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Comforting the Grieving

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Dec. 03, 2014

My second year away at college dealt me a particularly hard set of challenges, not least of all because during the beginning of the year one of my closest friends lost his mother and, nearing finals, my own father passed away. In less than six months, I experienced both sides of an event for which I was unprepared: the sudden death of a close family member.

When my friend’s mother passed away, I felt helpless in the face of a grief I couldn’t understand or remedy. I also felt awkward. Death is an uncomfortable reminder of our frailty, and the emotions it reveals in all their nakedness can be overwhelming. Months later when I lost a loved one, I experienced the grief I had only seen before, and I knew too well the confusion my friends felt as they comforted me.

I say that I understood my friend’s pain, but this is not entirely true. Everyone responds to death a little differently. Love your friend’s individuality. Because of the uniqueness of each person, I cannot pretend to provide a fool-proof guide to help you reach your grieving friend. Still, certain things were precious to me those last few weeks of the semester. These things may help your friend who is suffering.

1) Ask questions. For your friend, Death is not a “someday.” It is an everyday reality. Death can feel like it occupies the space left by a loved one. I often wanted to speak about my experiences but did not know how to begin the conversation. And remember, questions that elicit more than one word answers are more valuable. “How are you doing?” can be great, but, “What is difficult about re-adjusting to campus?” is better.

2) But don’t pry. Try to recognize the limits of your intimacy. This depends on the level of your friendship and the openness of your friend. I felt like many kind, sincere acquaintances tried to be my therapists. While their compassion touched me, it often made authenticity difficult. My honest feelings battled with a script I adopted in the face of well-intentioned scrutiny.

3) Admit your ignorance. “Amelia, I’m sorry to hear about your dad. I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but you and your family are in my prayers.” Simplicity, sincerity, forthrightness. This was extremely comforting.

4) Your presence is your most valuable gift. I’m one of those strange creatures who loves school, but following my dad’s death, my ability to concentrate and even care about academics was scattered. My friends made their presence in my life a priority, not so they could psychoanalyze my mental state, but simply so I didn’t collapse into myself. They reminded me that I was loved, regardless of my loss.

Many of us picture comforting grief-stricken friends in dramatic moments worthy of Hollywood. But true friendship often looks more like an offer to drive someone to the grocery store, study with them, or watch a movie. These moments of everyday love are the true heroism of friendship. Death can humbly remind us of our humanity. Let your response to a grieving friend be ordinary and natural. Your compassion will not be lost on them.