Helping Your Friends Help You

Warning: today’s post is about something that will annoy at least half of you. Seriously. I know from experience. I have been annoyed by what I am about to say. I have heard others be annoyed by it. I have been yelled at on social media for suggesting it. Yet I am doubling -down and writing a full post about it. Why? Because it is just that important. I believe in it just that much.

What could this big, controversial topic be? Helping others to help you.

I know. It doesn’t sound very dramatic or controversial, does it? But it is. Every time we talk about this, some people get grumpy (and we get it, because we have felt that grump ourselves). Usually it takes one of the following forms of grump:

  • I am GRIEVING! I shouldn’t be expected to help others help me! They should just do it.
  • Once someone says or does something unhelpful, they’re out. I don’t have space for people like that. They’ve shown their true colors, proven they are a bad friend. I voted them off the island. I scratched them off the holiday card list.

What do we say to those gripes?

  • True, in an ideal world we would be surrounded exclusively by magical people who knew how to support us perfectly without any guidance. Of course, in an ideal world we would still be hanging out with our loved ones and this wouldn’t be an issue. So instead, sometimes we have to remember that when grief is new for us, supporting our grief is new for them. There is no handbook. Everyone is just floundering around in the dark. We can decide not to help them help us, but then we’re just left without help and support.
  • They’re your friends, it is your support system. You have to decide. Some people might repeatedly hurt and fail you, despite your efforts and feedback, that might be a serious red flag (check out our article about when a person might just be beyond second chances). That said, as someone who was once voted off of someone’s friend-island without warning or notice for not being supportive in the right way, I can promise you that it sucks. Is it possible I am just a bad person and crap friend and was beyond a second chance? Maybe. But I feel pretty confident I just didn’t know when and how they needed me or what I was doing wrong. Had they clued me in, given me a little feedback about what they needed and what I was screwing up, I would have tried really, really hard to change. Sometimes people love you, and deeply care, and are good people, and they still manage to miss the mark.

If you’re still not sold on helping others help you? Give me one last chance to convince you. There is research. And you know we love research around here! Research has shown that those who lost loved one’s to disenfranchised deaths (things like suicide and overdose) experience less social support than people grieving other losses. A study of parents who lost children to disenfranchised deaths found that those who learned to give their friends / support systems feedback and guidance about what they needed from them, as well as what they didn’t need, ended up feeling far more supported by those around them. Helping others help them, it helped! Anecdotally, we have had people tell us the same thing time and again, even when they were pretty grumpy about the idea to start.

Okay, if you’re willing to consider helping others to better help you, the next question is how? Today we are going to share some tips for YOU. Tips about what you can do to reflect and communicate. Then on Friday we are going to share a second post with tips for THEM. Something quick and easy you can share with the people who love you to help them be better supporters.

Tips for you as the griever:

