How to Help a Friend Who Loses a Parent

Though it is one of the only guarantees in life, death still confounds even the most evolved among us. Take the guesswork out of what to say to a friend who has lost a parent with this truly heartfelt advice.

By Abby Gardner
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What I learned about grief when my mom died

As you enter your forties and creep toward your fifties, many things become apparent. Some are amazing, like the fact that you absolutely give zero effs about what people unimportant in your life think about your hair, your outfit, and your attitude or the guilt-free way you embrace not having plans every single night of the week. But some are decidedly less so — like realizing that your parents and those of the people you love are getting older and possibly nearing the end of their lives. 

If you still have both your parents alive and well, I am genuinely so happy for you. Enjoy every second you can, even the ones where they’re driving you crazy as you try to explain what hashtags mean and how sharing things on Facebook actually works. 

My mother died suddenly about five and a half years ago, when I was 38 and she was just 65. While I’d give just about anything to have had these years with her, I do know that my experience is going to be invaluable for so many of my friends as the inevitable one day happens to them. Or at least I hope it will. 

After my mom died, I was the lucky recipient of so much love and support from friends, family, colleagues. You name it, people showed up and I’m forever grateful for all that they did for me. What surprised me was the wise advice and affection from those I didn’t know quite as well, but who had, at some point, experienced the death of their own mothers (or fathers.) I don’t know if I could have made it through those first days without them and I have tried to pay that kindness forward as much as I can. The writer Kate Spencer published an aptly titled book called The Dead Mom’s Club and I have to say that while it is certainly not a club that anyone relishes joining, it is one filled with grace, honesty, and unwavering support. 

Because the death of a parent is something we will all likely experience, here is some of my best advice on how to help a friend who’s going through this kind of loss. It can be intimidating, especially if you’ve never grieved the loss of someone close to you, but don’t let that stop you from reaching out. Please. 

Be there and be ready to listen

It sounds so simple, but just show up, and that can mean in person or with a call or a text. I do volunteer work with grieving children and we talk a lot about meeting them where they are, emotionally-speaking, and that holds true for us middle-aged types too. 

Sheryl Sandberg had some sage advice after the sudden death of her husband, Dave Goldberg. She recommended asking someone, “How are you doing today?” versus “How are you doing?” It’s a small tweak that makes all the difference to the grieving person and allows them to talk about the moment and not the big picture, which may feel very fuzzy. Making even the small things a little more manageable for the grieving person is huge. 

Don't overdo it with platitudes

It’s okay to not know the perfect words to speak in a moment, but a simple place to start is by saying, “I’m so sorry this happened” or some variation on that. Your friend doesn’t need you to tell them everything is going to be okay or that her mom or dad is in a better place now (if that’s what you believe), even when those words come from a loving, well-intentioned place. 

When you’re in those horrible early stages of grief, it’s okay to not be okay. And, frankly, you don’t know that everything is going to be okay. If your friend was lucky enough to have a good relationship with the parent who died (and yes, it’s fine to just use the word “died” …that’s what happened), the “better” place they want that person to be is beside them, not dead. 

Don’t expect the grieving process to be linear

It’s simply not. Many of us grew up hearing about the stages of grief, made famous by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While I found that I most certainly experienced all of those feelings, they don’t progress in the way you might think. It’s not as if the anger or the sadness is ever gone. You can be at work living your life and doing “well” when something as simple as a smell or a song can trigger a wave of grief, the strength of which haven’t felt in years. Cut people slack and don’t put expectations on when they should be “better.”

Don’t be afraid to share memories about their loved one

Some people assume that if they bring up my mom, it will make me upset — but, for me, it’s mostly the opposite. I’m sad that she’s not here whether you mention her or not, and I truly love hearing stories about her, especially ones I don’t know. I love laughing about how perfectly bitchy and cuttingly funny she could be or what an impact she had as a teacher, or how she was always the first person to drop off a meal when a friend was going through something. Yes, I might get misty-eyed, but that’s okay. Tell the stories!

Don’t be afraid to bitch about your own parents — eventually

I know you may feel uncomfortable complaining about your mom in front of someone who’s suffered a major loss — and obviously, the time for this is not when the death is new. But I would absolutely hate it if I felt like my friends felt they couldn’t share something with me about their own parents. It’s okay. I know it sucks that my mom is gone, but if she was here, lord knows she’d be getting on my nerves occasionally about something. That’s life and I have never wanted anyone to keep parts of theirs from me because they think I can’t handle it. But don’t be too hard on your old parents either... 

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