There are certain things in life we don’t prepare for, even though we know they’re inevitable. Losing a parent is one of them.
Our parents are meant to leave us. They bring us into the world, they love us, they teach us, they deal with our struggles, and they celebrate our successes. And if we’re lucky, and if they’re good at their jobs, they watch us grow into adults who don’t really need them anymore.
Then, at some date we hope is far in the future, at a place we hope includes loved ones, and at the end of a journey we hope has not been painful, they leave us. They die. And we are left to live life in their honor.
Even if our parents leave us after a long, happy, painless life, and not after a diagnosis or an accident or a struggle, we are never ready for the intensity of the grief.
Having a social circle to love and support the person dealing with that grief is vital.
My mom died when I was 12. My sister Marta was 8 and Amelia, 6. I wore my mother’s dress slacks to the funeral. Her shoes, too. My sharp heel ripped a hole in the gauzy fabric as I was exiting the car to walk into the church and I worried about how I’d tell her that it was an accident.
It took me weeks to stop thinking of her in the present tense. Months to be able to talk about her without crying. Years to be able to go days without remembering the pain of losing her. I’ve now been alive longer without her than I was with her, and I still find myself caught in moments of grief in everyday moments – like baking zucchini bread, seeing geraniums, and watching the Oscars.
It was my friends who helped me with my initial grief then, and my friends who let me air my ongoing grief now. It has been hard to talk about her death with my family, all of whom have suffered the loss in their own ways. I never wanted to bring them down if they were having a good coping day. Friends, on the other hand, were further removed and thus easier to lean on. Friends were and are an incredibly important part of my grief support system.
If you have a friend going through this particular form of grief, here are ways you can support them, along with things you should avoid.
Show up. However you can.
Write a letter. Stop by their house. Bring by breakfast. Pick them up to go on a walk. Drop off a (and this is key: non-grief-related) book you think they’ll like. Clean their house. Prune their flowers. Take their dog to the groomer. Swing by with a basket of stationary and a ballpoint pen and put a big dent in their condolence replies. Do any number of things.
A girl a few grades above me I’d never talked to wrote me a note when my mom died, giving me tips about how she dealt with her own mother’s loss. Knowing someone else had gotten through it made me feel like I could, and I still think about that note today, a decade later.
A friend of my mom’s arranged for a cleaning service to stop by our house monthly for a year after my mom’s death. It was unbelievably reassuring to know our house wasn’t falling into disarray (which my mom would’ve hated) though none of us could rally the energy to vacuum.
What’s not helpful? “Reach out if you need something.” That sounds a lot like “I want to feel like I’m supporting you but I don’t have the energy, creativity, or generosity to figure out how.” Grief makes it hard to recognize what you need, yet alone articulate it to someone else.
And make showing up part of your routine.
Grief doesn’t go away after a month. It doesn’t go away after a year. It’s with you forever, in various sizes and various intensities. Emotional pain, like physical pain, may reappear, even if the wound appears healed. Re-injury is easy.
When everyone is aware of that pain, when it’s obvious, front and center, and people are acknowledging it with casseroles and flowers, it’s easier to treat.
But it’ll still be there once the majority of people have forgotten about it. A few months in to a parent-less existence is when it’s hardest to reach out for help. You’re still suffering through all-encompassing heartache, but the rest of the world has assumed you’re getting over it.
Grief doesn’t go away after a month. It doesn’t go away after a year. It’s with you forever, in various sizes and various intensities.
Be the friend that’s there then. Pop by with flowers or sandwiches or ice cream or a new HBO drama and ask your friend if they’d like to talk about anything. Keep this up for at least the first year. And expect nothing in return: you are doing these things because they are right. Not to make yourself feel good.
Above all, do not show up only to tell your own stories of grief. A week after my mom’s funeral, I was fielding tearful calls from a friend of my mom who wanted to talk about her loss. She deserved space to grieve and heal, but it should not have been with me. Losing a parent is burden enough.
Above all, do not show up only to tell your own stories of grief.
Don’t forget the special days.
I have a routine on my mom’s birthday and the anniversary of her death. (I like pausing to remember both — one happy, one somber.)
I take the days off and I do things she would have loved. For her birthday two years ago, when I was living in New York, I went to Soho and tried on shoes and pet all of the fancy yarns in a yarn store. Last year, when I was in New Zealand with my sister, we went for a hike down to the beach where we ran between the ice-cold ocean and the toasty-warm hot springs, screaming all the way.
Those days can be some of the hardest. They are days my grief needs space to unfurl. When friends who have those dates saved call me to check in, I know I don’t have to face them alone. Not having to reach out and burden them with those memories is a gift.
When friends who have those dates saved call me to check in, I know I don’t have to face them alone. Not having to reach out and burden them with those memories is a gift.
If your friend has lost a parent, ask them outright what their special days are. Maybe they are birthdays and death days, but they could also be Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, certain holidays, wedding anniversaries, or anniversaries of diagnoses. Mark those days down in your calendar and set a reminder to check in on each of them. The smallest of outreaches — a text message, a voicemail — go very far.
Let them share.
Your friend may want to talk about why they miss their parent. About situations where they dealt with their loss. About happy memories or sad ones. About difficult, painful emotions that we usually hide from others. Let them.
Listen. Provide comfort, whether that’s a Kleenex package tucked into your pocket or a hug or just reassuring words: “I hear you,” “I know it’s hard,” “I am here for you.”
Don’t try to fix it. Don’t say things like “Everything happens for a reason” or “You’ll feel better soon.” Those kind of statements make it seem like your friend’s grief isn’t valid, like it’s taking too long or hurting too much. Like what they’re feeling isn’t fitting your expectations of what a grieving person looks like and that it’s on them to change, to shape up, to get over it. It’s not.
Sit with their grief. Don’t let it push you away. Listen to it, give it space to flourish. Because only after it has had its days in the sun can it begin to recede.