply Reply

    I completely agree with Amy. My dad passed away in March from a very quickly (ridiculously so!) progressing cancer and the absolute best things my friends did were to just show up (and then leave). None of them came in the house even though I offered. One left frozen meals on the porch and texted me, one brought flowers and one brought wine and cheese (which was greatly appreciated!!). Other friends simply emailed or sent cards or donations to cancer foundations and it was enough to just know they were thinking of me. I couldn’t handle phone calls so, for me, feeling the obligation to talk on the phone would have been too much.

    I guess you know your friend best and what they would prefer – those were just things that I appreciated.

  4. Shannon W. Jun 25 at 1:53 pm Reply Reply

    I have tears in my eyes reading your “spot on” post. My dad died 16 years ago this month (when I was 25, prekids but after I had lived on my own for a few years).
    I too felt a bit guilty at being able to resume my life while my mom struggled to remake hers, meanwhile I was falling asleep on the couch at 9:30 every night and being overly emotional about many things. But most of all, thank you for giving the advice about supporting her friend through the changing relationship with the surviving parent. When my dad died that came as the biggest shock. I knew I had lost my dad; I did not expect to lose so much of my mom. It was a area that I really needed support in for a couple of years and my husband was my rock.

  5. jL Jun 25 at 2:07 pm Reply Reply

    Two of my best friends (who are sisters) lost their mom (my mom’s best friend) a few months ago to cancer. It had been a long long battle and we knew it was coming but it was still so hard.

    I have been trying to text them a few times a week and email them (we don’t live close) just to say hi or to send a funny link to this or that or with a story about a ridiculous thing that happened at work. I think a big thing is to make sure to keep pursuing them in a few months – when all the cards and the dinners and those things stop and everyone else goes on with their lives. Even just asking over email if they are okay, helps a lot. One of the sisters said everyone around her seems afraid to even mention that her mom died and so just being asked how she was doing was a huge thing. Also, noting things in your calendar like the anniversary of his death or his birthday or Father’s Day and just remembering to let her know you are thinking of her then.

  6. Cindy Jun 25 at 2:18 pm Reply Reply

    My mom died about six weeks ago. Here is what I have found helpful:
    – A neighbor who called out of the blue with an offer to buy us pizza
    – Some friends who sent us a restaurant gift card so we could get takeout instead of having to cook
    – Another neighbor who offered to take the kids anytime I needed some alone time to cry
    – Relatives and friends who keep checking in to see how I’m doing, via cards, calls, texts, and/or emails. Sometimes I don’t feel up to responding, but other times I do. Regardless, I appreciate every single gesture.

    My experience of grief is a little bit different than Amy’s, in that I want to talk about my feeeelings a lot. Let your friend guide you in whether she wants to talk or not talk. Also, check in with her regularly as the weeks pass – there is a flurry of cards and phone calls right at the beginning, but when they taper off, she might feel like the rest of the world has moved on, while she is still mired in grief.

  7. Kate Jun 25 at 4:11 pm Reply Reply

    I think it’s great advice you’ve given here, Amy, but I think it’s important to keep in mind that those rambling over-stayers are just trying to help. Maybe it’s an assumption that people don’t WANT to be alone in a huge vacant house in which the main figure recently died. Or maybe it’s a desire to share their stories of grief so they can convey that, hey, I know this is hard as hell, but you ARE’T alone. Or maybe it’s a way to express their own grief over the person who has just passed. Emotions are all so fluid, it’s hard to know what the right thing is to do. We all feel so awkward around people who have recently lost a loved one because, usually, we know we can’t identify with their immediate grief, and we don’t want to do the wrong thing, which often results in us doing…the wrong thing. Funny how that happens.

    Just don’t persecute the misguided do-gooders because they can’t do exactly the right thing when you need it. Try not to get frustrated with people just trying to help and comfort. Loss is the awkwardest social situation to handle, pretty much ever.

