Eleven months ago, in the shell-shocked weeks of early grief, I wrote a post about how people could best support me. Nearly a year into bereavement, I thought it was a good time to revisit that post and see how my advice held up, and whether there was anything I would add.
Reading it back, hopefully you’ll permit the small satisfaction of being quite impressed with myself, for being able to write coherently and with compassion. But of course it was also motivated by getting people to do what I wanted. For most of my life I have been enculturated to see that as selfish. Girls and women, or people perceived as girls and women, are only encouraged to self-advocate up to a point. Our culture these days likes us to have a gloss of Girl Boss feminism and underneath it, to still sacrifice and endure and settle. I am not interested in settling.
So, let’s look at those categories of help I wrote about back then and see what I would add to them now, both for supporting me and for generic helping supported bereaved people advice. (I will copy the headings and subheadings – for the full text, go over to the original post, if you like.)
Keep checking in. Yes, this is a good one. In the first weeks the amount of attention bereaved people get is usually overwhelming. It quickly tails off, though. Now there are a much smaller number of people who regularly check in with me. This is absolutely understandable – I wouldn’t expect people at the periphery of my life to place me at the centre of theirs. But if you are close to someone, don’t assume they are fine. Or even if they are fine, they’ll probably appreciate you saying hi. I always do.
Keep it up. There’s definitely a difference between those who are ready to face grief with you for the long haul and those who are not. I am fortunate to have a good number of people in the first category. If you don’t think you can commit to that, don’t promise it. I know too many bereaved people who have been let down by people who promised to be there for them and aren’t.
Don’t worry about saying the wrong thing. Just make sure you say something. I am not a grudge-holding person, but I admit I have a fairly deep contempt now for the people who didn’t reach out to me at all. I may have to have interactions with them now and in future, and I have no desire to start a war with them, but I will also not extend myself for them in any way. The thing is, if you’ve not experienced great grief you won’t really know what it’s like, and there’s a good chance you’ll be clumsy. But that’s ok. People said awkward, weird things to me and I’ve let them go. Their intent was kind. Silence, however, is generally a mark of someone putting their own feelings (of discomfort, of fear) ahead of yours, and I have no time now for cowards.
Please include me in your future plans. Absolutely this! I was delighted, for instance, to be invited to a colleague’s wedding this past weekend. It felt a little strange to go without Kieran, but it was also good. Please assume that I will know best what I can handle. I had to turn down another friend’s wedding invitation as it falls on the weekend of Kieran’s anniversary and I knew that would be too much. Only a week apart but I know myself well enough to know what a difference that can make. If you’re supporting someone else who’s grieving, especially if they’re early in grief, give them invitations to join you and also let them know you won’t hold it against them if they say no, or if they say yes and then drop out. A lot of grieving people end up with a lot of anxiety for a big range of understandable reasons – don’t let social anxiety around you add to that!
Please don’t be offended if I drop the ball. This is a biggie, and in fact I have an article coming out in Times Higher Education soon which talks about grief and executive function. Even a year in, I forget a lot and am easily distracted. If you can do the heavy lifting in terms of reminding me of things, I will be very grateful. Understand that the first two years are termed “early grief” in psychological terms and it may take quite a while for your loved one to get back on track.
Be specific. This continues to be relevant. I have more spoons now than I did back then, but I will never reply to a generic “let me know if I can do anything!” with anything but “thanks!” I know it can be really hard to think of what, exactly, you can do. But think about what part of my life you know me from and offer to help with that. If you’re local, ask if you can pick up my prescriptions. If you’re a colleague and you need me to do something for you, send me the forms to fill in and calendar me a deadline as a reminder – I can still do my job, but you can help me do it in a more organised manner. If we’re only buddies on the internet, that’s fine! Some of my favourite people are Friends From The Internet! If you’re really suck for what you can do from a virtual distance, there’s always my ko-fi. This advice goes for if you’re supporting someone else who’s bereaved. Think about how you know them and what you can meaningfully offer. Do not make promises you can’t keep. That’s worse than making none!
Think about things I can use in the future. This is definitely a good idea. If you have a friend who has been very recently bereaved, I would strongly advise against sending them flowers. I was sent so many flowers in the first 2-3 weeks after Kieran died and while they were all beautiful, it was overwhelming and honestly after a while I hated them because their sheer presence reminded me constantly of loss. I wished people had spent the £30+ they spent on lovely flowers in a different way. Send flowers six months later, to let your friend know you’re still thinking of them. Some friends of mine bought me a three month delivery of flowers, so every month for a quarter year I got a big bunch of bright flowers. That was lovely. Some of the best gifts I’ve been given have been practical and also useable at a later date, like HelloFresh and Deliveroo gift vouchers. At the start of this year, at a low ebb, I used some HelloFresh vouchers I’d been given months before and it was a nice lift – both to eat new things and also to not have to think about what groceries to buy. Tailor gifts like this to the person, of course – if your friend is vegan, make sure a meal delivery service has lots of vegan options, etc.
Frivolous things are ok. After I gave out my Amazon list in May I was absolutely bombarded with gifts. It was really lovely, actually! And periodically I still get a gift out of the blue from it, from someone saying they were thinking of me. I really appreciate that. I decided to split my list and my daughter‘s, so now you can view them here and here. If you’re reading this hoping to support someone else, try to think of small bright things that will bring them joy. It doesn’t have to cost a lot – I have a couple of friends who mail me cards very regularly and I really love receiving them.
Money is awkward. It is, but I have had to do a lot of talking about it this year, now my financial situation is very different from what it once was. I’m still not going to take big lumps of cash from strangers, but I have got comfortable with the idea of saying if you like my writing you can tip my ko-fi jar. Find out if your friend is in an ok position financially. You might not be in a position to help them with actual money, but you could maybe help them research benefits they were entitled to or put them in touch with someone who could advise on how to invest any life insurance payout, for instance.
So there we are. My thoughts on helping your friend (me!) through grief, updated. Nearly one year in. Older, definitely. Wiser, perhaps. And fortunate in my friends.