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SUPPORTING A GRIEVING FRIEND

Updated: Apr 12

By Luyeye Hope Matambo 


Grief can cloud your mind and take away your ability to reason and think clearly.  It is not something one easily gets over and without the right support, it can exacerbate emotional pain and lead to various negative consequences.


So what are the practical steps to take in supporting my grieving person?


Be empathic


Understanding that being there for your grieving friend is not about you calls for empathy on all levels. Allow me to digress a little. For my Zambian local readers, I will refer to an advert that runs frequently on DSTV, (our equivalent of satellite TV for my readers in the diaspora), for a robot called C.R.I.S. an AI-generated robot that is designed to understand its audience and how best C.R.I.S can recommend content based on people’s programs and shows’ preference. I must admit, this advert gets on my nerves because it plays every single time there is a break or transmission between programs. It’s been running all day and every day for many months, literary shoving its message down our throats!


There is one thing in particular, that C.R.I.S says that came to mind as I wrote this. C.R.I.S asks his creator, who prompts him to be a little more human in collecting his content; "WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE HUMAN?" Being human means creating a safe space for your friends to be who they need to be in that moment, without you imposing your thoughts and feelings on them. If they need to be angry and snap at you, take it in your stride and let them vent out that frustration. If your friend needs a shoulder to cry on without any judgment, let them cry, the kind of ugly cry that has your snort running and your saliva dripping. The kind of cry that makes you feel as though a knife cut you open and a stronghold was tugging at your heart to rip it open.


 Don’t be the person that says do not cry. Like really? What must I do, laugh instead, so that it makes you feel comfortable to be around me? Empathy allows us to understand someone’s feelings. It permits us to feel someone’s pain and gives us the power to ride the grief wave with our person regardless of how the season changes- and the seasons in grief can change at any given time. Being empathetic requires you to tap into your emotional intelligence to know when to avoid offering unsolicited advice. I recall someone telling me to accept God’s will. I didn’t appreciate this advice; I was having an internal spiritual struggle…” If God loved me, why would he allow this to happen…” I mean, the advice had all the right intention, it didn’t mean any harm and as Christians, we are to trust in God’s will whatever that may be right? Unfortunately, for me this statement stirred up anger towards God, my faith tested by the loss of my partner and in that moment, my faith was weak. I wanted to hear someone tell me it was ok to be angry with God.


It felt as though the person was disconnected from my reality, dismissing my feelings by telling me to accept his will. It felt like my anxiety, my sadness, my loneliness, not forgetting that I would never have my partner see his child and be a parent with me was all invisible to this person. Of course, I was angry at God. You see, being empathetic (whether as a friend or other) requires you to acknowledge my loss and to offer your reassurance that you will be my wing-man, that no matter how hard and ugly it gets, you are with me through the ups and downs of my grief journey until I am strong enough to find my healing. 


Be Present


Often times, because friends are dealing with their insecurities and fears around whether you are being a good friend or not. The internal battle can cause an unintentional distance between you and your grieving person. The griever feels they are unworthy, they isolate and withdraw – all natural reactions to grief. As a friend, you unconsciously withdraw because, let us face it, you feel way in over your head because you don’t know how to navigate this space either. You withdraw because you don’t know how much support is too much. You don’t know what to say to your person because you can't reach their heart or thoughts. You don’t know whether to keep away or be present. A lot is happening to both of you. Without realizing it, there is an elephant in the room and slowly, the space starts to shrink and the distance starts to grow.


I recently finished reading a book by Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook CFO, titled Option B. Sheryl lost her husband unexpectedly and she narrates her experience and shares lessons about grief and loss through this book. In her second chapter, “Kicking the elephant out of the room”, she intricately expounds on the concept of how unspoken words “the elephant in the room” can cause a drift among friends. In particular, she refers to a concept called The Non-Question-Asking Friend”. The non-asking-question-friend is the friend who never asks you anything about your life or what is going on. For some, they are self-absorbed and for some, they do not know or have trouble having intimate or hard conversations. 


