By Jonathan Decker, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
In 2005 one of my college buddies lost his mother to terminal illness. My heart broke for him: I was close with my mom and struggled to comprehend what it would be like if she died. Although I wanted to be there for him, I found myself frozen into inaction, intimidated by the enormity of his loss. I felt inadequate in the face of it. Nothing I could say or do would take away the pain he was feeling. I didn't know what he was going through by experience and therefore felt that I had no place to give advice or comfort. So, to my shame, I did nothing, leaving the consoling to his closer friends and family while I sympathized from a distance.
It's Lonely When Friends Keep Their Distance
The next year my own mother unexpectedly passed away, and the reality of my friend's pain took on a terribly immediacy. The tables were turned and I found myself on the receiving end of people's awkward inability to approach the mourner. Perhaps they felt inadequate in the face of my loss. Maybe they thought that discussing anything “day-to-day” or “normal” with me might be insensitive. Whatever the reasons, the result was that I felt isolated when I most needed support.
People regularly asked my best friend how I was doing. He told them that they should ask me themselves and that I'd probably appreciate the connection. Still, many held back and it was a lonely time. With new understanding, I called my other buddy, the one whose mother had died the year before, to apologize for leaving him out in the cold when he needed me. We had a great conversation and came to the same conclusion: we didn't need anyone to “make it better.” We just needed them to openly care. We needed to not feel alone.
You Don't Need to Fix It. You Just Have to Be There
When a friend loses a loved one, don't allow anything to keep you from acting. Don't worry about having the right words. You don't need to say the “perfect thing.” If all you can say is “I'm so sorry for your loss,” as cliché as that phrase sounds, if it's said sincerely it registers and consoles. Flowers are good, but for me hugs were better, and verbal or written memories of the deceased are best of all. My sincerest thanks to my friends and family who did these things. It helped more than you'll ever know.
It really doesn't take much. Sometimes, after condolences are expressed, mourners need a laugh or to talk about something “normal.” It helps them to feel that their life will go on. Most importantly, remember that after the initial flood of support in the first few weeks and months, everyone else moves on while the mourner is often still grieving. They will feel that absence for the rest of their lives. This is not to say they'll never feel joy or normalcy again. It's just a reminder, for the rest of us, to check in once and a while. We will all experience the pain of loss. We can also experience the hope and love that comes when we mourn with those that mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort.
Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.