    • roo Jun 25 at 7:38 pm Reply Reply

      To be fair, I’d guess it was her understanding of that dynamic that kept her there talking until her throat hurt instead of just kicking them out. 

      I don’t see how putting up with something unpleasant in the moment and then venting about it later equals persecution. 

      Although I did hear the Puritans were chased to the new world by cruel peals of courtesy laughter.

      • -k- Jun 26 at 2:39 pm Reply Reply

        Agreed. The question was about what to do and what not to do, and Amy was answering the latter part by describing how she experienced the long visits. The point is that it is possible to go wrong even when you’re just trying to help, and that this is one place where the well-intentioned might want to be aware of how their efforts are being received.

  8. Weatherb Jun 25 at 4:20 pm Reply Reply

    Spot on Amy! I lost my Dad 6 years ago after a long battle after a stroke. The thing that helped me was getting back to my routine, throwing myself into wedding planning (my Dad died two months before my wedding), talking to my Brother everyday since he was the only one who lost the same Dad I did. The food came from a few friends (awesome), cards, emails bouquets. I got through my wedding, goregous honeymoon in Hawaii got home and boom the realization my Dad missed it all and everything else to come. I called my best friend sobbing she dropped everything drove two hours with a bottle of wine, picked up take-out and let me put my head on her lap and cry. So it might not be right now when your needed but just knowing your there will help when the time comes.

  9. Abi Jun 25 at 4:30 pm Reply Reply

    This is wonderful advice. When my husband’s father died almost two years ago, our friends took turns bringing us dinner for the first week we were home. Another friend had watched our cats for us and shoveled the driveway while we were gone for 3 weeks. I think the hardest part for my husband was hearing anyone else talk about his father as though they knew him, even when it was to say nice things. I think what helped him best was to get back into the groove of work and have life get back to normal so he wouldn’t have to think about how much he missed his father.

  10. Jenny Jun 25 at 6:51 pm Reply Reply

    Good advice. I’ll admit that I always want to help, but the just stepping in and doing something gives me anxiety….I don’t want to do something that someone else won’t find useful. I should get over that.

    The one thing I did do for a friend whose 2 year old nephew was diagnosed with cancer (different, but similar situation) was send a DVD season of a TV show that I knew she hadn’t seen but would probably love. I included a note that I figured that she would need some down time to watch some mindless TV, and that I recommended she start with a certain episode that I loved. That was a big hit and something that I would find comforting in such a crisis.

    • Isabel Kallman
      Isabel Jun 25 at 8:17 pm Reply Reply

      Jenny, the DVD series is a very thoughtful idea. ~ Isabel

  11. Kaelak Jun 25 at 9:41 pm Reply Reply

    One thing that seemed to be needed/helpful when one of my good friends experienced a loss several years ago was I ordered a bunch of prepared and favorite foods through peapod and had it delivered to their house. You might try that?

  12. Jill Jun 26 at 9:53 am Reply Reply

    I lost my mom a few months before Amy while also pregnant from an almost 10 year battle with cancer. It blows! Nothing (not even 10 years!) can prepare you for it. The one different thing for me from the advice Amy gave is that my in-laws were very persistent on watching my 1 year old son. Everytime, I politely said no. My gut reaction was just to keep my baby with me. At all times. I even had a hard time leaving him with my husband the day after she passed to go help make arrangements and he slept in our bed for a few weeks. I finally had to say STOP! I find it really nice that you’re offering but I don’t want that, I don’t need that. If I do, I will let you know.
    However, the rest of Amy’s advice is very good. Prepared meals are very helpful, a small memento is super nice, no one cleaned my house but I’m sure my son and husband would’ve appreciated it since I didn’t do it nor care. Since your friend is out of town, a stocked fridge would probably be immensely helpful with maybe even a few prepped meals. In the end, take your friends lead on some things and other things you know she needs, just do.

  13. ChristyB Jun 26 at 12:42 pm Reply Reply

    I haven’t lost a parent, but I did lose my second baby at one week old just over 3 years ago now(preemie; freak circumstances; sad. I am mostly okay now except for the occasional days when I am not. It’s like that.).

