How to Support Friends Who Are Grieving (and What NOT to Say) – Dealing with Death, Disability, Diagnosis, and Infertility

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I consider myself an expert on grief. I lost both of my parents relatively young – my father, when I was 14, and mother, when I was in my early 20’s. My father passed away from pancreatic cancer, and I watched him lose weight, hair, and eventually his life. Years later, my mother died from suicide. This second wave of grief brought with it even more intense, complicated emotions: shame, guilt, isolation.

Through my grieving process, I was touched by how many people reached out with a kind word or thoughtful gesture. My mourning was made easier by loving friends who asked how I was doing and really listened. I also heard a lot of not-so-helpful things, some comments that hurt, and had some people who should have reached out stay silent.

I get it – death is complicated, as is infertility, health problems, a job loss – and it’s difficult to find the right words to say. But I am firmly in camp ‘Say Something’ and not camp ‘Pretend The Hard Thing Doesn’t Exist and Hope They Don’t Cry To You or Tell You Things That Make You Feel Awkward,’ so today I’m sharing some of my own insights about grieving, and how you can help a loved one who is mourning.

I’m sharing this post with you today in conjunction with a podcast episode I recorded with Lynzi Clyde of the Learn Live Love Yourself podcast. As a long time listener, I was honored that she asked me to share my experience with mental illness, suicide, grief, and healing. I hope it will make it to those who need it. You can listen to our episode together here, and find it anywhere you listen to podcasts.

I’m honored that two of my dear friends will be joining me for this post:

Chelsie Carr of Hey There, Chelsie has been a loyal, long-time friend (she and my husband grew up together, and he said he was going to marry her when he was eight. I applaud his excellent taste, but I’m glad that Dustin beat him to it and Brett ended up with me!) Chelsie is a pediatric cancer survivor and is currently battling infertility along with her husband. She’s handled these difficulties with such grace, and I’m grateful that she is willing to share some of her thoughts on how to support someone going through health struggles or infertility. You can see more of Chelsie on her website, heytherechelsie.com, or on Instagram, @heytherechelsie.

Arianne Askham is my soul sister – we met when she moved to New England, and we became fast friends. Not only is she incredibly thoughtful, creative, and enthusiastic, but she’s a relentless advocate for her sweet son Peter, who was diagnosed with Spina Bifida in utero. Peter is now a thriving four year old, and Arianne is transparent about her trauma during the time of his diagnosis and health struggles, including several serious surgeries after birth. Arianne has been gracious enough to share her insights on what to say – and not to say – to someone dealing with a difficult diagnosis or disability. You can find Arianne on Instagram @arianneaskham. Be on the lookout for her family’s annual Diagnosis Day Project, #HugsfromPeter.

I asked these incredible women to share their stories and insights because, although I know grief, there’s a different kind of mourning (and support needed!) for infertility, disability, and death. I want to serve my friends better. I want to know their hearts, their heartbreaks, and their struggles, so the next time, I am better equipped to lift others up. I hope you’ll join with me as we navigate hard topics in the pursuit of being gracious, kind, empathetic to those we love most.

Death

Help them to remember the deceased

One of the hardest parts of grieving the loss of a loved one is feeling that they are now gone from our lives forever. It’s important to remember their lives, and not just recall their deaths. You can help the bereaved by sharing your memories about the deceased, if you know them. If you didn’t have the privilege of knowing them in life, consider asking the bereaved what their loved one was like.

It was such a pleasant surprise to me when one of my good friends heard of my mother’s death and, a few minutes into our conversation, asked me ‘What was she like?’ She didn’t pry into details of her death, or lament with me on funeral planning – but she sincerely desired to know about who my mom was when she was alive. It was touching – and honestly, one of the few times that ever happened.

It may seem awkward or counter intuitive to ask about the deceased person’s life, but it can be such a healing experience to share what you loved and admired about them.