  • Figure out what you need. This isn’t always easy. We have written before about how sometimes in grief you have no idea what you need. But start by setting some time aside to really think about it, right it down, and consider who is supporting your needs and how. Also consider who isn’t supporting your needs and how – is it something they are doing? Something they are saying? Something they are not doing or not saying?
  • Enlist a friend to help your other friends. Thinking about telling a bunch of people how to help and support you (and what NOT to do) might feel really daunting. But research has show that, when people grieving enlist a friend to help educate and rally their support system in the right, helpful ways, it can make a big difference! In this case, you sit that one person down and say, hey “this is what people are doing that is helping, this is what they are doing that isn’t helping, this is what they are saying that is helpful, this is what they are saying that is hurtful, this is what I really need that no one is doing, etc”. You then ask that person to spread the word. Ask them to let other people know what you need and how you’re feeling. This can take some of the pressure off you.
  • Embrace empathy and forgive mistakes, even when it is hard AF. I once heard a grief therapist say, ‘when people grieve, they have a deep need to be understood by others and very little patience for understanding others’. This resonated so much with my own experience – my own frustration and impatience with others while I was grieving. It took a long time for me to understand that figuring out how to support me was new and scary and hard for them, and that wasn’t because they were bad friends or unsympathetic or dumb. It was because they were just trying to figure it out, and sometimes missing the mark. I wrote an open letter here to my friends who disappeared about it a while back and it was actually really therapeutic.
  • Figure out who is beyond a second chance. I already linked to this once, but I will link to it again. Because as much it can help to advocate and help, forgive and empathize, you also have to realize there are limits. Some people just have fundamental limitations that prevent them from supporting us in the way we need to be supported. In fact, there are some evidence-based grief therapy approaches that are all about helping people figure out who they might need distance from in their grief.
  • Remember not to expect one person to meet all your needs. The person who motivates you to get out of the house might not be the person who can listen without judgement or who your comfortable crying in front of or who can help sort out your taxes. Sometimes we help others support us by knowing how their strengths match our needs, and not asking them to do things we know they can’t. We have an activity to help you sort this out  that we call Support System Superlatives (like those ‘most likely to. . . ‘ ballots from high school, remember those? Neither of the WYG gals got ‘most likely to start a grief blog’. Weird.)
  • Give people feedback. Sounds easy enough, right?? Hmm no, maybe it doesn’t. How do you tell someone they have said or done something hurtful, or that they aren’t giving you something you need, when you are emotionally depleted already and they have no idea they screwed up?
    • Step 1: Just say it. Hard as it may be, no one can work on an issue they don’t know exists.
    • Step 2: Acknowledge their intent. Often people get it wrong, even though their intentions were good. Maybe they were giving you space, but it left you feeling abandoned. Maybe they were pushing you to ‘move on’ because they want to see you happy, but they just don’t really understand the grief timeline (or lack thereof), leaving your rushed and judged and pressured. Maybe they were trying to make you feel better, so they looked for a silver lining to tried to sugar coat things in a way that just pissed you off. Whatever it was, try to imagine what about their word or action they probably thought was helpful, and acknowledge that. I know, this is hard and annoying. But I warned you this post was going to be hard and annoying.
    • Step 3: Tell them what they got wrong. This you may want to practice, to make sure you specifically explain the problem and try not to be too wrapped up in frustration or anger that could lead to saying hurtful things (we are oh-so-guilty of that, and often regret it later). Remember some standard tips for communicating feelings. Simple 101 changes like replacing “you made me feel…” for ‘when you did or said X, I felt Y’ can shift things from feeling like an accusation to a conversation helping them understand your experience.
    • Step 4: Explain what would have been helpful and / or tell them how they can better support you in the future.  Simple things like, “what would really help me is X” or “please don’t say X, because I feel like you are trying to rush my grief.
  • Educate people. I know, I practically felt your eyes collectively rolling. But seriously, it is the only way we can slowly change the culture of how people support one another. That is why there is Part 2 of this post, coming in a couple days. It is quick, easy guide to share with your friends on how to be a good support person. It won’t be specific to your needs (you’ll have to fill in those gaps) but it will be be some good, general rules and tips.

In the meantime, share your comments (including any tips and advice for those grieving, or those supporting them) in the comments. Even if you just want to complain about why you HATE this post. Don’t worry, I’ve already emotionally prepared myself. And if you’re worried you’ll forget to check back in for part 2 of this post, just subscribe and all our new posts will come right to your inbox. 

November 28, 2018

22 responses on "Helping Your Friends Help You"

  1. I’m too tired. I have spent two years being a sole caregiver, watching the man I love die, experiencing first hand a rather painful, scary death. Like many of you, It doesn’t end there! Immediately we migrate into a funeral to plan, a corporation to close, and estate to settle, a home to sell, all of his belongings need to go somewhere – where ever somewhere is.

    I’m really out of capacity (physically, mentally, emotionally) to now teach all the people who aren’t there for me what they should be doing and/or having a real housewives moment of trying to explain how hurt I feel by them. All of a sudden we appear to live in a society where people believe the words “I’m sorry” (even if they are not) fixes everything, returns it to a state of the past, and dismissed bad behavior, people need to take accountability, or not, but certain things cannot be un-done and he isn’t going to die a second time, so there are no second chances here to be a good friend.
    Every now an again, someone has surprised me with a kind word or gesture. I concentrate the little energy I have left on those individuals and not the ones who have let me down and turned mourning my man into mourning my friends and family too.
    There is only so much a girl can take.

