By Shelby Devitt
Death is part of the human experience. Unless you’ve been very fortunate, most people have lost someone close to them by age 25. Sometimes we can prepare for the death of a family member, when a long-term illness or old age are factors. Other times, death comes suddenly, as a proverbial thief in the night, and wrecks havoc on our lives.
The latter happened to me, twice, during my undergraduate years. Both my parents died unexpectedly, 18 months apart. The aftermath of Dad’s death was easier to navigate, but when Mom died, there was no emergency plan, because your parents don’t die in their 40s. At least, they’re not supposed to. They’re supposed to see you graduate and walk you down the aisle and play with their grandchildren. They’re supposed to become your responsibility one day when age regresses them back into dependency, as you were once theirs. It is a cycle understood to be an assured future until one morning, it isn’t.
Beginning in 6th grade, I have known many friends and classmates who have lost a parent, or even a sibling. I’m not sure if my experiences are indicative of a larger statistic, but it has become only more obvious as I age that I am not alone in my experiences. As such, I try to reach out each time a friend or even a Facebook acquaintance suffers the death of a parent, but there is a very helpless feeling about my feeble attempts to offer reprieve. The dam has burst, and all I have to offer is a bucket of sand and my empathy.
Everyone means well in such times of crisis, and the outpouring of sympathy can be so overwhelming, it becomes meaningless. My family is part of an incredible small town community and we were (and continue to be) well-looked after by those who loved our mother and want to see my younger sisters and I succeed.
This is a wonderful, amazing expression of kindness, and we are so lucky, I would remind myself as the faces blurred at the visitation, uneaten food filled our fridge and the living room became a greenhouse. But is this helping fill the hole inside me, to ease the dread I feel about a future with no mother? The long-term answer was yes, but it was hard to see in the immediate aftermath. Despite the undeniable deluge, there are still ways to be a good friend to someone you know who is grieving.
Give material gifts wisely.
Traditional funeral gifts tend to fall into three categories: flowers, food and money. As a young adult on a narrow budget, it’s hard not to feel guilty you can’t spend money on a floral arrangement. Take my advice and don’t. No one expects it of you. Flowers are beautiful but eventually just become another thing to deal with. They begin to wilt, and have to be thrown away.
You might want to bake your friend some cookies or a lasagna, but chances are the family has a fridge crammed with casserole dishes no one really has an appetite for. One of the most helpful gifts we received was from one of Mom’s co-workers, the mother of two boys in my class. On our porch, she left a large bin full of toilet paper, laundry detergent, tin foil, paper plates, and other non-food grocery items. This was genius because we would have never thought of it. These are essentials to a normal life we currently were incapable of living. No one was thinking, “I should go buy some toilet paper” when we had to pick out a casket, write an obituary, call long-distance relatives and meet with the pastor to choose hymns.
Another gift that proved incredibly helpful were gift cards for gas and groceries. Taking time off work can strain finances, especially in your 20s. The hardest part of grieving is remembering life does go on, and you still have to do normal everyday things when normal everyday things seem pointless or impossible.
Give your time.
Your time is the greatest gift you can give anyone. There are approximately 1,000 things to take care of after the death of a family member and grief disallows you the normal energy to do them. On top of that, it’s hard to care. Seek out ways you can help. Come over and wash their dishes, offer to do their laundry, ask if you can run errands for them, or help them write that research paper. College does not stop until the semester is over, and even when I contacted each of my teachers and received extensions, I had to catch up eventually. One friend asked how he could help, and I considered my needs and what he could reasonably offer. At the time, he was commuting to our university, so one day he picked me up from my Mom’s house and drove me to campus just so I could take care of business.
Another friend, who has proven invaluable many times in my life and was a steadfast support system at the time, drove down from Wisconsin, brought me coffee and sat with me while I got my hair foiled at the salon at 9 a.m. the morning before my mom’s wake. It was soothing to have him there. It seems ridiculous, but the week before, Mom asked me to do something about the red dye job I had ungracefully grown out before family Easter. We skipped Easter that year, but I had my hair done for her anyway.
Your time will be meaningful for months to come. Make yourself available for phone calls, even if they come at 3 a.m., and remember your friend may be struggling to get back on track with life for a long time and might feel guilty for asking for help. Be observant and try to anticipate your friend’s needs.
Provide a distraction.
Grief is healthy but it should not be a full time job. I was lucky to have friends who got me out of the house and out of my head, if only for a few hours. Your friend might repeatedly decline invitations, but unless they explicitly ask you not to, keep suggesting to do things together. Go out for lunch and a pedicure to remind your friend self-care is important. Take a mini day-cation to the beach or go on a nature hike. Have a sleepover with movies, wine, take-out, etc. I hated sleeping alone, and would sometimes drive hours just to stay the night at a friend’s house. I also spent many therapeutic hours with my friend Megan and her newborn daughter watching junk TV. Don’t feel pressured to force a good time or come up with a grand plan. Your friend may need you to help remind them it’s OK to have fun and laugh again, and simple time spent together can make a difference.
Regardless of how close you are, it’s the little things that matter in the life of a grieving friend. It’s tough to know how to help, and nothing can ever replace the loss of a family member, but showing love never has to be complicated. Sometimes it’s enough to say, “I am so sorry for your loss. I wish this hadn’t happened to you. Don’t feel obligated to respond, but please let me know if there’s anything I can do. I’m thinking about you. I love you.”
Shelby is the oldest of three individualistic sisters raised in rural Illinois. A blatant band nerd since 2nd grade recorder lessons, she spent three years playing trombone in college marching band and three subsequent years in boy band management for a world class drum & bugle corps. Music has led her to travel most of the United States. She has also visited nine European countries but won’t rest until she’s seen them all. She enjoys geocaching, guacamole, and white Christmas lights. She currently divides time living with her partner in northern Illinois, Belgium, and a tour bus.