It is hard to know exactly what to say or do when you see a friend struggling with the loss of her mother. There is no quick fix to grieving and the grieving process is complex. In their 2009 article for World Psychiatry, Sidney Zisook and Katherine Shear indicate that "grief is different for every person and every loss, and it can be damaging to judge or label a person’s grief, especially during early bereavement." However, being there to provide practical and emotional support can help your friend start to feel better.
Work to understand the grieving process. Regardless of the relationship your friend had with her mother, “bereavement can be one of the most gut-wrenching and painful experiences an individual ever faces," say Sidney Zisook and Katherine Shear in their paper on grief for the World Psychiatry journal. They also point out that "shock, anguish, loss, anger, guilt, regret, anxiety, fear, loneliness, unhappiness, depression, intrusive images, depersonalization and the feeling of being overwhelmed are but a few of the sentient states grieving individuals often describe.” There is no clear order in which your friend may feel these emotions. Explain to your friend that you will be there to listen and support her as she experiences the inevitable roller coaster of emotions and help her to understand that her feelings are normal.
Listen to your friend as she talks about her mom and articulates her feelings. The American Psychiatric Association highlights the importance of talking about the death of a loved one with friends “in order to understand what happened and remember [the] friend or family member.” Allow for the telling of stories and memories multiple times to ease the rawness of the grief as she works to accept the void created by the loss of her mother. Accept your friend's feelings and let her know that you will not judge her. Don’t feel that you have to fill in the silence; sometimes silence may be what she needs. She will be able to talk to you when she is ready if you provide a comfortable environment and show unconditional positive regard without judgment.
Offer specific help and be proactive in meeting her needs. Your friend is in the middle of a life-changing personal crisis and she may not be ready to make a lot of decisions. Don’t be forceful, but offer specific help rather than a generic "Call me if you need anything." For example, you can set up a rotating meal delivery for your friend every day for several weeks so she doesn't have to worry about cooking. Or, you can call her when you are at the grocery store and tell her you are going to bring some fresh produce over, and ask if there anything specific she would like. Or simply stay home with her and answer her phone calls and help her sort her mail. Helping with practicalities and helping her to get enough sleep and food will ultimately help her through her grief.
Support your friend over time. Losing a mom at any age is very difficult and the grief that comes with the loss is often substantial. Having a support system in place for short term and long term emotional and practical support can help with the long grieving process. The anniversary of her mother's loss may be difficult for your friend. Sending a card or calling your friend to lend your support on such a day can help your friend know you are there for her. As time passes, your friend may not need the same level of support she needed right after her mom died, but letting her know that you care, that you remembered and that she can share her thoughts with you on difficult days will really help her.
- If you are worried that your friend may be clinically depressed, strongly encourage her to contact a medical professional.
Cate O'Reilly, who holds a Masters degree in social work, has worked with HIV widows and orphans in Zambia, chronically ill children in Ireland and maternal/child health in America. She has contributed to newsletters, developed protocol manuals and curriculum for education and public health forums.