Perspectives: How to be there for your friend

Lest it appear that I am bragging, let me fess up—I am sort of bragging. I have some incredibly supportive friends. We've been through thick and thin together, many times and in many ways. When A died, we couldn't imagine not having them by our side, and for the most part, most of them have not disappointed. But even among the very good ones, some stand out in this meta-way that maybe only a true geek can appreciate. These friends not only do what is right, but they are the ones who can articulate why they do these things in this particular way. They are the ones, in short, with whom you can have practical conversations about needing that damned drink already and philosophical conversations about your experiences, the asshats around, about why they are such asshats, and about what it is about the asshats that gets you so much. My friend Aite is one of these very very good friends.

Our little forest campfire hadn't even been going for a week when we got an email from a friend of a very newly bereaved mom. What can I do, she asked? What is there to do? A flurry of emails later, Kate put together the compilation of our thoughts and suggestions. Interestingly, that was also right around the time I had my little rant about the me-me-me type of "friends."

That was when Aite told me those two things have prompted her to formulate her own thoughts on being there for the friends in grief. Which, given the kind of friend she has been and continues to be to me, made me think that her perspective might be at least as valuable as ours to other good friends out there, friends who want to do what's right but are not sure how.

And so, without further ado, I am proud to present to you my friend Aite and her thoughts on being there. She is around and reading comments. She is kind of shy, but she promised to jump into the conversation in the comments if warranted.


Aite writes:

One time someone I know asked on her blog what to do when a tragedy befalls a friend. The post made it sound abstract, and most commenter didn't know it was precipitated by a stillbirth among our rather large group of friends and acquaintances. One commenter (who recently lost a close relative) reminded the blog's author of an experiment when two groups of people were told to keep their hands in very cold water—it's harmless, but it hurts. Both groups were to report the intensity of their pain on the same scale.  People in the first group went through the experiment alone while those in the second had one other person in the room. This additional person did absolutely nothing, not even making an eye contact with the participant of the experiment.  It turned out that people in the second group reported less acute pain. Clearly, the matters aren't that simple with grief, but my own comment built on the "presence in the room" analogy.  Here it is:

This topic cannot be discussed in the abstract. Let me talk specifically about grief arising from irrevocable loss. In such a case, saying things like "Everything will be all right" are out of question, by definition. The comment about the experiment suggests that you should simply be present for your bereaved friend. Using this analogy, before you can do anything else, you must enter her room. It helps me to remind myself that it's not about me. That thought helps to spend less time hesitating at the door before possibly deciding that it must surely be too late to enter now—no one expects you there anymore.

What are you going to say? Where were you before? Won't you somehow make it worse? What if you end up looking stupid? The point is that none of that matters very much because you, a friend, are by far not the most central figure in this situation, and the particulars of your actions matter infinitely less than the fact that there is nothing to fix. What's wrong can't be fixed. This is the essence of grief. Do not try to fix the irreparable, and you won't say anything stupid and inappropriate that could hurt your bereaved loved one.  Her grief will not get worse if she voices her pain. It's always with her. By and by she is learning to live with it, and it may take up a slightly different place in her life, but this process never ends and it's pointless to wait for its successful completion. And if she feels better right at this moment, it doesn't mean she is now better for good, and if she feels worse, do not be frightened, the rough patch will not last forever either.

Bereaved people often mistakenly believe that those around them forgot about their tragedy, or perhaps never cared in the first place. Those around the grieving ones, in turn, mistakenly think (even more often) that people who suffered a loss above all else want to be left alone.  True, some of them do, but that happens orders of magnitude less often than we tend to believe.

You have to realize that things will never be the same for you either whether you try to be there for your babylost friend or hide under a rock. If you bail out, it will cost you at least one relationship, and likely a good measure of self-respect. It's not that a babylost mother is necessarily keeping a score on who's been a good friend (although she is certainly entitled to).  It's just that you can't count on preserving your friendship if you can't deal with her grief.  Staying by your friend's side though babyloss is challenging and scary in part because it will inevitably change you as well. It may challenge your beliefs, your worldview, the way you look at people, they way you think, feel and behave in many instances. It will give you knowledge in areas of life where ignorance is certainly bliss. But it will allow you to continue and possibly deepen a valued friendship, to not be ashamed of yourself later on, and, well, to be of some support to your friend.

