Dear Fiona: How can I support my grieving friend?

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Columnist and counsellor Fiona Caine encourages a concerned friend not to give up – grief is a big and ongoing process.

The problem
“My friend of 40 years recently lost her husband who was diagnosed with terminal cancer during the pandemic. She coped incredibly well looking after him, making sure he was comfortable and got the help he needed. She had the option of him being cared for in a local hospice, but she knew he wanted to spend his final days at home with her.

“She made sure that he was as comfortable as possible in his final days – a responsibly she took on by herself. She remained so resilient and strong throughout, but now with her husband gone, she seems lost. She has become increasingly introverted, which is not like her at all. She often cancels our plans and ignores my calls and messages.

Read: How to cope with landmark days while you’re grieving

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“I desperately want to help, but don’t want to overwhelm her either if she needs space. She always said she was going to be fine, she talked about how her memories of their life together fill her with happiness, and that she had come to terms with him dying. She seems to have lost her spark and I’m worried she will never get over the grief she is experiencing.

“She was very involved in the local community, and in her spare time was always out gardening and keeping active, but she doesn’t do any of that anymore. Sadly, I couldn’t attend the funeral as numbers were limited due to COVID restrictions, so I don’t feel I’ve been able to say goodbye to him either. I’d love to find a way to support my friend with her grief and do something together to remember her dear husband.”

Fiona says
“However prepared people may think they are for the death of someone close to them, when the reality happens, it can still be an enormous shock to the system. Whilst he was alive, even knowing what was to come, your friend was able to keep busy and active looking after him and making sure his end was as good as it could possibly be. Once he was gone, her life would, inevitably, feel very empty and, more particularly, purposeless.

Read: What stage of grief are you in?

“His illness meant she had something to drive her through every day, but now she probably feels empty and adrift and doesn’t know what to do with herself. Whatever you do, don’t stop calling and messaging her – she needs to know you’re there when she’s ready to respond to you. Most importantly, don’t stop talking about her husband – she hasn’t forgotten him, and it will hurt her to feel others have.

“Your friend may be keeping to herself because she isn’t sure how you will react to her feelings – remember, people who are grieving go through a huge range of emotions. Aside from the shock, sadness and pain over losing her husband, it wouldn’t be at all strange if she’s also feeling things such as guilt and even anger. She may be worried about telling you these feelings, as she may be shocked by the emotions herself and doesn’t know how you – or others – will react. Alternatively, she may simply feel numb and unable to move backwards or forwards right now.

Read: An open letter to anyone who is grieving

“Offer her help in practical ways. For example, cook a meal for her and take it to her house; tidy her garden for her, as you say this is something she’s neglecting.”

If you have a problem you need help with, email Fiona by writing to [email protected] for advice. All letters are treated in complete confidence and, to protect this privacy, Fiona is unable to pass on your messages to other readers. Fiona regrets that she cannot enter into personal correspondence.

– With PA

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