Don’t pry into the cause of death

When my mother died from suicide, I flinched whenever I heard the word. Talking about it made me go back to that immediate, intense grief, and think of her at her last moments. So many people, immediately hearing of my mother’s death, asked ‘What happened?’ I thought that telling them ‘She committed suicide’ would move the conversation along, but people seemed to grow even more invested. ‘How? When? Where? By what means? Are you sure? Did you see?’ The questions went on and on.

Both to my face and behind my back, those close and distant from me now saw my personal tragedy as a sideshow to ogle at, and it was infuriating.

I know that people ask out of reflex, or morbid curiosity. But that’s just it: it’s morbid, and it’s self serving. Prying into a very traumatic or untimely death shows that the inquirer is more concerned with the drama of the story than the feelings of the person telling it.

A better way to ask: If you’re surprised because the death seems untimely, a simple ‘What happened?’ or ‘Were you prepared for this?’ May help you to understand the bereaved ones feelings. Of course, grief looks entirely different to someone who lost a loved one in a tragic accident versus old age or a long-term illness with a chance to say goodbye – but supportive loved ones should be more concerned about how the loved one is feeling now, not the nitty gritty of the death.

Don’t ask about the money involved

Since my father had died before my mother, I was left along with my other family members to deal with their belongings. This was incredibly difficult for me, it was a lot of emotional burden to carry, and a really confusing process. I was most disturbed by how casually some people treated my parents’ estate.

Let me be very clear: no one who is gaining a cent of money by the death of a dear, cherished, loved one, is counting that money as a blessing. I’d trade it for my parents in a heartbeat. Maybe people thought that gaining an asset would be a ‘silver lining’, or maybe they overestimated what I would be receiving, but I was repulsed by comments like ‘So how much is there?’ Or ‘Wow, you’re so lucky!’ Or my personal favorite, from someone who not once, and still, not to this day, has asked me how I am feeling or if I’m okay, ‘How’s the money coming along?’

Asking about money, or insinuating that someone being left an heirloom or an estate is a big win, assumes that someone’s life is less valuable than money. The truth of the matter is this: there is no amount of money in the world that we would trade for the ones we love. Period. To say something that suggests otherwise is an insult to the deceased, and the bereaved.

An exception to the rule: I would say, the only caveat to this is that it is okay to offer help. That’s it. If you would like to offer a financial gift to the bereaved, to help pay for funeral expenses or simply as a kind gesture – go for it. Inquiring about finances should be to help – and only to help – so simply ask ‘Can I arrange a fundraiser?’ or ‘Could I contribute to the ceremony?’

Don’t interpret through your faith lens

This one is hard, but so vital: don’t interpret their loss through the lens of your faith. Perhaps you believe in Heaven, where a loving God is waiting for the deceased. Great! Maybe you think that person is free from pain and suffering, and their spirit is with their loved ones, forever. Cool! But now is not the time for your interpretation of death, no matter how comforting you believe it to be – it’s a time for the loved one to find and express their own belief.

Some of these interpretations can be very damaging. Take for example, those who have religious beliefs that suicide is a cardinal sin. How dismissive, heartbreaking, and upsetting it feels that someone would say ‘Sorry for your loss’ while still believing that a dear loved one will be in hell for eternity. Yikes. I don’t buy into that ideology, and I’d caution you not to as well, but no matter what your personal opinion is on the subject, remember that it may not be well-received.

Even very upbeat, hopeful, and well-intended messages from your faith could come across in a way that is less than helpful. Those who are mourning are probably already grappling with the idea of the afterlife and God’s role in their loved one’s death – adding pressure to accept your believe puts added pressure to be ‘more faithful’ when they are already enduring a lot.

Try this instead: If you have a doctrine or thought that you think may be helpful, consider asking before you share. “I had a thought I wanted to share with you. Would you like to know my personal feelings about the afterlife?” The bereaved can choose to say no, or take you up on your offer. This way, if you have an inspiring thought you’d like to offer, you are giving them the ability to choose.

