Top Ten Ways to Be a Friend to a Grieving Friend: What I learned from my friends who did everything right

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mom and me

“Grief is the price we play for love.”  Queen Elizabeth II

Two years ago today, my mother passed away.  This piece is dedicated to my dear girlfriends who were by my side during my mother’s illness and after she died.

circa 1933

circa 1933


Don’t do nothing.  Don’t worry that you’ll interrupt something, invade your friend’s privacy, or say or do the wrong thing.  You can only fail your friend if you do nothing.


Do not triage grief.  In the grand scheme of things, of course there are more tragic events than my 83-year-old mother dying  . . . for instance, 26 innocent people being gunned down in an elementary school or a toddler diagnosed with leukemia.  But my heart can only hold my mother, so it is the whole of my grief.  Don’t say I’m lucky I’ve had my mother so long or that she cheated death so many times before.  I know that and I’ve told myself that, but don’t try to whittle away my sorrow to make it less.


hs graduationDon’t tell me you’ll pray for a miracle.  Miracles almost never happen, and that’s why there are movies made and books written about them, and why it’s so darned hard to become saint.  There are assumptions in your prayer: that I share your religious beliefs, that more prayer would have prevented her illness; that God’s mercy is capricious; that my mother deserves to live more than people swept away in tsunamis or children starving in Zambia; that I’d even welcome God so late to the party.


If you ask, “What do you need?” your friend is unlikely to tell you.  Most of us are weddinguncomfortable asking for help, even if we can articulate our needs.  And it is quite possible that a person hemorrhaging grief can’t parse out her needs.  Your friend is your friend because you can read her heart, so just do anything you feel is right—send a silly card, take a sack of snacks to the hospital, give her a gift certificate for a massage, make a CD of hymns, wash her car, send a cleaning lady.  Think what unique talent or expertise you have that could help.  The pharmacist who filled dozens of prescriptions and answered hundreds of my questions offered to come out to my car to give Mom her flu shot so she didn’t have to walk to the back of the store.


Tell your friend that you do not expect or want thank you notes, that anything you are doing mom with steve and meduring this difficult time is a great privilege, a way you can express your love for her.  If she writes one, jokingly chastise her saying, “I said no thank you notes!  I mean it!  You’re pissing me off!”  I don’t think I wrote a single thank you note for the hundreds of kindnesses showered on me during those nine months Mom was sick, and I still feel guilty about it.


bj and uncle lou

I am the cute one.

Grand gestures are unnecessary.  Apply a steady sprinkling of attention rather than lead a ticker tape parade.  A text once a week that says, “I’m thinking about you.”  An emailed card with a dancing hippo.  A gift card for carryout.  A loaf of foil-wrapped banana bread left at the door.  A shoveled driveway.   A new lipstick.  It’s cliché to say, “It’s the thought that counts,” but it really is.


Expect your friend to be stupid.  Nothing shrinks intellect faster than grief.  Your friend may forget your birthday, change the clock for Daylight Savings Time, return her library books, comb her hair, put on underwear.elijah


Cards matter.  Keep a stack of “thinking of you” and sympathy cards on hand, stamped and ready to go.  Periodically send them.  They matter.   My father and I have read through the hundreds of cards at least four times.  My dad, who no one would ordinarily accuse of being sentimental, has kept every card and letter in a big box on the coffee table.


Envision yellow caution tape lassoing your well-intended advice.  When you suggest a different doctor, a different treatment, a different hospital, you are planting seeds of doubt.  A few days after my mother died, I brought heart-shaped cookies to her oncologist’s office.  The nurse came out from behind her desk, hugged me, and said, “You did everything right.”  Just writing this makes me weep thinking of the abundance of grace in this world.


Expect and accept tears.  Don’t pretend everything is okay– unless your friend wants to.

Our last Christmas with Mom.

Our last Christmas with Mom.

I love you, girlfriends:  BARBARA BROWN, LYNN CARROLL, TERI FOLTZ, ELKE GIES, HOLLY DORNA, KATHLEEN ERNST, SUE SHACKLEFORD, MARILYN SEILKOP, NANCY BUCK, BJ SEIDELMAN, POD, WOMEN WRITING FOR (A) CHANGE and all the other friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers who kept me keep afloat.

I love you, Mom.  

Copyright © 2015 Sandy Lingo, All Rights Reserved

This is an excellent, comprehensive article with more advice and book recommendations:  How to Help a Friend Who’s Going Through Something Horrible





  1. Thank you, Sandy! Today, my mother would be 102. I lost her when she was only 63. Grieving never goes out of style; your words are a comfort. Love, Kathy

  2. Sandy, I really needed to hear this. I lost my mom 16 months ago and I know what it’s like to need support at that time. But mostly I needed to be reminded how to be there for all those friends who still have that experience to go through. Thanks for putting those thoughts out there for us.

  3. Sandy, you have a way of saying the right thing at the right time. Sheila and I were talking about the seasons of grief, which really seems to be in season all the time. We were remembering those that helped us at times when grief was especially present. I remember how I felt when a friend showed up at hospice unexpectedly, and that was exactly what I needed at that particular moment. The friends who came to the various funeral homes were so welcomed because of their attention to our losses.