    Amy’s advice is right on. When the grief is so overwhelming and just…*acute*….you can’t even figure out what it is that you need. People say “what can I do?” and you just…can’t even begin to figure out what it might be. Just doing is awesome.

    One of the best things one of my friends said early on was “I am going to screw this up. I am going to say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing – but I’m going to keep trying anyway.” It was the best thing she could have ever said and I felt her love for me SO strongly then.

    And just remember. Remember dates that are important. Every time you think of her, just send her a short note – “Hey, I was thinking about you and your dad today. Missing him and remembering him.” Just short – it doesn’t have to be a big thing. 3-4 months out things get really hard again for some reason….I guess the shock wears off? Maybe it’s that you start feeling like you should be “over it” or something? I don’t know….but notes around that time were huge for me.

    Hope this is helpful….you are being a great friend.

  14. Lori Jun 26 at 4:43 pm Reply Reply

    I lost my mother a year ago. The best support I received came on her birthday.  My best friend, who happens to share my mother’s birthday, took me out to a ball game.  

    The grief will hit again on holidays, special occasions and life milestones.  Be sensitive that she may be feeling fresh grief at those times.

  15. kimtoo Jun 26 at 6:03 pm Reply Reply

    It’s been a long time since my dad died- almost 19 years. But I want to say thank you to Amalah and the commenters because my mother and I had some very rough times after his death. Even after all this time, it was nice to hear that that was soemthing that happens, not just that I was being a jerk. (or her, either.)

  16. Lizzie Jun 27 at 12:46 am Reply Reply

    I don’t really have anything to add, just that I find Amy’s advice exactly spot on. My dad died 4 months ago very suddenly from a massive stroke, and like some others have experienced, I was 4 months pregnant at the time and already hyper emotional. The best gifts were by far the food that arrived on the doorstep, in a few cases by someone texting to say “I didn’t want to bother you but check your front door, I left something for you.” I was such a mess even the sight of a dear friend would send me into sobs, so it was a relief to not have to face anyone at times, when I already had enough of that at the memorial service, burial, etc. I had many many wonderful friends who would say “Can I bring you anything?” and offers for food, babysitting, etc, but as Amy said, vague blanket offers I universally responded to with “Oh thanks we’re okay”, mostly I guess because I didn’t want to burden anyone. But truthfully, I could’ve used a little more help, and the ones who just did instead of asked were priceless. Another thing to keep in mind if she seems okay right now or like she has plenty of support is to remember her later when it might be less obvious to others. The very recent Father’s Day comes to mind for me, because I really struggled for days after and although my husband was very caring and supportive, I could have really used a girlfriend’s acknowledgement and support.

  17. Hannah Jun 28 at 11:25 am Reply Reply

    We lost my father-in-law in 2009 after a long battle with cancer. He lived with us for five years and was especially close to my oldest child, who was four at the time of FIL’s death. To make matters even more emotional and difficult, he died four days before Christmas.

    For us, we did not want to try and make a Christmas for two young children all alone. We had some friends invited for Christmas dinner and asked them to please come anyway; they did, and it was a wonderful evening full of kindness, memories, and laughter. Those same friends keep coming for dinner every year to help us through what is still a sad time.

    Anyway – yes, if you can think of things to do, just do them. Food would have been really welcomed, because neither one of us felt like cooking. Taking our dog for a walk would have been nice, because leashing his giant rear-end and dragging out of the house felt like… too much. The little things are often the tasks that are hardest to cope with when grief is fresh.

    You, OP, are a wonderful friend for being so concerned. That will shine through to her as much as it did to all of us. 

  18. Ladotyk Jun 29 at 2:20 pm Reply Reply

    Yes, I agree with Amy. Being told “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” is the opposite of helpful. One more tidbit is to be a good listener if she feels like talking. Don’t try to solve her problems; just let her say what she needs to say.

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