  2. My partner died this past May. I have the picture poster from her “Remembrance Celebration” up at the end of my living room. When I have time, I go over and sit and have morning coffee with her. I have friends that come over and say “hey CC”. I’m so glad that they allow me to keep her in thought and do so themselves.

  3. People really don’t know what to do and therefore on top of grief you have disappointment. I recently started counseling and she is just not beginning to realize just how little people were there for me and how hurt I was because of it. She held me while I balled like a baby this last week. Plus the anniversary of the death is coming up and well at this time of year it just sucks. Society has been taught that grief should not take very long and then they just move on while you are still stuck. People do not realize that this is for a lifetime and we all need support no matter how little, everything helps.

  4. Thank you for this post. I enjoyed reading, such nice topic. Friends can be really a big impact into our lives. And these tips can help to understand, and be understood.

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  6. I have friends but in today’s world everyone is busy with their own family and problems and i believe, just don’t have time to put you back in their circle without my spouse.

  7. Thanks for this post, it really came at the right time for me! I’ve been struggling with figuring out how to get the support I need and this offers some good places to start.

  8. I’ve read this article several times and there is so much truth in it. My son committed suicide 10 months ago because of his mental illness which started 27 years before. He tried so many meds and psychriatrists without success. His wife divorced him 4 years before, threw him out on the street and said he could be homeless for all she cared. She had a secret”friendship” with someone else. He lived with us. He was 54 when he left us. My husband doesn’t talk about him unless I bring it up, his 2 sisters, one older and one younger, were with us initially but now it’s as if they forgot about him too. Maybe they’re holding everything in. I bring him up and the subject gets changed. His younger brother tossed him aside a few years before he passed. I’ve read the first whatever is the hardest and I think that’s true. Thanksgiving was very difficult for me and I already know Christmas will be the same. Johnny would have liked this or that. We had those dinners together. I just realized that typing this has made me feel better getting my feelings down on “paper”. Thanks for letting me ramble on.

  9. very helpful, although I will never understand in a million years how my best friend of 61 years, we became friends when I was four and she was five, could unfriend and leave me because she can’t handle my grief

  10. Louise McOrmond-PlummerNovember 29, 2018 at 2:47 pmReply

    A beautiful friend posted this on my Facebook page the day after my husband died. I think it’s a wonderful “education” piece:

    “How You Can Help Me”

    Please talk about my loved one, even though he is gone. It is more comforting to cry than to pretend that he never existed. I need to talk about him, and I need to do it over and over.

    Be patient with my agitation. Nothing feels secure in my world. Get comfortable with my crying. Sadness hits me in waves, and I never know when my tears may flow. Just sit with me in silence and hold my hand.

    Don’t abandon me with the excuse that you don’t want to upset me. You can’t catch my grief. My world is painful, and when you are too afraid to call me or visit or say anything, you isolate me at a time when I most need to be cared about. If you don’t know what to say, just come over, give me a hug or touch my arm, and gently say, “I’m sorry.” You can even say, “I just don’t know what to say, but I care, and want you to know that.”

    Just because I look good does not mean that I feel good. Ask me how I feel only if you really have time to find out.

    I am not strong. I’m just numb. When you tell me I am strong, I feel that you don’t see me. I will not recover. This is not a cold or the flu. I’m not sick. I’m grieving and that’s different. My grieving may only begin 6 months after my loved one’s death. Don’t think that I will be over it in a year. For I am not only grieving his death, but also the person I was when I was with him, the life that we shared, the plans we had for our children, the places we will never get to go together, and the hopes and dreams that will never come true. My whole world has crumbled and I will never be the same.

    I will not always be grieving as intensely, but I will never forget my loved one and rather than recover, I want to incorporate his life and love into the rest of my life. He is a part of me and always will be, and sometimes I will remember him with joy and other times with a tear. Both are okay.

