by Charlene Thurston,RN,ANP,Hospice Director from the Fall 1995 Hospice Currents Newsletter
As friends, we’re often saddened by events that happen in the lives of those we care about, and want immediately to offer consolation and help, but don’t know how. We often find that we don’t know what to say or do that would be helpful, and, worse, we’re afraid that we might say or do the wrong thing. Unfortunately, our fears may cause us to avoid the situation and the friend who really needs our support.

In order to help readers feel more comfortable in such situations, we thought we might offer some insights and suggestions from our experience in working with patients and families facing the stress and grief of life-threatening illness or the death of someone they love.

First, it’s important to realize that our friends are experiencing grief, whether someone has died or is living with a life-threatening illness. We grieve not only after a death, but any time someone or something we value is lost, including our own health or even our dreams of what might have been. Next, it’s important to realize that grief is all consuming, affecting us physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually, and that it can affect our ability to concentrate and make decisions. And lastly, it’s important to realize that grief is a normal and natural response, that it is not a sign of weakness or the inability to cope,and that it takes two years or more for the grief of a significant loss to be resolved.

Remembering these facts about grief will help you understand what your friends may be experiencing. Following are some of the guidelines about how you might be helpful:

1. Call, write or visit your friend soon after hearing the news, if possible, but, even if you’ve waited to do it. It’s never too late to say you care.

2. Be honest and open, and avoid clichés. Just let your friend know that you’ve heard what has happened, that you’re sorry for what (s)he’s going through, and that you are there. People often make remarks that they hope will make the grieving person feel better, but they are often hurtful and unnecessary.

3. Make yourself available over the long term,not just immediately. Evenings, weekends, holidays and special anniversary dates can be difficult times. Often a call, note or visit during these times is much appreciated.

4. Be a good listener! Your friend needs friends who will listen to the story over and over again, who will accept whatever feelings are being expressed without judging,and who will maintain confidentiality. Be comfortable with tears, sadness, anger, guilt and don’t try to stifle their expression.

5. Treat your friend with respect, and trust your friend in his or her ability to cope with this crisis. Your friend is hurt, but not completely incapacitated. Try to be supportive without taking over.

6. Offer practical help when appropriate. Running errands, making phone calls, doing shopping or laundry, cooking meals, taking care of children, etc., may be helpful.

7. Providing useful information which you’ve learned about could be helpful, but only if your friend is ready for it. Too often people are bombarded with free advice, which only serves to overwhelm and confuse them. Suggesting that they use supportive services or groups in the community as resources could be very helpful.

8. Realize that the grief experience is intensely personal and is unique to each individual. You may walk with your friend on this journey and offer your support, and this is immensely helpful, but you will not be able to take away the pain. The work of grieving is what will ultimately bring about healing, and this must be done on one’s own timetable in one’s own unique way. The key for friends, is to be supportive, but not intrusive.

To stand by a friend facing life-threatening illness or bereavement is a very special privilege, one that will change both of you. It’s not easy to do, but should you choose to do so, your life will be richer for it. Most importantly, you will have found that the experience of giving of yourself is the most precious gift of all you have to offer.

Funded by the Palliative & Supportive Care of Nantucket Foundation, the Palliative & Supportive Care Program is operated as a department of the Nantucket Cottage Hospital, which is an affiliate of Massachusetts General Hospital, and a member of Partners HealthCare. Palliative & Supportive Care of Nantucket is a specialized health care program dedicated to providing excellent physical, psychological, social, and spiritual care to persons with life-threatening illness and their families.

A Partnership in Caring

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