I do not have many friends, but one friend, in particular, has a special place etched in my heart. After my husband passed away, I isolated and lost contact with many of my friends. About a year and a half after my husband passed I received a call from one of my girlfriends Shebo. She referenced how I had distanced myself and was not in touch anymore. This conversation, no doubt, caught me off guard. I expressed how I felt abandoned because none of my friends offered their support by attending the funeral of my late husband besides the usual, condolences calls and messages, which sometimes are just empty words. However, her response put things in perspective for me and made me understand things from her point of view. She expressed how heartbroken she was for me losing my husband. How she was dealing with her overwhelming sense of grief, especially considering my circumstances. She shared how she was scared and did not know what to say to me or how to comfort me. We talked it out, and at the end of that phone call, we had mended our bridges. I was relieved. I applaud Shebo. I respect Shebo. She decided to pick up the call, have that difficult conversation, and kick that elephant out of the room. In that moment, Shebo showed me humanity. We often leave the ones who have lost to deal with it on their own and expect them to move on and reintegrate back into life as though nothing happened. We expect that everything will go back to normal and we will pick up from where we left off. We don’t realise that grief changes everything about our person. They are not the same anymore.


Being present means, being able to give your person the space to feel seen and heard. When Shebo called me, she made me feel seen. She made me know and understand that she cared enough for me, to grieve for me. Her phone call reassured me that despite the silence, our friendship mattered and she saw me. I was not ‘invisible’ to her anymore. She, in a way, gave me my hope back. 


Being present also means showing compassion. A few months after I lost my husband, a few of my late husband’s friends came together and started a fund to help with my son. Every so often, this group of friends would transfer funds for me to use towards the various needs of my son. Though a few fell off the bandwagon, two friends, Maya and Chipanta in particular, stayed on till my son was nearly two years old. This act was an example of what presence can mean and do. Presence must not be limited to physical or virtual presence, presence doesn’t only mean financial and can be spiritual, presence can also mean empathy, compassion and the will to act. This group of friends put themselves in my shoes and heard my inaudible fears and anxiety- my words unspoken, (which called on one to tap into their emotional intelligence) of how I would provide for my son. This was especially at a time when they knew I was unemployed. Emotional intelligence allowed them to take up the mantle to ease my burden as best as they could. What these friends didn’t realize was that their generosity went way beyond providing for the daily needs of my baby, but were the stepping stones toward the building blocks towards a fund that will forever be a part of my son’s legacy. 


Active Listening and Emotional Awareness


My late husband and I had attended a couple’s therapy session once and during the session, the therapist had us engage in an exercise of active listening. This is where one person is given the space to express their thoughts without objection or interruption from the other person. When that person has exhausted their explanation or point, the listener repeats what they heard. Often, when we communicate with each other, we tend to be quick with responses or rebuttals. By nature, human beings have the instinct to defend or be defensive or offer solutions to something they hardly have taken the time to understand. We are terrible listeners. When you repeat back what the other person has said, it makes the other person feel heard. It shows the person that you are actively engaged in what they are communicating and that you understand what they are saying. Active listening requires you to acknowledge a person's feelings without them feeling judged.


Often, as friends, we do not know how to have our person open up to talk to us. I have learned that though there is no one-size-fits-all approach in how to work around this, being emotionally aware is pivotal in helping us bridge that gap. The saying goes actions speak louder than words right? Our body language speaks louder than our words so it is important to be aware of what our body is communicating through its movement, its gestures, eye contact, facial expressions and even physical contact. It is important to have positive body language that makes our grieving person feel they have a safe space for them to want to open up, but also be aware enough to not overwhelm them. 


Active listening gives you room to ask open-ended questions. In Option B, Sheryl highlights that people are afraid to ask questions out of concern that this will trigger a trauma reaction. However, when you ask open-ended questions they leave room for the grieving friend to respond in their own words at their own pace. A simple question most of us ask is "How are you? The response will usually be the mandatory, “I am fine”. Whereas if you ask the same question differently such as"How are You?" "As in how are you really?" Notice the emphasis on the word “You” in How are you in the second scenario and the emphasis on “How are you really” as opposed to the passive word “you” in the first scenario. That emphasis enables an atmosphere for your person to feel seen and gives them room to share their thoughts and feelings. She highlights how asking such open-ended questions is not “too personal questions” to ask, such that you avoid asking them altogether. They are human questions that make the grieving person feel seen. Avoid being that non-asking-friend who never asks how your person is doing, because that elephant has no boundaries, she will continue to take up until there is no room left. 


