I was a 48-year-old only child when my mother succumbed to Alzheimer’s Disease. I’d I spent three weeks alone at her bedside in the hospice wing of a wonderful nursing home in Connecticut — remembering with her and for her, singing to her, and being grateful — until she died that hot August morning.
When I think back on what most helped me through my grief, I am fortunate to have more than several memories. I speak now to those of you reading in the hope of learning what you can do to help someone you care about when they are grieving.
• My best friend and her husband drove up from Virginia almost every weekend to help me pack up my Mom’s house. I’d have had to deal with this alone had it not been for them. There was no way for me to predict how overcome with emotion I would be when I returned to my Mom’s house for the first time after she died. My friend and her husband were there to shore me up when my knees buckled.
• The day after my mother died, another friend rearranged her schedule to meet me at the funeral home while I made arrangements. Neither she nor the funeral director judged my inability to think, my shift to emotionless decision-maker, or my “inappropriate” gallows humor.
• Another dear friend took the entire day off from her new job in Manhattan and drove from Brooklyn to Connecticut early in the morning to attend my Mom’s funeral mass with me. She was there when one of my mother’s acquaintances — immediately after the service was over — stuck her face in mine and said, “Why didn’t you give us morenotice?!” Jenna was there to understand the murderously gracious look on my face in the middle of this enormous church.
• In the days before I went back to work, I couldn’t be alone with my grief any longer and I was still too raw to be out among the public at large. I asked a friend to “just come babysit me, just sit beside me, give me a hug and hold my hand.”
• People kept calling me and sending emails of love, compassion, condolence and support and each message said, “you don’t have to answer, I just wanted you to know . . .” Those messages felt quite literally like hands reaching out to throw me a lifeline.
What do these episodes have in common? Steadfastness, kindness, gentleness. They were nothing less than transfusions of strength. These stalwarts of my world did not turn away from the disheveled, disoriented, distraught me – – what I felt was the hideousness of my grief. They gave me a solid place to rely on when I felt like my world was falling apart. They provided a place from which I could rebuild.
Take it from me, you don’t need to be or do or say anything “special.” Grand gestures aren’t necessary. Just love your friend, and have compassion for them. If you ask them to tell you what they need and they do – do it, even if it seems small or silly. It’s not. I realize that this sort of vulnerability can sometimes feel uncomfortable. You feel awkward and so does your grieving friend. Just say you’re there to help – and then be there.
Oh, and if it makes you feel a little better, don’t worry about “doing it right” – to your friend, you’re perfect.