Monday, November 17, 2008

When a friend is grieving the loss of a parent - what to do

Please welcome Leah back to It's Almost Naptime, with advice for how to help your friends. Y'all left some great - and gut wrenching - comments yesterday. If you want to add anything else to Leah's list, please do!

First, please know this is my story and my experience. Also, I just hit a couple of high points (or low points?) of my grief process. The story is actually much longer. Further, grief is very personal and very individual. No two people grieve in the same way. Your friend might need something different.

What to do?

Most importantly, pray for your friend – for protection, good judgment, and peace.

First thing to do.
The second you hear the news, make contact somehow. Call her. If she can’t talk when you call, she won’t pick up the phone. If she does, ask her if it’s a convenient time to talk. Send her an email. Send a text message. Send her a card or flowers. Make a donation in memory of the friend’s parent to a cause they recommend.

Visitation/Funeral. Next, make every effort to go to the visitation and/or funeral. Even if your friend can’t spend time with you, she’ll be incredibly glad you’re there. Don’t expect to get any one-on-one time with her. She will have lots of things to do and lots of people she’ll need to see. At the funeral, you’ll likely get to learn about your friend’s parent, so you can ask specific questions later on.

If you go to the funeral and are invited to attend the post-funeral luncheon, don’t stay too long unless your friend begs you. Even then, watch her closely to see if she’s getting tired or showing signs of wanting to be alone. I was so completely exhausted after Dad’s service, and people would. not. leave. our house after lunch. You will have lots of time later to love on her.

After the funeral, there’s kind of a gray area regarding when to contact your friend. Your friend might need a couple of days to be alone or with her family. I will say that the evening after the funeral, I was thankful for the chance to take the two friends who flew from Houston out to eat. I needed to get out of the house by then. Just watch your friend. Be available, but be willing to hear a “no.” But emailing and texting is pretty safe.

Offers of help/service. Don’t just say, “Call me if you need anything.” Be specific. I had a friend offer to check my mail or mow my yard. Go clean her house. My roommate scrubbed down my bathroom and washed my bed linens, and I cannot tell you how much that meant. If your friend has been at the hospital for a long time or out of town, she might be low on food. Tell her you are going to restock her fridge/pantry, and you’d like to know what she wants/needs.

After the funeral. Check in with your friend after the funeral. Email/call/text. She might need a couple of days, but she might not. Ask her when she wants to get together – for dinner, coffee, mani/pedi. Be specific and intentional. Ask her, “Please join me for lunch on X date.” If that date doesn’t work, ask her which date does.

If she lives alone, offer to spend the night with her. One friend asked me to go jogging with her on an almost weekly basis. I recently asked her to recount for me what she did after my dad died, because she was such a blessing to me. Here’s her answer:

I invited you to do normal things and get you out of the house so you wouldn't have to be alone with your thoughts too much. I asked you if you wanted to talk about it and listened if you wanted to, but we also talked about anything else too, even funny stuff.

It might take persistence to find a time to meet with your friend. So be persistent, but remember she’ll need to be alone sometimes as well.

What do you say? I truly believe that God gave me the grace to hear what the person offering comfort meant, not what they said. Two of my friends said, “I don’t know what to say.” BEAUTIFUL! Thank you for recognizing that! Another friend said it was bittersweet. Thank you for recognizing that! It was a huge relief that Daddy wasn't suffering anymore and was with Jesus, but so hard to know that he had suffered and that he was gone.

Other suggestions:
  • “I just heard the news about your dad.”
  • “You and your family are in my prayers.”
  • “I love you. My heart is hurting for you.”
  • Really, you can't go wrong with a big hug and an "I love you and I'm praying for you". Over the phone? "I wish I could give you a big hug. I love you and I'm praying for you."
I only had one person with two perfectly healthy parents say, “I know exactly what you’re going through.” Although I knew what she meant, she didn’t know the first thing about what I was going through. Obviously, this is one of The Most Wrong Things to Say. Unless you have walked through exactly what your friend has walked through, step-by-identical-step, at the same age, the same position in life, the same everything, you have absolutely no idea how she feels.

