a good friend’s guide to grief

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Hey friends, hey! So excited you’re here. A question I’ve been getting a lot recently is “How do I love my friend who is grieving?” and I LOVE THAT. Please keep seeking the answer to that question! My answer is usually “A.) You’re a great friend! and B.) Keep being that friend!” but I want to give it a little more thought here because the people in my corner mean the world to me—and have been the best examples of love!—, and I think simple misunderstanding is the only difference between someone feeling lonely or loved in their grief. While this is only based on my personal experience with losing my brother, I hope it helps you feel prepared when your friends lose someone they love. Here goes: 

If there’s one thing I learned in college, it’s how to kill a cockroach.

I had a different set of roommates each year at South Carolina, which meant every living situation brought its own opinions of how to deal with the crawly pests that appeared everywhere. The bugs must have assumed that since USC cheered for the cocks, they must also appreciate the roach variety. They were wrong.

My roommates’ reactions to the bugs could be separated into 2 distinct categories:

The screamers—It was only the most blissful fate that lead me to these sweet screechers who’d drop coffee mugs, slam doors closed and break ear drums at any sight of a creepy crawler.

The killers—The category of first responders of which I am a proud member. We see the bugs less as vicious threats and more as problems to be solved.

But recently, I’ve noticed we all split into the same categories when other hard, uninvited circumstances crawl in. When grief found its way through my floorboard cracks, I experienced the same two distinct gut reactions from others: screaming and running away, or staying and trying to fix it. Both responses have the same motivation: to relieve discomfort, either by removing yourself or its cause.

That’s the thing about grief—you cannot heal the wound or relieve the discomfort. 

If that’s true, we’re just left with the “removal” part of the friendship offering, usually presenting itself as a buddy with a quick exit and not enough to say, or a pal with a cure-all and painful advice to distribute. Both are hurtful and damaging to relationships, so we’re going to say goodbye to those, okay?

Here’s where I’m not going to give you a list of do’s and don’ts, because there aren’t any that are true in every situation. But what we can do is revisit our motivation.

What would happen if you knew you couldn’t kill the cockroaches?
What if you knew that they couldn’t kill you? 

Your life would probably be pretty weird at first, and you’d have to get used to the uninvited creepy crawlies, but after a while, it would feel pretty normal. You’d learn to live amongst them and they’d start to feel less creepy.

Remove the pressure to fix your friend.
Relax the fear of things never being the same.
Show up in the midst of the uncomfortable.
Don’t scream in horror, don’t suggest a remedy; Just be willing to sit.

My girl Shauna Niequist communicates this scenario beautifully in her book Cold Tangerines. Wanting to have a baby, she wrote in a blog post that if she found out she wasn’t pregnant one more time, she would break glass, just to feel it shatter.

The next week, she had lunch to celebrate a girlfriend’s good news—pregnancy.

Shauna hoped the friend hadn’t seen the blog post, filled with jealous and frustrated words about the very thing her friend had and she didn’t. Her friend showed up to lunch with safety goggles.

“When you feel like shattering something, I’ll be right there with you.  I’ll help you break it, and I’ll help you clean it up.” She said, “You’ve been celebrating with me, and I’ll be here to grieve with you. We can do this together.”

Do that. Be the friend who brings the safety goggles or doesn’t mind stepping around the cockroaches.

Don’t love your friend because they are grieving; love them because they are your friend. 

Celebrate and grieve, and do it all together. You’re a great friend. Keep being that friend.

3 thoughts on “a good friend’s guide to grief

  1. I love the manner of using the cockroach parallels, as well as the breaking glass example. As one who listens to a lot of grieving people for a job, I deeply appreciate your emphasized point on loving people because they are your friends not because they are grieving, aka: a project. Thanks again for sharing your insights!

  2. This is stunning. Raw and honest and exactly what we need to hear. Beautiful work, friend.

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