4 Ways To Help When Your Friend Loses A Parent

by Christine Burke
Originally Published: 
how to help with parent loss

In the last six months, I’ve had seven friends lose their mothers unexpectedly.

Seven close friends who have gone through the unimaginable, unexpected, mind blowing pain of losing a parent.

Seven dear friends who woke up one morning never realizing they’d be in crisis by the end of the day.

With each phone call I have received about my friends and their losses, my very first reaction is always the crushing realization that I know what’s coming for them down the road.

The pain.

The heartache.

The “I want to rip everyone in this room a new one because my parent died and how can you be having fun in front of me?” feelings.

The “I want to yell expletives in the grocery store because my parent left the planet and I can’t focus on the price of strawberries” urges.

And, with each phone call, I try to be like the friends I had when I lost my dad in October 2012.

The friend I didn’t know how to be UNTIL I lost my dad in October 2012.

Before my father passed away, I did all the things you are “supposed” to do when a friend loses a parent: send a card, send flowers, say a prayer. I asked every so often if my friend was okay and if they “needed anything” (God, I loathe that phrase…). I made an effort to “be there” for my friend but, in all honesty, I don’t know that I was all that helpful. Because, though I could sympathize, I couldn’t EMPATHIZE. I hadn’t walked the walk. Although my intentions were always kind and filled with sympathy, I didn’t “get” what it was to be a part of the “I Lost A Parent” club.

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Then I joined the “I Lost A Parent Club” in October 2012. And membership did NOT have its privileges. It sucked. A lot. Big brass coated donkey balls of suck. I would give every fiber of my being to have my membership revoked and to never have to relive those immediate hours ever again. But, as I went through that horrible time, I had friends who extended kindnesses that had never, ever occurred to me to do for someone else in a time of need. I had acquaintances show up at my door with the most incredible expressions of sympathy that, even today, the thought almost brings me to my knees. As much as the pain was too hard to bear, I knew that I was learning. Learning through the pain so that, someday, I could pay it forward. Here’s what I learned:

1. Do SOMETHING, Anything: In the immediate hours and days after you lose your parent, YOU. CANNOT. THINK. At all. Nothing. No conscious thought runs through your head and, if you have a moment of clarity, that moment is steamrolled with a fresh wave of grief. Keeping your head in the upright position seems impossible, let alone packing for an out of town funeral. The laundry you thought you’d catch up on over the next few days suddenly becomes insurmountable and you need fresh clothes to go bury your father. If you are the friend, show up and just do. Don’t ask. Just do. Empty the dishwasher, handle the laundry, give your friend’s kids dinner.

Show up and be “The Doer” because your friend just can’t.

My husband was on a business trip the day my dad died and I couldn’t function. I had three beautiful friends show up on my doorstep within hours of my dad’s death. My friends worked with my husband to get my flights scheduled. They did every stitch of laundry in my house, into the wee hours of the morning, and packed not only me, but the kids’ suitcases as well. To this day, I can’t tell you what I wore over that week we said goodbye to my dad but I know I had everything I needed because I had The Doer friends.

2. Feed The Family, But Not Right Away: Admittedly, I bring food in pretty much to every life event/crisis my friends have. New baby? Here’s a lasagna! Breast cancer? Here’s a lasagna! Mom died? Here’s a lasagna! But what I learned after I joined “The Club” is that the food comes fast and furious in those first few days. So much so, it can’t be consumed fast enough and storage becomes overwhelming. And, frankly, having nine frozen lasagnas in the freezer makes someone not ever want to eat lasagna again (I still can’t).

If you are like me and you “Feed The Crisis,” consider doing that for your friend a week or so after the dust settles, when the grief becomes so tangibly real that the thought of even operating a can opener seems paralyzing. I had a dear friend arrange to have breakfast sent to our house the morning of the funeral with a note that said “You will need your strength for today” and I cried not only because the bagels weren’t covered in marinara sauce but also because someone remembered to tell me to eat breakfast. I had a group of women show up at my home every day at 4:30 in the afternoon for a week with a hot, cooked non-Italian meal ready to serve three weeks after he died. I needed the help with cooking the most when my house was quiet and I was alone with my thoughts all day. So, be the friend who shows up with a hot meal three weeks out. Trust me.

