“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.
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.
Don’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 uncomfortable 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 during 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.
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.
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.
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