Guest post by Amy F.
I don’t profess to be an expert in grief, and despite losing some dear friends over the
years and my Mom earlier this year, I don’t ever want to be. But I’ve learned a few
things from the interactions of people with me during this past year that I wanted to
This is certainly not an exhaustive list of how to help someone who is grieving, as
each one of us is different so these may not work for everyone but try some out and
see how you get on, especially with Christmas around the corner. Many of us are
now at an age where we know someone who is losing or has lost someone.
The only certainty of life is death – it is not even death and taxes any longer – just
look at Jacob Rees-Mogg or any number of multinationals. This means that
unfortunately we are all going to experience immense grief and I believe we have
some way to go to be able to talk about it openly and be better at helping each other
through it. Moving forward, I hope to also be a better friend to those experiencing
This year, I did everything you are “supposed to” – counselling, journaling, I read the
books and poetry about grieving, I took time off work (though that was already semi-
planned) and still, grief nearly broke me. And on top of that, under COVID-19
pandemic restrictions, all my usual coping mechanisms were taken away.
So, here are a few learnings –
- Please do not compare the grief of losing my Mom to losing your dog/pet. Nope. Just don’t. I love animals enormously, but if that is the extent of your experience of grief, you have lived an incredibly lucky life so far.
- Keep trying to break through even if the person is not getting back to you. Don’t take it personally. This is not about you. I cannot stress this enough. (Big love to everyone who did that this past year.)
- Be more than a one-hit-wonder. Have you followed up a few months down the line after you gave your sympathies? Are you checking in during the holiday period when you will be with your family?
- Don’t pretend it didn’t happen because you don’t think the other person wants to talk about it. Often the grieving party’s worst fear is that people will forget their loved one. Talking about the person who has died keeps them alive. If you never met them, ask what they were like, if you’re out somewhere, ask what they would have done in that situation, would they have liked this, and so on. Again, this is not about you and your (dis)comfort levels with dying and grief, or sadness and crying. If the other person does not want to talk about it, they will tell you.
- Try to avoid the “How are you?” question. They don’t know. Sometimes I didn’t know if I would ever know again. (Thank you to the friend who just instinctively knew not to ask.)
- Do mention what has happened if you’re in touch periodically, even if you’re not close. We all have those friends whom we may not see for years, maybe we went to school with them, we’re friends on Facebook and may message once in a while about something funny or like each other’s posts. One of those friends, who I contacted recently to ask for a favour for a student, included in her reply her sympathies and shared her memories of my Mom from nearly 30 years ago. This meant so much.
- Try not to be the person who thinks or says, “oh I lost my Mom too, I was stoic and was back at work two days later”. Bully for you. Relationships are different, contexts are different, people are different, empathy can be universal.
- Don’t offload. Yes, friendship is a two-way reciprocation of good times and bad, but when someone is steeped in grief they can barely keep their head above water – your stresses might just drown them.
- Give hugs. This has been a particularly difficult one this year, but hugs are just the best. (When it’s safe to, of course).
A wise friend of mine told me that in the Victorian era you wore black for the first six months of mourning and grey for the next six months. This was a visual representation of grief, clear to everyone. Nowadays – certainly in many countries in the “west” – there seems to be this reluctance to be seen to wallow. Those who are seen to move on with their ever-busy lives are lauded.
However, I believe we do the person who has died a disservice if we just carry on regardless.
The clocks should stop, just like W. H. Auden said – at least for some time. Life should not feel the same. You should no longer be able to hear yourself living.
When I go, I damn well want people to grieve for a while.
As Julian Barnes wrote: “It hurts exactly as much as it is worth”, and when it is your Mom, it’s worth a lot and it hurts like a mother.