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Visions Journal

Supporting a Grieving Loved One from Afar

Kathy Wagner

Reprinted from the Families, Friends and Substance Abuse issue of Visions Journal, 2024, 19 (2), pp. 33-34

The name Holden written into sand on a beach

Your sister just lost her son to toxic street drugs. Or your best friend’s daughter died by suicide last month. You can feel their world shattering, even from three provinces away, and you want to wrap them in love to soften their pain. But what can you possibly do that will be helpful? 

Of course, nothing will take away their pain. But take it from a mom whose son died from addiction and toxic drugs: feeling the love and support of family and friends can make it so much easier to bear the pain. 

You don’t need to be geographically close to be supportive in emotional and practical ways. The most important things are not turning away, providing space for them to grieve in their own way and remembering their loved one out loud.

Here are five things you can do from anywhere in the world to support a friend in grief.

Help out in practical ways

Looking after day-to-day tasks feels overwhelming in the early days of acute grief. Gift cards for food delivery services are often appreciated. A prescheduled weekly or monthly delivery of fresh fruit, vegetables and nuts is one way to support a friend who prefers to eat healthfully but may be unable to shop or cook for a while. If your normally energetic friend is having trouble just getting out of bed, you could arrange for someone to come walk the pooch for a few weeks after their loss.

Grieving saps our energy and diminishes our mental capacity. Making decisions becomes ridiculously difficult. Anything you can do to simplify your friend’s life is helpful. Just don’t assume you know best—always check in. Instead of asking, “What can I do to help?”, which puts the burden on your friend to think of something, say “Could you use a weekly house cleaner for the next two months?” (Bonus points if the cleaner does laundry and changes litter boxes!) 

Say their loved one’s name

Though our loved one is no longer walking through our front door, rifling through the fridge or calling us on our birthday, they are always right here with us, in every breath we take. It hurts when nobody acknowledges them for fear of upsetting us. Even when we’re smiling, we haven’t forgotten our grief. If hearing our loved one’s name makes us cry, then let us cry, but please, please, please say their name.  

Sharing memories of the person they lost is one of the greatest gifts you can give. If you have photos of your friend’s loved one, send them copies or have a special one framed. In conversations, mention the person they lost as you would anyone else: “Remember the time when Joey ate a whole tub of cookie dough ice cream and then pretended he was fine, ran outside and got sick?” 

Let your friend know when you think about their loved one: if you light a candle for them on a special day, when you tell a neighbour about their strength, when you bring their photo to an advocacy event or write their name in the sand at the beach to connect with their spirit. Call your friend and tell them. Send a photo. 

If you were also close to the loved one who passed, you could honour them in special ways on special days. Send a donation in their name on their birthday, volunteer your time to support others who are struggling in similar ways or create your own mourning and celebration rituals. Share them with your friend so they know their loved one is not forgotten. 

Stay connected

So few of us know how to respond to grief. Our natural tendency is to disconnect from it. Grief is uncomfortable and painful to witness, especially when we don’t know how to help. Please know that it is a rare and wonderful gift to simply bear witness. Check in with your friend now and again, and let them share their grief, anger, guilt, shame and confusion with you. Just listen. Don’t offer advice unless asked, and never suggest they “get over it.” If your friend doesn’t want to talk about their grief, that’s OK too. Sometimes a distraction is just what they need. Follow their lead.

Short but consistent messages can be deeply meaningful: a simple text that your friend wakes up to every morning or reads before bed to let them know you care; a weekly phone or video call; a monthly card with a thoughtful message sent through the mail. 

Help them to connect with others who grieve

Unless you have also lost someone to similar circumstances, don’t presume to know what your friend is feeling. Even if you have, everyone grieves differently. Your friend’s grief journey will be different from yours. Don’t rush their grief. Don’t try to understand it or explain it back to them. Just accept it as it is. 

Many people who experience a traumatic loss are more comfortable sharing their grief with others who have similar experiences. You could offer to research some online groups they may find helpful. 

Give it time. Stay consistent

Your friend’s grief will continue for the rest of their life, especially on holidays and anniversaries of the birth and death of their person. So should your support. It’s wonderful to be wrapped in the love for the first few weeks after a loss, and again on the first anniversary of their death. But as joy returns to our lives (and it will) and we stop wearing our grief on our sleeves (as we must), it feels like the world breathes a collective sigh of relief that we’re finally “over it” and we can resume our place in the turning of time. People no longer feel an obligation to remember our loved one and their silence is absolutely heartbreaking. The best support anyone can give is to continue to actively remember our person as the beautiful, important and worthy soul they have been, are and always will be to us.  

Please remember. Always remember.

About the author

Kathy is the mother of three grown children, including her son, Tristan, who died from drug poisoning in 2017. She is the author of Here With You: A Memoir of Love, Family, and Addiction, and her personal essays have appeared in The New York Times and the Globe and Mail. She’s been a peer facilitator for the grief support group Healing Hearts Canada 

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