Supporting Bereaved Friends
At SeeSaw our focus is on supporting families to cope with the death of someone they love. One of the things we always explore is the support networks a family have around them. We know that having a good support network can be extremely helpful for someone who is grieving. However, we also talk to friends and loved ones who are in those support networks and know that supporting a friend after a death can feel incredibly uncomfortable, confusing and anxiety provoking.
This post is aimed at adults supporting children who have a bereaved friend. Some of these suggestions will also apply to adults who have a bereaved friend. Some of these suggestions may not yet be possible under current government guidance relating to the Covid 19 Pandemic.
It’s important to acknowledge that it can be really hard to know where to start when you want to help a bereaved friend. Death and dying are not part of our everyday conversations and that, in itself, makes talking about it feel uncomfortable for a lot of people. The first concern most people have is that they will say the wrong thing and make their friend feel even worse. This is a natural concern. When you care for a friend you want to ease their pain not make it worse; but the worst has already happened. When someone experiences the death of someone they love, there is very little that could feel worse.
The next worry is often about saying the ‘right’ thing. You could end up going around in circles about this, because there is no ‘right’ thing to say. You can’t make it worse, but there also no words that will make it better. Nothing can fully take away their pain or fix their grief, but once you acknowledge this, it can suddenly feel easier to begin supporting them.
For people who have been bereaved, they often say that they feel their friends have pulled away from them, usually for the reasons we have mentioned, and this can be very lonely. The most important thing you can give a bereaved friend is your presence. I once heard someone describe it as ‘you can’t stop the storm, but you can put up your umbrella and be in the storm with them’
So, what can you do to help? Here are some practical suggestions which you may find helpful. But remember that everyone is different – not all of these suggestions may suit everyone. Trust your judgement and your knowledge of who your friend is and what they are likely to find helpful. We’ll split them into two sections: Immediately after a death, and long-term support.
- Send a card or message. Sending a note in which ever format you prefer to acknowledge what has happened and that you are thinking of them can be a helpful way for children to feel like they are doing something to help by drawing a picture or making a card to send to their friend.
- Send a plant/ shrub instead of flowers. Flowers can be lovely but having something in the house that will die can be an added challenge at a difficult time.
- Send a self-care gift. Caring for yourself often gets put to one side when you have a bereavement. Sending a self-care gift can be a nice gesture that may help them take time for themselves.
- A gift for children. It’s easy for children to feel forgotten in the immediate whirlwind after a death. Sending something that is age appropriate which could give comfort, or provide distraction can be a lovely way to let them know they haven’t been forgotten. This is also something a child could do by choosing a gift to send to their friend
- Invite the children for a play date. Whilst this may feel like an inappropriate time for this offer, we know that having regular breaks from the emotions of a bereavement is something children do naturally. It’s often referred to as ‘puddle jumping’,jumping in and out of their sadness, so giving them something fun to do with their friends can help children enjoy these moments out of their puddle. It also provides adults with time to focus on arrangements and details they might need to do without the children present.
- Offer to take the children to their normal clubs / activities. We know that maintaining routines is very beneficial to bereaved children. But maintaining these can be difficult when dealing with the practical arrangements that need addressing after a death. If a child is still wanting to continue attending their clubs then offering to help with the logistics of this can maintain their normal routines and be one less thing to think about for the adults.
- Remember significant dates. Being aware in advance that dates such as birthdays, anniversaries and the date of death can result in people feeling a bit wobbly. Knowing this can help you be prepared to offer extra support at these times. Just sending a message to acknowledge that you know this might be a tricky day can provide a lot of comfort and help people feel that they have not been forgotten . Telling children to keep an eye out for their friend on certain days can make it easier for them to understand why their friend might be acting differently and they can respond in kindness rather than confusion or frustration.
- Share memories and stories. Several months after a death families tell us it can feel like people have forgotten about the person who has died. If you knew them, and you find an appropriate time, offer to share some of your memories and stories. If you didn’t know them, then ask your friend to tell you about them. Children can be encouraged to do this with their bereaved friends too, although they are often naturally quite good at asking questions where adults may feel awkward!
- Offer specific support. We are all very good at not asking for help. Even when someone says, ‘let me know if there’s anything I can do’, it is rare that we will respond with an actual request. Offering practical suggestions makes it easier to accept. It could be simple tasks like doing the school run when you know they’re busy or offering to have the children one evening so they can do something for themselves. It is important to remember to do these things gently and not make people feel like they can’t do things for themselves.
- Offer to be their voice when needed. This can be particularly useful in school. A child could offer to say something to a teacher if their friend is having a wobbly day and is too upset to say anything. They could make up a code word to use in situations like this.
- Let kids be kids. Whilst we can think of some specific things children can do to support their friends, their natural gift of being themselves and living in the moment is often the best therapy. They are very good at just getting on with things and helping their friends to puddle jump out of their grief and have some fun for a while.
- There's no time-frame on grief. Things move very quickly, particularly in teenage life and bereaved teenagers can often feel that people expect them to be ‘over it’ once a few months have passed. Help teenage friends know that there is no time frame for grief and that if their friend is angry, or sad or withdrawn, seemingly for no reason, it may be caused by their grief. On these days it’s helpful to ask if they’re feeling the way they are because of the person who died, and then to simply be ok with it, and not ignore it or try and fix it.
- Remind them it's ok to still have fun. This can be particularly challenging for adults and teenagers. Children seem much more capable of doing this naturally. People can feel guilty for having fun, even months / years after the death of someone they love. They can feel that it’s not right to feel happy – that by being happy they are forgetting the person who has died, or implying that the death doesn’t matter to them anymore. Reminding them that having fun doesn’t mean they don’t care is reassuring to hear. Keep inviting them to events where they can have a laugh with others, even if they say no, don’t stop inviting them.
However we chose to practically support bereaved friends, the best thing we can do, whether they are a child or adult, is to allow them to express their grief when they want to, to forget their grief when they need to, and to be alongside them through it all.