You're never prepared to find out that someone you love is sick or has passed. In January, my dad was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer with a median survival time of around 15 months. My mom told me on a Tuesday night while I was in L.A., and within 24 hours I dropped everything to be in the ICU on the East Coast. I don’t usually ask for help, and this situation was no different—but the people who just stepped up, without question, taught me how important friendships are in tough times.
My experience isn’t an isolated one: As we get older, it’s more common to know friends and family who are grappling with loss, but we rarely talk about how to handle these emotional events before they happen. What’s the best way to show your support beyond flowers? How do you know when to give them space? After my dad’s diagnosis, I took some notes about the conversations, gestures, and actions that helped me during that experience and that I would like to pay forward in the future. There’s certainly no handbook on the correct way to help someone you care about, but in my experience, this is a good start.
Acknowledge they are going through a hard time
When we first hear bad news, it’s normal to try and relate by sharing your own stories about difficult experiences. There’s nothing wrong with trying to empathize with your friend or family member, but know that bringing up experiences that would be worse than the one they’re going through doesn’t make theirs hurt any less. It will be hard for them to see any silver lining right now. Instead, validate that they are hurting, and that no one would want to be in this position.
Offer to help with logistics and making decisions
A brain that is handling tough news is not ready to be put to work. Assisting in small decision making and logistical tasks may seem easy, but it can be incredibly valuable—it gives the person time to process their thoughts and emotions without distraction. In my experience, food and travel plans happen often and are great things to take over. I asked my cousin to book my plane ticket back to the East Coast, even though I had all of the options up on my screen. It was taking me too long to decide, and I couldn’t handle making any choices at that time.
She took the liberty of choosing everything for me, and I was relieved to have one task off my plate.
Go out of your way for your closest friends and family
Although not always possible or appropriate for every relationship, rearranging your schedule to focus your valuable energy is the most supportive act. I was so grateful when a childhood friend asked about my parents favorite meal and then hand-delivered a tray of home-cooked shepherd’s pie—even though she’s a vegetarian. My cousin, who is in between jobs, offered to stay with my parents and help with day-to-day chores. She did their grocery shopping, followed up on appointments, and helped my Mom respond to email.
These authentic gestures are never forgotten and reminds those who are struggling that they do have blessings.
Check in with them
It’s totally normal to worry about bringing up a sensitive topic at the wrong time or in the wrong way, but don’t let hesitation silence you. Waiting for the person who is grieving to broach the subject puts the responsibility on them. Ultimately, it can be misconstrued that you’re avoiding the topic or your friend’s discomfort is not worth your time—even if that couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead be supportive and clear: Tell your friend that you care and that they are not a burden. It gives them the opportunity to say, “I actually feel okay today but don’t want to focus on it,” or open up if they’re ready to discuss.
Don’t be afraid to talk about the person who is ill or has passed away
For weeks after hearing of my dad’s diagnosis, I sifted through every childhood picture and transferred them to my phone and started a journal where I could write down all of the things I have learned from him, the questions I still want to ask, and moments I never want to forget. Asking close friends about their best memories with this person, the things they have learned from them, and their best qualities may make them emotional in a positive way. It brings back memories and encourages thankfulness, often ending in smiling or laughter.
Let them be emotional… and sometimes negative
Your loved one’s emotions and reactions won’t always make sense. They may feel sad, angry, resentful, and disconnected from people close to them, even if the situation wouldn’t normally elicit this response. I found it helpful to acknowledge that emotion—even negative emotion—is okay. You can support them by knowing that this happens, letting them know that is okay for them to react and express themselves, not taking on their panic and drama and practicing some unconditional support.
Don’t take it personally
If your attempts to help out or talk to your friend aren’t immediately accepted, cut them some slack. Try to remember that everyone copes differently. There is a balance between showing you care and giving your friend space to heal in their own way.
Help them live some part of normal life
After a period of loss or grieving, you can do your best to get your friend back to an activity you know that they’d enjoy. At this stage, there can be guilt for losing focus on the loss even briefly, but it is good to remind them that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that they can enjoy themself without having to feel bad for it. Simple things can feel new again after this experience and put your friend back in touch with their life and their interests.
If you aren’t able to do these things at the time, fess up and simply share that you wish you handled it another way or that you had been able to prioritize differently. It’s not too late to clear the air and let them know that you were thinking of them regardless of being able to act on it.
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