    I don’t have to accept the death. Yes, I have to understand that it has happened and it is real, but there are some things in life that are just not acceptable. When you tell me what I should be doing, then I feel even more lost and alone. I feel badly enough that my loved one is dead, so please don’t make it worse by telling me I’m not doing this right. And remember, I was a capable adult before his death and I still am.

    Please don’t tell me I can find someone else or that I need to start dating again. I may not be ready. And maybe I don’t want to be. And besides, what makes you think people are replaceable? They aren’t. Whoever comes after will always be someone different.

    I don’t even understand what you mean when you say, “You’ve got to get on with your life.” My life is going on, I’ve been forced to take on many new responsibilities and roles. It may not look the way you think it should. This will take time and I will never be my old self again. So please, just love me as I am today, and know that with your love and support, the joy will slowly return to my life. But I will never forget and there will always be times that I cry.

    I need to know that you care about me. I need to feel your touch, your hugs. I need you just to be with me, and I need to be with you. I need to know you believe in me and in my ability to get through my grief in my own way, and in my own time.

    Please don’t say, “Call me if you need anything.” I’ll never call you because I have no idea what I need. Trying to figure out what you could do for me takes more energy than I have. So, in advance, let me give you some ideas:

    (a) Bring food or a movie over to watch together.

    (b) Send me a card on special holidays, our wedding anniversary, his birthday, and the anniversary of his death, and be sure to mention his name. You can’t make me cry. The tears are here and I will love you for giving me the opportunity to shed them because someone cared enough about me to reach out on this difficult day.

    (c) Ask me more than once to join you at a movie or lunch or dinner. I may say no at first or even for a while, but please don’t give up on me because somewhere down the line, I may be ready, and if you’ve given up then I really will be alone.

    (d) Understand how difficult it is for me to be surrounded by couples, to walk into events alone, to feel out of place in the same situations where I used to feel so comfortable.

    Please don’t judge me now – or think that I’m behaving strangely. Remember I’m grieving. I may even be in shock. I am afraid. I may feel deep rage. I may even feel guilty. But above all, I hurt. I’m experiencing a pain unlike any I’ve ever felt before and one that can’t be imagined by anyone who has not walked in my shoes.

    Don’t worry if you think I’m getting better and then suddenly I seem to slip backward. Grief makes me behave this way at times. And please don’t tell me you know how I feel, or that it’s time for me to get on with my life. What I need now is time to grieve. Most of all thank you for being my friend. Thank you for your patience.

    Thank you for caring. Thank you for helping, for understanding.

    And remember in the days or years ahead, after your loss – when you need me as I have needed you – I will understand. And then I will come and be with you.

    (sadly, the author is unknown)

  11. This is such a good post, one that would’ve helped me over the last 18 months since I suddenly lost my Mum. I’ve actually considered pretty much all the points in the article over the last year or so.

    Having said that – for me, there has been a place for voting a couple of people off my island! Not to the extent that I’ll never see them again or that it’s awkward when we’re in a group, but moving them to the edge of my friend island, knowing that they aren’t the friends I thought they were. I can understand when people have missed the mark or said the wrong thing, and I’m okay with that, but just stopping all contact with me completely or just not mentioning anything at all if I do see them is just completely self centred, in my book. I’m sure it’s because they felt awkward about talking about a tough subject or whatever, and I understand that – but totally ignoring what’s happened makes you feel even more alone and isolated is not what a grieving person needs at all.

    So, for me, there’s a couple of people who got the vote! To the edge of the island anyway..! Conversely, there are people who are my actual island and I’ll never be able to thank enough.

  12. This is a very good post. Yes it is a bit annoying to have to be the one who educates others when we are grieving but “it is what it is.” In reality though, even doing this benefits US because it helps us step-by-step. If you have a Grief Share group you can meet with, please do so. If not, perhaps you could call some others you know who are grieving and invite them to meet you for coffee at a cafe. There is comfort in community, and YOU might be the lifeline somebody needed that very day.