As humans, we don’t like silence. Silence creates awkward moments. We don’t do well with awkward moments. Grieving individuals however need time to process their emotions and sometimes silence gives them the time to process their pain and emotions. Be comfortable with silence as that too, is a practice of active listening and emotional awareness. 


Extend yourself some grace


Support comes in different ways. My girl B once reached out to me and expressed how she was struggling to be there for her friend who had lost her husband. I remember her asking, how can I be there for my friend? We’ve known each other from high school through college marriages and babies, and now her friend had lost her husband and she didn’t know how to be there for her. Now, B’s challenge was that she was in a different town from her friend so being there for her friend physically was not possible. B was also concerned that her grieving friend was withdrawn and not opening up much. The usual concerns and fears arose within B. What B did not allow herself to feel was that she was being a good friend in doing her best to reach out to her friend, despite the distance. She just needed to know that her friend’s withdrawal was a normal reaction to her grief. You see, the thing is, sometimes when you feel your grieving person has drifted away, your brain translates that as being your fault. Was it something I said or did? Should I hold back and not communicate to give them space? You need to extend yourself some grace and know that you are doing the best that you can with what you have. Grief is a heavy experience and is different for everyone. 


As a friend, invest in knowing more about grief and learning about the different stages of grief. This will help you identify and know that reactions such as withdrawal are very important for a grieving person. Have deliberate conversations about grief with friends and colleagues. Anderson Cooper, journalist and anchor with CNN, illustrated this perfectly when he said: “None of us is alone in our grief, though it certainly feels like we are. The path we are on is well travelled. The person sitting next to you on the subway, or in a cubicle at work, everyone has felt the pain of loss or will. It is a bond we share but rarely do. Instead, we shroud our grief in silence. Why is it so hard to talk about?” He shares how talking about grief and hearing from others who are living with grief as well helps one feel less frozen by it and less alone with it.There are not many conversations going around about grief because it is too heavy a conversation to have. But having these conversations helps us know that grief is a human experience and that speaking about it helps us create strong bonds.


Being consistent in your support is cardinal in letting someone grieving know that they can rely on you. Offer concrete help and support to your grieving person. Offer to bring them a cooked meal. Offer to take the kids out for a play date or some ice cream. Offer to just sit next to them in silence and let them know that it's ok for them to cry, if they need to. Call them and sing to them, offer a prayer, send them flowers or send them a beautiful good morning message every morning. Whatever you do, be consistent and reliable in the support you give them. There is no period to how long a person can grieve; each one’s time is different so respect their process. Encourage them to seek professional counselling. Let us normalize therapy. Remember important dates and events, and make an effort to help them plan if need be, your person will appreciate you for that. Finally check in regularly. Grief has no schedule. So make an effort to check as a way to offer your long-term support. Be that friend.


Grieving is a complex matter. It makes offering support a very complex matter. However, offering your support to a grieving friend is an act of love that makes the burden lighter for someone who is grieving. Understanding that grief is not about you is the first step to offering meaningful support. Navigating the complexities of the grieving process can provide invaluable support during the difficult times shared. But it is that support that is a key ingredient for your grieving person to find healing. Having to share the ups and downs of grief can help you and your person create resilience that can be catalytic to help you emerge stronger together. 




LULU is a single mother,an entrepreneur, emerging blogger, writer,author and founder of Purple Wings Initiative, an organization that provides the necessary support and tools to help widows navigate life after loss. She generously shares her lived experiences on grief in a practical and relatable lighthearted manner.


Connect with her on Facebook: Lulu Hope Matambo and via WhatsApp: +260964839171


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Edited by Bwalya M Mphuka



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