I was the first person in my group of friends to lose a parent – that is to be expected when you are 17 years old. My dad started developing Alzheimer’s when I was seven years old, though it was not recognizable until I was 11.
By the time I was 13 he was in a vegetative state that he never came out of. I remember not only feeling overwhelmed by sadness, but by discomfort. None of my friends knew what to say or how to treat me.
It’s been over five years since he passed away and there are still people I won’t talk to because of how poorly they responded. It’s tough out there and your friends are going to go through their own struggles and you, YES YOU, as a friend, need to be there for them.
I was well aware that there was nothing any of my friends could say or do that would bring my dad back, but it didn’t help when they said that. “There is nothing I can do,” actually came out of one of my friends’ mouths. There were and will be things any friend can do…
Here are some tips:
#1 Listen. When my dad was sick I struggled to talk about it, a lot of my friends did not even know he was ill. When I am ready to talk about it, listen. A few months ago my friend found out about my dad and simply asked, “What was he like?” This question meant more to me than anything anyone else has ever said to me. My dad lives through me, please give me the chance to speak about him. It lets me know you care and don’t just want the juicy details.
#2 Don’t treat someone’s loss as a gossip item Speaking of juicy details, the loss of a loved one is not gossip, so don’t treat it like it is. I respect people so much more who just come out and say, “What happened to your dad?” than the people who ask my friends. I am an adult and an open book.
#3 If you don’t know the person, it’s not your business. The day I returned to school after I lost my father a boy walked up to me and said these words, “Molly? [Molly is my twin’s name, he literally didn’t even know who I was.] Is it true that your dad’s dead? If so I am sorry.” If you can’t even correctly identify the person, don’t go out of your way to talk to them. It made me feel like everyone’s eyes were on me [mostly because they were]. You don’t need to know what happened to my dad unless you have any sort of relation to me.
#4 Avoid clichés. Many people who have gone through loss feel differently than I do about this one, but “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is the greatest lie you can ever tell a person. Please explain to me then the people who suffer from depression after a loss, or turn to drugs or maybe even commit suicide. I do believe I am stronger from the loss of my father but not everyone is. Loss has destroyed the lives of too many people to count for this expression to be so widely used.
#5 Don’t pretend it’s the elephant in the room and certainly don’t pretend it never happened. A week after someone loses someone, ask them how they are doing. Whether they are talking about it or not they are thinking about it, so don’t brush it under the rug and worry you’ll be reminding them, I promise they haven’t forgotten.
#6 Your problems are trivial. I know that sounds harsh, but its true. At my dad’s Shiva someone actually complained to me that her dad made her take out the trash. I WOULD HAVE KILLED FOR MY DAD TO MAKE ME TAKE OUT THE TRASH. I don’t care about your chores, how stressful school is or even your broken arm. Every person will have a time in his or her life where they get to be selfish, loss is that time.
#7 Help them with the little things After my dad died, my mom was officially a single mother of four children. The people who helped her will never understand how truly grateful we were for the little things. People who sent us dinner every night for the next two weeks, took my brother to the park and helped us catch up in school will always be appreciated. There is always something little you can do to take something off their shoulders.
Every person is different and copes differently and you know your friends better than I do so feel free to take these with a grain of salt. Just do whatever you can to make your friend feel loved and supported.