Meaning of Death

Death, the Ultimate Loss – How to help a friend in their grief

Julie Ireland
Julie Ireland
Denver, CO, USA

I remember returning to work after my mother died. Suddenly every door to my coworker’s offices was tightly shut. Hardly anyone mumbled a word to me. There was no card. There were no flowers. No hugs. There wasn’t even a kind word from 95% of them. Interestingly these people were all in the human service field with years of counseling in their background. They were all women.

This group liked to talk. They lived to “process their feelings” at endless staff meetings. This was normally a very “touchy feely” group. But bring death into the mix. Wow. That sure shut them up.

Death is uncomfortable. We don’t know what to say. So unfortunately we say nothing. This is the worst possible thing you can do.

In the following weeks after my Mom died, the thing that surprised me the most was reaction from others. Friends didn’t send cards. Phone conversations went dead silent the minute I told callers my Mom died. I never received a single flower from a personal friend. I was one of the lucky ones. I did have at least a couple of friends who called & were very kind and let me cry endlessly. Without that support I am not sure what I would have done.

The grieving person feels shocked, afraid, depressed, suicidal, hopeless, and angry. Don’t let these feelings scare you. They are normal.

In thinking about people’s lack of reaction I thought how interesting because death isn’t a freak occurrence. Given that the one thing we are guaranteed in life is…well…death. It strikes me as odd that people don’t know how to react to it. I thought what if someone gave a primer on WHAT TO DO WHEN A FRIEND LOSES A LOVED ONE 101.

  • Always send a card. It hurts so much worse to not be acknowledged.
  • Send a single flower, a plant, or a bunch of daisies. It doesn’t have to be costly. Your friend will appreciate the thoughtfulness of the gesture.
  • Bring food. This is so helpful.
  • Don’t think if we “bring it up” that they are going to get upset. They are already upset. So “bring it up”. The alternative is ignoring the death and that is significantly worse.
  • Call and ‘check in” on your friend. It is OK to say, “I am so sorry your mom died”. Your friend will appreciate this. Then call them every week. If this is wildly outside your comfort level, then at least leave them a message on their home machine telling them that you are thinking of them.
  • Understand that your friend may isolate. They probably do not want to be cheered up.
  • Ask your friend “What can I do for you?” They may need you to just listen, they may need you to call and know that you care.
  • Make sure you are specific. Please don’t say, “I’m sorry for your loss” Say “I’m sorry Pat died”. It is always better to use the person’s name. It is more personal.
  • If you are grieving for the deceased person…say that. Say for example “I will miss your Mom also, she sure was special”. It helped me to know that other people miss her as much as I do.
  • Know that grieving isn’t something that ends in 6 months, or a year. People have the subliminal attitude such as “Aren’t you over it…it has been a year already?”
  • Send them a book on grief. That helps. Really.
  • Don’t overlook the child or teen that is grieving, they are just as hurt and confused, as you would be. There are books written especially for them.
  • Go to the funeral…to support your friend. They will never forget that you showed up. You do not need to have known the deceased.
  • It is ok to say; “I don’t know what to say”.
  • Offer to pick up the children. Offer to finish that report. Offer to pick up the dry-cleaning. Often they feel helpless to take care of the mundane tasks.
  • Be extra sensitive for milestones. Acknowledge that it’s been one year since the loved one died. Be aware that its Mothers Day & the person is feeling especially alone. Or Valentines Day for the loss of a partner. Or the deceased persons birthday. Or the first Thanksgiving without their family member or friend.
  • Your friend may be angry with God, the world, and the deceased. This is normal.
  • Be aware they may feel guilt.
  • Tell stories about the person who died, they are cherished.

People think that death is contagious. It is not.

Don’t say:

  • “They are in a better place”.
  • “You need to see a therapist”. They already feel low; they don’t need your implication that they are crazy too or that their grief is inappropriate.
  • “Aren’t you over it?” The pain takes years to subside.
  • “You are lucky you still have a husband” (or children) or whatever. They do not feel lucky.
  • “You will get over it”. You never get over it.
  • “Thank God I still have my Mom, I don’t know what I would do”. This is extremely insensitive.

The second year after a death is very hard because everyone thinks it is behind you, however you still need the support.

Your silence tells your friend that their loved ones’ life was not important.

After a death we feel lonely. It is an aloneness that goes so deep. If you ever needed a friend it is now. To ignore your friend when they need you the most is the ultimate social shunning. One day, you too will experience a profound loss, consider how you would like to be treated.