Don’t compare to unrelated experiences

We’ve all seen this one.

Friend 1: “My aunt is in the hospital. She has terminal cancer.”
Friend 2: “Wow! I know EXACTLY how you feel. Our last golden retriever, Jack, had like, a tumor on his leg. And he was 14, so you know, we put him down. Oh it was so sad. I cried for WEEKS! I get it.”

Woof. Literally. I’ve had dozens of conversations much like this one. I disclose the fact that my dad had terminal cancer, or that my mom committed suicide, or that both of my parents had died by the time I was 22, and suddenly everyone wants to tell me about that-one-neighbor-they-saw-sometimes-that-had-a-cousin-who’s-girlfriend-died-anyways-he’s-in-the-Navy-now!

Maybe it’s grasping at straws to relate when there’s so little that can really be said, maybe it’s a desperate attempt to level the playing field and say in a brash way that we’ve all ‘been there’ somehow, or maybe they really think these two relationships and losses are synonymous (hint: they never are.)

But really, it squashes all future communication, because in essence you’ve said: ‘I understand this completely, no need to explain how you feel further’, or ‘These two situations are the same’, which could be really hurtful if you are describing the loss of a pet or an a distant relative, while they are dealing with a very intimate loss. I’m in no way trying to say those things aren’t hard, but it’s more helpful to emphasize the uniqueness of their circumstances, rather than the sameness.

Try this instead: Maybe you do have a similarity you think may bring them comfort and open the gateway to future communication. Share that, while still acknowledging the differences in the situation and that you don’t know how they feel. For example: “I’m so sorry. How are you feeling? My mother also died from breast cancer. I attend a support group for survivors, if you would like to join me sometime.”

Disability and Diagnosis

Ditch the idea that faith fixes all

In my discussion with Arianne, she explained, “My absolute biggest pet peeve is when I would open up about how difficult or scary the situation was and people would respond ‘You just have to have faith!’ As if faith was a simple fix to such a difficult problem. I just want to shake them and say ‘I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but faith doesn’t keep horrible things from happening!'”

While these messages may be well-intended, there’s a harmful subcontext: ‘Just have faith’ implies that their faith is not strong enough, or that the misfortune is a punishment or indicator of their lack of faith. There’s also the implication that the grieving party now has to add ‘faith crisis’ on top of their anxiety, guilt, and trauma.

Arianne adds

“…Emotional pain and deeply rooted faith aren’t mutually exclusive. You are allowed to struggle. I feel like my faith in Christ gave me a road map, but it didn’t keep me from hurting. The grief still took time to heal.”

Likewise, we know from some of the most faithful figures in history (Job, David, and even Jesus Christ) were challenged constantly. Difficulties in life in the form of poverty, health problems, and other adversities are not the result of a lack of faith in God’s plan, so don’t implicate that in your conversation with the bereaved.

Seek to know the person before the disability

Arianne has described occasions in which strangers will ask outright about Peter’s disability, developmental milestones, and medical information – without so much as asking his name first. It seems obvious, but perhaps needs restating: we should always strive to see the person, not the physical or mental limitations, first.

Of course, it’s understandable for people to be curious when they know of Peter’s diagnosis, but the difference is in how – and when – the questions are asked. Consider this: are you asking this to better understand your new friend and their life, or are you trying to satisfy your own curiosity? When you ask ‘Is he walking yet? Will he be able to XYZ?’ think, ‘Will this information help me to love, understand and be a better friend to this person?’

A quick side note: I heard many years ago to be mindful about using a person with disabilities name, and describing the disability after. For example: instead of ‘Down Syndrome ___’, it is more appropriate to say ‘___, who has Down Syndrome’. This takes the emphasis off of their abilities, and more on their personhood.