3. Don’t Send Flowers: This is kind of a touchy one, I know, but hear me out. For days after my father passed, we opened the door to beautiful, exquisite, amazing arrangements of flowers. We had hundreds of blooms in the house with all of the fresh cut flowers scattered around. And while it was a pretty sight to behold, I’m not gonna lie: it smelled EXACTLY like a funeral home (stargazer lilies, I’m looking right at you, my friend). And the ones sent to the funeral home just get lopped onto the grave in a heaping pile that looks nothing short of pathetic the next day.

And, I know, I KNOW: flowers are what you DO when someone dies. They are a tangible way to say “your parent made a beautiful mark on this planet” and “when I think of your father, I think of peace in the form of a lily.” But, consider that the family will have to spend a lot of time throwing the arrangements away and it will be almost like a second death: when the flowers are gone, reality really sets in. Hard. This is not to say you should ignore the loss. Not by any means. But, when the family says, “in lieu of flowers,” respect it and honor it. Donations made in my father’s name to charities we loved meant so much to me. Because I didn’t have to throw the dead carcass of the donation into my garbage can…..

3. Know Your Friend: When you want to honor your friend’s loss, a lot of times, doing something that you know he or she will “hear” means the world. One of the dearest, most memorable gifts I was given after my dad passed had nothing to do with my dad. My friend’s dad knew I was having trouble getting back on the road for a run in the months after his passing. He knew that running was my salvation and that I was devastated that my usual outlet didn’t bring me comfort. Being alone in my head during my runs became too hard and my running shoes remained empty.

With a heartfelt note, he enclosed the receipt for registration to a race he knew I loved running. He told me he wanted to give me something to train for and said that he’d already arranged for his daughter and I to stay with him for the weekend of the race. He gave me hope that day in that letter and that beachside race was a PR for me. And, while I stood on the sand, hysterically crying because I couldn’t call my dad to tell him how I did, he hugged me and said, “It will get easier.”

Hear what’s important to your friend and give it back to them. Help them find their groove again. My friend’s dad “fathered” me and “heard” my grief. It remains one of the kindest gestures I’ve ever received.

4. Be The “I Won’t Judge Friend”: We all say we are that friend. The one who “doesn’t judge.” But, when your friend is dealing with the loss of a parent, they are EXHAUSTING. I know I was and still am, from time to time. The grief, the pain, the tears, the hurt, the anger, the outrage, it all comes out in verbal diarrhea. A lot. There are tears all. the. time. There are phone calls from the aisle of the grocery store because pasta sauce somehow reminds you of your dad. My best friend let me say anything and everything that was on my mind. She dealt with me using expletives like commas, phone calls where I was incoherent and some days, she’d just listen to me cry like a baby and let me hang up because that’s all I could give that day.

My running friends had to endure my horrid, wickedly angry self and they would run at my “I’m angry at the world” pace in a show of solidarity. But they kept answering the phone. And showing up for runs. And they loved me through it. They knew I’d be back and they let me show them the ugly, hurt, damaged fibers of myself. And they let me say the F word. A ton.

So, be the friend who answers and listens beyond the F word. Be the friend who whispers “I know you hate everyone right now” when you hug so tightly they know you won’t let go until they are ready. And say the F word with them. No judgment here.

I’m not an expert. I don’t have a degree in grief counseling. I am just a girl who lost her dad and had amazing acts of kindness shown to me in my darkest hours. I’m just a friend who is watching my dear friends go through an awful journey that I didn’t know existed until 2012. And I hope they know that I hear them and that I’m always that gal who will say the F word with them. Because the F word helps. And I know it.

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