I think of my bereaved friend as the same person I've known all along, now in pain and grieving. This way, our history together can serve as the starting point for how we relate to each other after her loss. It's good if you can draw on things which always provided you with your strongest connections. (If you bonded primarily over happy carefree pregnancies—tough. You'll have to think of something else.)  You'll know best what you can offer to your friend, but realize that some of the offerings will have to wait for a bit.  Early on, concentrate on keeping up communication. The more you communicate, the less you'll need to think how to do it.  It's your responsibility to keep your conversation from being awkward and uncomfortable, so don't expect your friend to be articulate or take the lead. It doesn't mean she won't. But it does mean you need to abstain from placing any expectations on her and your conversations. Don't insist on her telling you what she needs right now. She may or may not know or concern herself with that at this point. If you stay connected, she will let you know in due time. Get in touch with her often, ask if it's a good time to talk, and take cues from her on how long she wants to talk. If you don't know where to start, ask her about something you two discussed in your previous conversation.  Express your concern about other members of her family. If there was an initial outpouring of sympathy, do not be swept away as the tidal wave recedes. Stay on.

You have to learn to put your babylost friend first in your relationship. On the other hand, you are responsible for keeping yourself on a firm ground. Hopefully you find other people who can prop you up. It goes without saying that you must have your grieving friend's consent to discuss her situation with them, if you feel that's what you need. But it's good to have someone to whom you can answer the question of how your babylost friend is doing in some truthful detail. I've been lucky in that my husband lent a steady, unflinching compassionate ear. I can mention to him still baby's pictures, cemetery issues, autopsy details, fears and grief without feeling like a pariah of the polite society. If you have midwives or doulas among your friends, they could be of good support to you because they often find themselves supporting babylost families as well. Stay away from people who are likely to suggest that you are enabling something unhealthy by being there for your friend, that you are reminding her of her grief and not letting her be all better already. Such attitudes are likely to make you angry and frustrated.  Depending on your personality, you may try to take them on, but I prefer to avoid them.

Early on you are likely to have a lot of conversation that start with, "Oh, have you heard what happened to the X family?" When you answer yes and that you are in regular contact with the bereaved family, many acquaintances will share that they are thinking about it, but aren't sure what to do. Communicate babylost parents' preferences. Many people assume that it's somehow indecent to contact the family, especially if they haven't been in touch for a while—that it betrays inappropriate morbid interest or something of the sort. I ask such acquaintance if she would have contacted the family have the baby been born alive and healthy. The answer is usually yes. Then what's the reason not to send condolences?

Some mutual acquaintances will ask if they can do anything to help. Again, communicate the family's preferences with respect to memorial services and charities of their choice. There may not be anything the acquaintance can do for the babylost family, but depending on your relationship with the person who's asking, you might get some logistical support. If you have small children of your own, ask people to look after them for a few hours so that you can spend time with your bereaved friends. This is very concrete, emotionally uncomplicated and highly valuable help.  In some circumstances, you may need rides or help with shopping and cooking.

As weeks and months pass, people will ask you how babylost parents are doing. What and how you answer is important. I usually say something along these lines: "Some days are better and some are worse. They find certain situations especially tough, and sometimes those aren't the most obvious things and present themselves unexpectedly."  I typically qualify this with "naturally" and "of course" in a few places. Here is why I think this works. It's important for people to understand that babylost parents aren't "over it" and "all better". It's equally important to make it clear that they aren't some kind of extraordinarily sad exception because they aren't. That you in no way expect them to be. That you don't suppose the person who's asking to expect such a thing. You may hear, "But I saw them as such-and-such social function and they seemed just fine," refer to what I said above about being momentarily better or worse.

I believe there is one more reason to make whatever effort it takes to be there for your bereaved friend. This reason, this goal is at the same time the most abstract and the most practical, the most ambitious and most naturally served by your effort. Our social circles are large. Bad things happen to people. It is important for us to learn decent, appropriate ways to respond to someone's crisis, both personally and on the level of our widest social circle. The courage to respond appropriately comes from experience. Contrary to the common exasperated cry of how hard, maybe impossible, it is to know what to do, the model is very, very simple:  remember that grief belongs to the mourner, come to her side, take cues from her, abide by her wishes, respect the finality of her loss. Do not expect everything to be all right again, ever. Do not leave. By taking these simple steps you challenge, and maybe even shift, conventional wisdom (or, shall we say, stupidity?) that it's oh so hard to know how to respond. Sometimes, for whatever reason, we personally aren't in a good position to help in a particular crisis. Stepping up when we can, we can help ensure that no one we know is left all by herself with her grief in her room.