Don’t use their burden as your consolation

I was shocked to hear what Arianne described as a fairly common occurrence: “Contacting me when you are nervous about your child’s anatomy scan and then later expressing great relief that your baby doesn’t have spina bifida.” While these people may not realize the implications of their words and actions, it is using someone else’s burden as your consolation – in other words – “PHEW! I’m glad I don’t have to deal with that!”

It’s understandable to reach out to someone who has dealt with your scenario before – how comforting it can be to speak with a mom who has also worried over her child’s uncertain health! But remember to be sensitive if your results are different than your friends. It is not that they are not happy for you not having to deal with the same difficulties – it’s a hard reminder that they do.

What to say instead: If you want to follow-up on a previous conversation you’ve had with them, consider this template: “I just want to say thank you for being there for me when I was going through XYZ. It was so comforting to have your insight, and I appreciate your willingness to open up to me. We learned that the doctors are no longer worried about XYZ, but I’m so glad to know that if we did have to face this challenge, I would have you to look to. I value our friendship so much. Thank you again.”

Be present

Difficult medical issues can be isolating on many levels – the isolation of the endless doctor visits, the isolation of staying indoors for baby’s first flu season, the isolation of not having other people who know what you are going through – and also the isolation of loved ones who can’t find the words to express their condolences. Arianne reminds us all that just being present is powerful:

“We actually found out about Peter’s diagnosis the day before my baby shower. I remember that morning, texting my friend who was hosting. I just told her that we had found out our child had spina bifida, but that I wasn’t ready to announce it to anyone yet, I just wanted her to know so if I seemed emotional she would know why. She honored all of my wishes, we had a great time, and after all of our guests left, I remember she gave me a big hug and just said ‘You are SO strong.’ I felt so seen and so loved. It meant so much to have someone I knew I could trust who also seemed to recognize what a difficult circumstance that must have been.”

Remember, it may be obvious to you how strong, how resilient, how incredible your friend is – but they still need to hear it. Tell them.

Infertility

Don’t try to troubleshoot

I love how Chelsie explained the feeling of battling infertility, and the frustrating emotions that can come with it:

I feel like I’m applying to a club every month and my application is perfect. I’m checking off all the right boxes and I have a pretty good essay. And yet, every month, my application for the club gets rejected, with no reason why and no direction on what to do differently to get accepted the next time. So, when my friends get “accepted” to the club, I feel happy for them but so sad that I can’t be in the club with them.

My heart broke, not just for Chelsie, but for all the other potential parents with flawless ‘applications’ – all the right qualifications, a willing heart, and arms outstretched and waiting to receive a child. I can only imagine, then, how deeply frustrating it must be to be bombarded with unsolicited advice left and right, which is all too common for couples who are trying to conceive.

‘Have you tried XYZ treatment/essential oil/old wive’s tale?’
‘Have you been trying for long?’
‘How old are you, anyway?’
‘Just be positive!’
‘Have you looked into adoption/foster care/IVF?’
‘If you just relax, it will happen!’
‘Oh, that’s nothing, we tried for five years!’

All of these statements are very… not helpful. But alas, it happens all the time. We hear bad news. We want to comfort our friend or give them some hope. So, we tell them about a story we recently read on BuzzFeed about some weird Australian fertility treatment. Sigh.

What’s so frustrating to the recipient of these statements is that they assume that this person (1) hasn’t already thought about treatment options/people who have it ‘worse’/potential outcomes and (2) that they were not capable of ‘fixing’ their infertility, but you are. Then take into consideration the fact that these messages are said all. the. time. to people who are struggling, so your dear friend may have heard five unsolicited get-pregnant tips in the very same day. The sheer amount of advice can be maddening, and the recipient can be left feeling judged.

What to say instead: If you do have some insight or a connection that you think might be beneficial – simply ask before giving it to them. “I’m sorry to hear that the process has been so difficult for you. My sister dealt with infertility for a few years – would you like me to connect you two? It might be comforting to talk to someone who’s been through it.” And remember – they are absolutely right to say ‘no’.