    When I wnat to honor another person’s sadness, I often am a loss at what to do. These reflections of yours will help me this weekend as we attend yet another funeral of a loved one.

    And yes, I have a box of sympathy note and cards tucked away in my closet too.

    Love you, Sandy

    Thank you for sharing this post.

  4. Such wise, practical and honest lessons, Sandy. Thank you. I love the photos of your mother as well. Readbacks:
    “don’t do nothing.” “expect your friend to be stupid.”

  5. good advice. Touching .

  6. Excellent. The photos were wonderful. A fine ode to friendship and for your Mom. I’m gonna try and print this to remember.

  7. I’m fondly remembering all the memories I have of your mom from my childhood on this 2nd anniversary of her passing. Reading this now after our own family’s recent loss you are absolutely right about everything you wrote.

    • I’ve learned a lot from this, Sandy. I am an avoider when it comes to death. I just never know what to say or do. Love you!

  8. Love you dear and special friend. Even in her death you continue to honor your mom by helping others.

  9. My fav? Don’t tell me you will pray for miracles. So succinct. So right on! Honestly, I would send it to a hospice org that might post this…..

    • Great idea, Annette. So many people don’t know how to respond. This would be a big help.

  10. This was so moving; I have tears running down my face right now. The photos were so precious and highlighted your words. Thanks for sharing this.

  11. Very moving and well stated… I hardly know what else to say…

  12. Beautiful words of wisdom. Love you, Sandy!

  13. Beautiful. Thank you for sharing this.

  14. What a wonderful tribute to your Mom! She is so proud of you knowing that you helped us all do a better job of supporting a grieving friend. Thank you.

  15. This could be the primer on How to Provide Grief Support. Every guideline is spot on. I’m sending to a friend who works at Hospice. I especially appreciate #6 about thank you notes. I always thought it was silly to think we have to write thank you notes for acts of kindness received when we are in most need of support. There is a time and a place to be a gracious receiver and losing a loved one definitely qualifies. Thank you for helping others know how to do everything right.

  16. Thank you, Sandy. My mom left me 9 years ago January 25th and I miss her like crazy. For the last 7 years of her life I was privileged to be the “parent” and support her through one detour after another. All while working my full-time job and doing all the things for my family that I always did. The caregiver definitely needs a support system while providing that all important support – awesome advice! And a word for bosses – don’t call the caregiver at home the day after her mother dies to ask how to process a purchase order!! Even though I didn’t know your mother well, I’ll always remember her because she and I share a birthday. :-)

  17. My first response is……WOW! Each of the 10 support suggestions “hit the nail on the head!”
    I especially like number 8……you are so right when you say that we all have our own religious beliefs! If only people would realize that events in life doesn’t always have “God’s will in it.”

  18. Sandy,
    That was a particularly meaningful blog for me. I never know what to do or say to people undergoing a loss or other misfortune. Your suggestions really helped. I love it when you’re funny, but this time I liked it when you weren’t.

  19. Dear Sandy,
    This piece is as touching and helpful as the first time I heard it in class. We’re coming up on two years since Mom died. Just a few more days. You were so helpful during that time. You followed your own advice.
    Love, Jan

  20. Sandy,

    Thank you for being the one who keeps sending the cards and emails!

  21. Your writing truly touches me. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself. Miss you dear, wise friend!

  22. What a beautiful way to share your love for your mom. A great message to help friends know how to help you through your grief. My mother has been gone for eight years and I still think of her every day. Love never dies.

  23. I’m sharing this with a bunch of friends! I want to hug your pharmacist, BTW.

  24. Sandy,

    I loved this article. I have a picture of my mom on my kitchen windowsill when she was just a five year old. I talk to her every day when I make my morning coffee. Still think she is giving me advise.

    Sandy B

  25. I cleaned out my bosses moms house after she died a few weeks ago. Ive known my boss since inwas 6 years ild. Hes now around 73 im 47. His mom was an incredible lady. His brother told me to throw everything away. I couldnt do it, im a hoarder. I want to give my boss some of his paremts things. I found old pictures, wonderful things written by her about her sons. Things written by their father to their mom and vise versa. Little objects that meant a lot to her possibly. I pillow that smelled like the house, a pleasant smell. some assorted bath towels, throw blankets, very nice soft comforting. My boss has taken the loss so hard. He cries. How do i present these things to him.

    • I wonder if you could box them up beautifully with lovely tissue paper. You can buy those sturdy craft boxes in all shapes, sizes, and colors/designs. Give him the box and tell him to put it on a shelf until he feels ready to open it, maybe on her birthday or Mother’s Day or the anniversary of his mother’s death. I think he will eventually be so grateful that you curated her things and found items that hold good memories. How generous you were to do this for him.


  1. 10 Things I Learned While Cleaning Out My Parents' House - Sandy Lingo - A Second Helping - […] Top Ten Ways to Be a Friend to a Grieving Friend […]

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Sandy Lingo

Life itself is the proper binge.  - Julia Child

A writing friend said that when she reads my writing, she always wants a second helping.



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