If your friend tells you she doesn’t want to read the Bible or pray, don’t judge her or scold her. Don’t tell her she has to “fake it till she makes it.” Do not, I repeat, DO NOT quote Scriptures AT her. People often said that God works all things together for the good; it was all in His sovereign plan; etc. This was really not helpful. While I knew this was true, I was angry enough with God as it was; I didn’t need to be given yet another reason. Death is not good. Death is bad. Very very bad. Call it what it is.

Listen to stories about the parent. Occasionally ask her to tell you about him or her. If you didn't know the parent personally, ask specific questions about their job, hobbies, interests.

If you knew the parent, share memories and tell her what you appreciated about her mom or dad. I think that's my biggest fear: that people will forget my daddy. Recently the pastor who did his funeral told me that he had played golf at the golf course where he and Daddy played and thought about him. That meant a lot to me. Talking about my dad keeps his memory alive. It’s good.

Remember to ask how your friend’s family is doing. But always follow it with, “and how are you?” I had people ask about how my mom was doing, and then leave it at that. I wanted to scream, “I’M STILL HURTING, TOO!!!”

Also, don’t tell her how she should be grieving. If she doesn’t cry, that’s okay. Grief works itself out in a number of different ways. So long as it’s nothing destructive, tell her to go with it.

Watch how you talk about your own parents. You’re going to talk about them. I think I need to hear how other girls’ dads give them gifts and interrogate their boyfriends. It’s a part of their lives. But I hear it with a twinge of envy and sadness. For others, it’s a punch in the stomach, so tread with caution.

Keep this up. Be willing to hear her say no to some invitations. Be willing for her to get angry with you. Don’t judge her when she says she’s angry with God.

Another Extremely Important Thing: Remember the date of your friend’s parent’s death. Set up Birthday Alarm to send you an email of the parent's birthday, death date, and maybe even the wedding anniversary. For me and others, the week or so before an anniversary is usually worse than the day itself. Call your friend a week or so beforehand and ask if/how they’d like to observe the anniversary. On the one year anniversary of my dad's death, my girlfriends took me to serve food at a homeless shelter, to honor what a servant Daddy was, and then out for his favorite meal of chicken fried steak.

According to Bob Deits, it takes two to five years to work through grief. If you can, please stay involved for that long.

Books to read. Two books I highly, highly recommend (both can be accessed through Missy's amazon store above): Life After Loss is very practical. It’ll give you a bit of insight into what working through grief looks like (key word: work.) C.S. Lewis A Grief Observed. He wrote this after the death of his wife. It was so helpful to know that such a giant of the faith experienced real doubt and anger with the Lord while he was grieving.

Just in case you’re wondering, how I am doing today, nearly four years after my dad left this earth?

Different, but “better,” in a way. I still have “sad for dad” moments. But the sadness has changed. The feeling isn’t as raw. The wound healed, but there’s still a scar. Good Friday is still a kicker – hearing and singing about how The Death is good is so hard because death is now so real and personal.

But I feel incomplete. Part of me is gone. I know the Bible says that God is a Father to the fatherless, and I believe that. One trait I’ve noticed consistently in my girl friends who have lost their dads is a distinct combination of vulnerability and strength. That strength can only be from our Father in heaven. But I really want my earthly father back to watch football or to try once again to teach me how to chip and put.

I’m less judgmental now. I’m more empathetic. I’m drawn to people who are truly hurting. I also now use a few choice curse words. I don’t question the legitimacy of people’s faith based purely on their actions. And I get really frustrated with people who act like “tearing a hangnail” is true suffering.

In summary: Grief tears you down, rearranges you, and screws up your thinking. It’s as if someone ripped out your heart, wadded it up in his hand, then tried to stuff it back in your chest. The heart is still there, but it’s not in the same shape, or in same place, ever again.

If one of your friends loses a parent, the best thing you can do is be present. Not just “there,” but present: give your time and full attention. Figure out how to love her best and just do it. It’ll take a sacrifice of time on you part, but your friend will appreciate it more than you’ll ever know. Then she’ll do the same for another friend – and possibly you – when a parent dies.

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