  13. This is an excellent article. I wish I’d seen it 4 1/2 years ago when my brother died a sudden, tragic death. I’m not used to asking for help-I’m a nurse & used to taking care of others. So I didn’t even know what I needed. We were raised to be very independent in our family, which no longer serves me well. There are very few resources (or groups) that deal with the death of a sibling. I am now seeing a grief counselor, but it’s hard to deal with 4 years of bottled up grief!

  14. This is so helpful. No eyerolls here.

    This is the hard work. It is important. I’m struggling with a friend who has basically gone radio silent since my mom passed. I’ve been tempted to cut her out but this post is helpful for me to consider the other options.

    One thing I learned from my mom, who passed away this Oct from advanced pancreatic cancer (she died 7 weeks after her diagnosis) is that one can forgive and those who have made mistakes deserve second chances. My mom forgave a close friend for something that the rest of our family felt was almost unforgivable. Fast forward several years… and who was there every day (sometimes 2 times a day) for my mom? This forgiven friend. Her friend was the one my mom confided in that she was “ready to go” and shared many other things that she didn’t feel she could say to her family. This friend has provided us so much comfort after her death. I’m so glad Mom forgave her and I hope to experience the same with my friend.

  15. The thing is, I really don’t know what to ask for. I can’t figure out what I need. And it’s a thousand little things around the house, or shopping for Christmas, or things I really want to do myself, or Things Ican’t think that someone could actually help me with. What I need is someone to sit down with me regularly and talk through what needs to get done, and make a plan to do it.

  16. This is very lovely. No complaining here. Thank you for this post. <3

  17. I’ve gone out and asked! There seemed to be no alternative, if I wanted something other than solitude and loneliness and no mention of my late husband.

    I’ve rung people up and said “I need . . . “(frequently almost unintelligible, because of my weeping)

    I’ve written a letter, explaining what I’m going through and suggesting ways that help. I’ve put this in a friend’s hand, after a meal or coffee together.

    I’ve thanked people after they’ve been supportive and said, openly, “this is what I need – please don’t abandon me”. The structure “When you said/did X it made me feel Y” reflecting positive, helpful words/actions is as valid as for explaining the negative options mentioned above.

    I’ve had no hesitation in saying”NO – I’m not ready for that/I’m not going to do that/it’s not what I need” when sometimes friends made unhelpful comments or suggestions. I’ve not found this difficult. It seems that although I might not be 100% sure of what I do need, some of the time, I’ve generally known what I did NOT need.

    I keep my situation something I’m ready to talk about. I joke about little bargains I buy, saying “I’m spending my widow’s pension”. I invite friends for coffee or a meal and say “This is on Stuart”. I use items of equipment that were his, in our outdoor activities, and tell people so. I think in this way I make sure friends simply accept that he’s still a member of the group and it’s very OK to talk about him. It’s what I need and, so far, two years on, mostly I’m getting the support.

    It seems I’m very fortunate. For a long time, I told myself that everything good coming my way was because Stuart had been so well loved and respected by both friends and colleagues and they were doing it for him but latterly, I’ve dared to think they are doing it for me. As one friend said, when I was confiding how low and depressed I was feeling, “But don’t you know everyone loves you?”

    Well, not everyone, obviously . . .

  18. People try to help, but I have a physical problem and need to do as much for myself as I can. At this point I can’t do much because of my problems. Happy to do what I can. Attending Grief classes helped. I haven’t cried since the memorial service for my husband. But I asked God to take him — he was in so much pain that I didn’t want him to suffer any longer. Cancer can be a terrible thing. And our Lord, in His great wisdom, took my husband so he didn’t need to suffer any longer. It is hard to cry when you know that what has happened is for the best.

    In the meantime, I cherish information to help me get through this loss. We were married for 63 years, so it is a great loss!

  19. I love this post and I think it’s bang on. I have had my own experiences with being frustrated by those who didn’t know what to do or how to help, and I’ve seen grieving friends be furious that others don’t just know by osmosis what they need and wonder “why do I have to tell them? Why do I have to educate them?” … but how could they know? Unfortunately, until we become a culture that is more comfortable facing grief, facing death and talking about our experiences, we do have to keep educating one another as compassionately as we can recognizing the good intentions of others.

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