A Guide to Supporting a Friend Through Loss
When I think of the time I felt most alone as a newly-minted college student, it wasn’t when I peered through my dorm window, watching as my parents’ car left Bowen Street, or even when I sat at my desk near midnight in September, downing a huge container of Postmates chicken soup while I FaceTimed with my best friend from home (who was also dining hall-averse at the time). Instead, that sense of isolation hit me on a Friday night in October, as I sat among new friends pre-gaming a lacrosse party. The early evening was fun, but perhaps I should have anticipated my eventual mood; it was the eve of the fourth anniversary of my friend’s unexpected passing; sitting in Andrews that night, I felt completely untethered.
In the months since then, I have encountered several other classmates and friends trying to navigate loss away from home or from their familiar support systems. Some were still processing losses from years prior; others were challenged by the death of a parent or grandparent during the fall semester. And while there is not a singular way to handle grieving or to support the bereaved, there are certainly ways that allow us to better care for friends experiencing grief.
Acknowledge your friend’s feelings of loss. Often in situations that are particularly sad or when we sense a friend is feeling extremely vulnerable, we feel that it’s nearly impossible to say the “right” thing. Yet, most people who have experienced grief will say that it is far better to say something, even something that may be expressed awkwardly and imperfectly, than saying nothing at all. Your sympathy can be conveyed in person, but it can also be communicated by text, in a card, or a hug. Don’t worry about delivery; just acknowledge. As a close friend suggested, however, pay attention to circumstances. Bars and drinking settings, she reminded me, are not appropriate environments for the unsolicited, “Awww, I feel so bad; are you okay?”
Offer your company; express your willingness to listen. Death is a part of life, but its ultimate certainty doesn’t soften the personal blow. Still, people inevitably grieve on different timelines, at different junctures, and in different ways. Offering companionship is a way to support even the most private or introverted friend. Expressing your willingness to listen to your friend and asking questions when it seems logical or comfortable can give them an outlet to process and give voice to difficult feelings. You may have struggled with a similar challenge, but make an effort not to compare losses. In fact, you might feel one sort of loss is worse or more intense than another, but those perceptions should not be communicated. Let your friend set the contours of their experience; there is nothing to be gained and only opportunities to hurt or offend when we try to quantify others’ experiences with grief.
Offer your support in practical ways, too. If a friend is grappling with a loss, remind them that Brown will work to accommodate their needs, academic or emotional. Schools have bereavement policies and practices and will help students to minimize interruptions to their academic lives. Brown can also provide emotional support to grieving students. You might suggest that your friend reach out to one of Brown’s Student Support Services Deans by email to explain their situation and the sorts of accommodations they will need to allow for travel to services or to boost their emotional wellbeing. Deans, on top of making themselves available to meet, will typically send out a note to communicate the circumstances to each of the student’s professors. Thereafter, the student can follow up to set new deadlines for work or figure out a way through which missed classes can be made up.
We certainly cannot protect ourselves or our friends and classmates from the pain of losing someone. But, we do have control over how we approach – and even whether we approach – a friend who is grieving. Remember that being awkward is okay, but being present and available is even better.