How can we support friends through grief?

Why it's better to ask the wrong questions than to not ask at all

Friends and relationshipsMental health and wellbeingFamily
By Parent Zone ·
image: Pixel-Shot/stock.adobe.com

Nicola (not her real name)

Young author

“They called me looking for reassurance and support… but I felt hollow panic”

Please note: this article includes sensitive topics that some people might find difficult.

After finishing school, I received a call from a close friend. Their parent had just attempted to (unsuccessfully) commit suicide.

They phoned me knowing of my own personal experience: my mum killed herself when I was little. So now, alongside sharing a brilliant friendship, we had this unenviable common experience. They called me looking for reassurance and unwavering support… but as I heard the news, I felt hollow panic.

Firstly, I understood the depth of pain and confusion raised by the act of someone choosing to take their own life. However, there was a second, unexpected feeling.

I automatically felt something dragging me away from their pain. In that moment, I was creating a buffer zone: distancing their experience from mine in an act of self-preservation. I know now, I did not want to relive the trauma of my mum’s death via their parent’s attempt to take their own life.

Instead, I simply wanted to remove myself. This act of distancing hindered my ability to support them as a friend, and our relationship has not been the same since that event.

The day they called, I listened to their thoughts and learnt about the plans for their parent’s treatment. I reached out a few times afterwards, but over the following months I purposefully reduced my contact from them.

I had previously trusted my ability to be empathetic and to help my friends during difficult times. In this circumstance, however, I felt paralysed by the burden of expectation. Through my own experience, I knew just how sensitive and subjective grief could be. Truthfully, what could I say that would help?

I scrutinised my inability to reach this undetermined (but somehow, high) standard of support. I’d fallen short, and I felt like a terrible friend.

Listening to people’s experiences and communicating in a sensitive, yet equally encouraging way is a powerful skill. Understandably, many do not feel comfortable in this relatively unknown and fragile realm. I also learnt that day, that sharing similar experiences does not magically improve your ability to help.

I didn’t get taught, or even discuss in school how to support my friends experiencing grief. In fact, when I returned to school after my mum’s death, my year group were instructed not to address me on the subject.

This approach was assumed by the school on my behalf and I think it was a poor decision long term. Our friends around us will inevitably experience loss of some form, and the quicker we equip ourselves with the tools to help, the better. While there are professional helplines to be aware of, close friends can act as unique buttresses.

What I have learnt, with time, is to be unafraid. In an effort to get the support ‘just right’ you can lose the potency of simply being present with them.

Equally, I think it is better to ask the wrong questions than to not ask at all. In their response, they are shedding grief, memories and emotions that might have otherwise been unshared.

If you’re feeling suicidal, and need someone to talk to, call Samaritans on 116 123 for 24 hour support.