So someone close to you has lost a loved one, and you feel that you owe it to them to try to make things ok. Unfortunately, the simplest answer is that you can’t. There’s no avoiding the sadness they’re feeling—and no matter how hard you try to distract them, they’re not going to feel like themselves for quite a while. However, there are a few things you can do to make day-to-day life a little easier for them, and to provide something to smile about in their shaken, upside-down world.
The greatest piece of advice I can give to you is just to keep being their friend. That may sound dumb, but it’s the only thing you can do. And it’s more difficult and complicated than you might expect.
The first thing you need to understand going into this is that everyone grieves differently, and you won’t be able to anticipate how your friend is handling everything. People can change in the days, weeks, or even years following the loss of a parent. They might grow more cynical, subdued, angry, or introverted. They might avoid contact with other people, stop opening up to you, and smile a lot less. The truth is that you can’t expect them to be exactly the same as they were before. They’re experiencing emotions they never thought they had, which is scary and confusing. While you may want them to go back to normal so you can return to having fun together, they don’t owe it to you to rush through their grief for your sake. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t humanly pull it off. It’s a natural and slow-going process that everyone must experience in order to healthily deal with loss.
But don’t worry! You’ll get them back eventually. All it takes is patience and understanding. If you can stick with them through this, your friendship will grow even stronger when things settle down.
The hardest part is figuring out how to “keep being their friend” when you don’t know what it is they need from you. Some people are very open about their grief; they might want to talk about it a lot to get their feelings out. If you’re lucky, they might even explain to you what’s going on in their brain, to help you understand the psychology of grieving the loss of a parent. More often than not, however, teenagers especially turn inside themselves and try to avoid talking about it altogether.
Given the intensity and complexity of their emotions at the moment, the last thing they probably feel comfortable doing is divulging the intricacies of their grieving process to you or anyone else. Unfortunately, you can’t crack your friend’s psychological response to death by asking them outright what’s going on in their mind. While good-intentioned, it’s very easy to seem insensitive or nosey when demanding that a person in grief explain themselves; they might not feel comfortable discussing it, they might see you as selfish for wanting to know, or they might get frustrated because they don’t even understand it themselves. That being said, you can’t gauge the way you comport yourself around a friend in grief based on how they act around you and the rest of the world.
Many teenagers act as if nothing is wrong, attempting to simulate the reality they knew before the loss. They pretend everything is normal so as not to draw attention to themselves when all they want is to be left to work through their feelings on their own. Teenagers usually don’t want to be seen as “the girl whose dad died” or “that guy who lost his mom”; it’s embarrassing, frustrating, and very sensitive. But just because they’re acting like everything is ok, doesn’t mean their mind isn’t constantly battling feelings of regret, anger, loneliness, and heartbreak. You’ve probably come to the conclusion that you are in a huge conundrum.
How are you supposed to be a friend to someone who won’t tell you how they’re feeling, and whose outward behavior you can’t trust to be true to their emotions? Don’t worry—all you need to do is take things one step at a time. However, before I can move on to what you should do, I have to tell you that the biggest mistake you can make is to walk on eggshells around them.
They probably don’t expect you to figure them out and know exactly what they need, because even they themselves don’t understand it, but what they probably don’t want is special treatment. They don’t want to feel like because their mom or dad is dead, their friends are acting like they’re a time bomb that could explode at any moment. Your instinct might be to be extra nice to them, but that will more often than not come off as you acting really weird. You might be afraid that you’ll say something wrong and make them upset, so you don’t talk as much. You might feel guilty that they’re so sad, so you avoid talking about things that make you smile so you don’t come off as clueless and annoying. You might even feel bad that you’re not grieving too, so you talk to them about all your problems so they’ll think you understand theirs (by the way, this never works—more often than not, they’ll resent you for acting like you’re trying to compete with them over who has more “problems”. I would recommend avoiding this tactic at all costs). The truth is that none of these solutions work. At the end of the day, your friend doesn’t need any more change. They don’t need their social life to be altered or made weird by the fact that their home life has been turned upside down.
Again, we return to the conundrum. The answer is to listen. Listening to what they need from you is the only way you can be the friend they deserve. Listen when they talk about trivial things, and most of all listen when and if they open up to you about their grief. From day to day, be there for them. That might come in the form of leaving them alone, if they explain to you that they don’t want company. But it also might mean being bubbly and cheery and making sure they’re never lonely, if they confide in you that they need moral support. You need above all to act like you haven’t let their parent’s death change the way you see them and put a damper on your relationship.
Now more than ever, they need you to care about them and help them, in whatever way you think will work. At the end of the day, they’re your friend, too, and they won’t hold it against you that this is something beyond your understanding. After all, you can’t understand it until it happens to you, and they certainly don’t want you to endure the death of a parent, too.
If you make a mistake and say something wrong, they’ll forgive you and move on eventually, and it’s worth the risk if there’s a chance what you do will numb the pain for a while.
As a final tip, it’s best, while avoiding giving “special treatment” or acting weird around a grieving friend, that you have to make sure to be sensitive. After a month or two, they’re probably going to start feeling like everyone’s moved on and forgotten except for them.
While counterintuitive to the fact that they didn't want people acting strange and delicate around them in the beginning, it’s not unlikely that after a while, they'll miss the recognition they got for enduring such a painful, life-changing event. When that stops, they’ll feel like it’s unfair that everyone else can move on and stop grieving the loss, except for them. It’s a good idea to send them small signals to let them know you still remember and still care. If you’re watching a movie and a kid’s parent dies, maybe shoot them a glance or squeeze their hand so they know you understand that it hurts.
If the topic of parents comes up, and someone else is being insensitive (“My dad is the best dad there is,” or “My mom is so annoying, I wish she’d just leave me alone”), give them a look of sympathy or one that subtly makes fun of the other person for being so clueless if you think they’re in a place to laugh about such things.
Also, as a tip, remember the date that their parent died and let them know you remember when the anniversary comes along. That day is bound to be tough, so knowing you haven’t forgotten might make them feel a little better. On a bigger scale, especially if you know they have few remaining relatives or siblings, around their birthday or the holidays, invite them to do things with you and yours for fun. They might feel lonely without lots of people surrounding them, or they might not want to be at home around a family that’s grieving when they’re supposed to be celebrating, so offer them ways to escape and be with people who will make them smile.
A lot of people don’t realize that birthdays, holidays, even vacations with only one parent can get really depressing really fast, and having someone to spend a day, a night, a weekend with can make a person feel a lot better. I’ll end this piece by saying that you’re this person’s friend for a reason. They trust you, they confide in you, they want you around. They love you. You might make some mistakes, you might say the wrong thing sometimes, you might not be perfect, but they’ll forgive your wrongdoings because they can’t afford to lose someone else they love in their life.
As a person, you owe it to them to be thoughtful and sensitive as they work through grief, but as their friend, you owe it to them to try to provide some outlet for some fun and the occasional venting session, and remember the way things were before. Understand that they might act a little different for a while, but trust that you both will always be there for each other. This is your chance to show them how much they mean to you, and how much you really do care about them. You wouldn’t be reading this two thousand word article if you didn’t care about them enough to make sure you treat them right. I hope this has helped shed some light on how to help your friend, and I wish you, and them, the best of luck.