One day at a time

Chelsie recounts how her mother used to remind her to just take things one day at a time.

“It can be overwhelming to think about living with grief or pain for a long period of time, but if I can make it through this one day, I can make it through anything.”

As a loved one, we can help by taking it one day at a time along with them. Instead of asking for a long-term prognosis, or what life might look like in six months, you can ask “How are you today?” Focusing on the day-by-day makes difficult things bearable, and it can be a good way to see what would be helpful for our loved one here and now.

Be aware of how your sweet saying can be hurtful

When speaking with Chelsie, I found myself guilty of something that can be very hurtful to someone struggling with infertility. She explains, “It can be really hard to hear others say: ‘I’m so glad my baby choose me to be their mom’ or ‘I’m so happy God blessed me with this baby’ because it makes me feel like there isn’t a baby that wants to choose me or that God doesn’t want to bless me with a baby.”

These sweet sayings are so often said, often without thinking, but the general implication is that: God dictates who gets children and when. I wonder if we would all stop saying this if we were reminded of the many parents who are not deserving of their children, those who abuse, neglect or mistreat them. I personally don’t believe we are sorted into families by an all-knowing sorting hat (I threw in this Harry Potter reference just for you, Chelsie!), but if you do, just remember that these words, when stated broadly, have some really damaging implications.

What to say instead: “I’m really excited for you to become a mother. I know that whenever and however you have your children, you will love them more than words can say.”

Three Keys to Supporting Those Who Are Grieving

Just say something

Call, text, stop by, write a card. Check in when ‘the thing’ is happening (the death, the divorce, the diagnosis) and continue to check in on your friend. When the funeral is over or the child is born, people tend to stop asking, but they still need support. Being there is the greatest thing you can do as a friend. It doesn’t need to be perfect, and you don’t need to discuss ‘the thing’ every time – but just be there.

Help them to feel loved

The worst tragedies we face in life can’t be remedied even by the world’s greatest friend, but your presence and support can alleviate their pain. It doesn’t matter so much how you show up or what you do, but that your friend is felt loved and seen. Acknowledge the hurt, remind them you care, and then, just love them. In my mourning, love was shown to me by a cherished book, a loaf of home made bread, a phone call just because.

Joy in the mo(u)rning

One of my favorite verses of scripture is Psalm 30:5, ” Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning .” It’s important to be there for the ones we love in dark times, but don’t forget to look to the future together with joy. Make the trip, plan for next year, smile and savor and laugh together. Joy will come again.

To Those Struggling

I know, this time is challenging you. It’s challenging your strength, your patience, your resilience, and often, it’s challenging your willingness to forgive and show grace to people who let us down. That’s because on top of whatever you’re struggling with, we are surrounded by imperfect people (just like us!) who may be well-intended (or completely clueless) and say something silly, not comforting, or downright offensive.

Give them grace. There’s a good chance that they don’t have much practice at this – you don’t have much practice with your grief, either.

If we hold people to an unrealistic standard – to say, do, and act right, always – we will forever be disappointed and disillusioned. Instead, try to appreciate each small gift and gesture that comes your way. Try to see the intent, the heart behind the words or gesture, and know that this process is clumsy for us all.

In another time, in another life, you may have been the insensitive one, the one who didn’t reach out, the one who got it wrong – and forgive them, like you hope to be forgiven.

This doesn’t mean anyone is ‘off the hook’ when it comes to being a good human. We should all strive to be more understanding, more thoughtful, intentional, and compassionate. But when people let you down, choose to assume the best of them. This is a gift to them, sure, but even moreso, it’s a gift to yourself.

My friends, if you are hurting, my heart is with you. These hard times will not last – and you have a friend here, cheering you on. To the rest of us, let’s lift up the broken, care for the weary, and befriend the lonely. With all my love to you. Xx

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