Over the past few years, more and more of my friends have had to deal with losing one or both of their parents, and more often than not I find myself stumbling for the right way to express my condolences. Having never lost a parent, I can’t really sympathize or understand, but even if I could, would comparing my experience to theirs really be helpful? Do they just want me to show up and be present and stop trying to find the right words? Or is there something I can say or do that would actually be comforting? As time goes on, more and more of my friends will experience the loss of a parent. So I decided to get advice from a few women who’ve already been through it to find out how to be supportive rather than just being cliché.
The one thing that every single person shared was the memory of who showed up. Almost everyone I spoke to told me how much it meant to them to see old friends at their mother’s funeral or their father’s wake. “Even friends I hadn’t seen for years,” said one woman. “It meant so much to me and I still remember, years later, whose faces I saw during that difficult time.”
The other thing I heard over and over again was that even more important than saying something is doing something. “I had one friend who showed up to my dad’s Shiva and cleaned my mom’s bathroom without being asked. She just knew there would be a lot of people in and out of the bathroom,” said one friend. (Shiva is the weeklong period of mourning in Judaism.) Bringing food, offering to put gas in the car, taking the dog for a walk … all these gestures go a long way for someone who may be too overwhelmed to stay on top of their normal routine.
But what can we say? What are the magic words that express all that we feel and wish for our friends? Unfortunately, it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. The biggest factor that changes how we mourn this kind of loss is if there is a surviving parent. Worrying about your mom or dad and how they will go on without their life partner is huge, while at the same time, when someone has lost both parents, they are left to shoulder all the grief. “I really appreciated it when people just hugged me and asked how my mom was doing,” said one friend who lost her dad while her mom was alive. Another friend who had lost both of her parents over the course of two years said that it helped when people reminded her of how proud her mom and dad were of her, how much joy they gained from their grandchildren, and how much they loved each other.
So how about what NOT to say? One friend shared the experience of having someone try to rationalize her grief. “They told me that death was a part of life and that I shouldn’t be so upset. That I should just accept it,” she shared. “Telling someone not to feel what they are feeling just because you think it isn’t logical can be maddening!”
Another condolence faux pas? Being overly dramatic or emphasizing the tragedy of a friend’s loss. “When people were overly sympathetic, blowing my loss up into epic proportions … it made me want to tell them to shut up!” said my friend who lost both parents in the same year.
The single best thing you can do for your friend who has lost a parent is to continue to be there during the weeks and months that follow. The first few days are always a blur as friends and family congregate to comfort and mourn. When the crowds disperse and everyone is expected to go back to their normal lives, it’s easy to forget that someone is still hurting. Even a year later, milestones and anniversaries, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day can all trigger fresh pain. It helps to have a friend that is sensitive to the extended process of mourning.
“Mourning does decrease over time,” says Ellen Jacobs, a psychotherapist who has experienced the loss of her own parents. “We are wired to heal from death because people are meant to live fully. It’s perfectly normal to always miss your mom or dad, but the sadness turns to a bearable loss and as time goes on, you internalize or take on something you loved about them, whatever that may be.”
Jacobs fondly remembers when people would talk about all of her mother’s wonderful, unique qualities, or when they would share interesting facts or funny stories about her father. One comment stands out … something a friend said following the death of her mom.
“You have already learned and gotten everything you need from your parents. It’s already inside of you. You got it all.”
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