Question: My best friend has just lost his wife to a painful disease. How can I help him?
It isn't easy being supportive when a friend's spouse has died. Here are some ways you can be helpful.
Listen to him. Let him talk about his loss and encourage him to share his feelings. He may have feelings of guilt because he feels some relief to the end of her suffering. Let him know that both he and his feelings are okay.
You don't have to say much. Statements like 'She's in a better place', or 'You must be strong', or 'I know how you feel' will fall on defensive and deaf ears. Being there for him is what is important and a simple 'I'm so sorry' will mean a lot. Don't be afraid to talk about his wife. Hearing her name and wonderful memories of her can be very healing to your friend.
Don't be afraid to show your own grief by your tears. Crying helps to release bottled up emotions. Seeing your tears could help your friend accept his own tears.
Think in terms of practicalities - not just immediately after his wife's death, but in the months to come. Does your friend need to have some shopping done for groceries, laundry washed, some meals prepared and frozen for future consumption, or other chores or errands?
If your friend has young children, and they come to you with questions, be honest and clear in your answers. Comments like 'Your momma was lost last night' or other vague remarks about her death can be very unsettling to a child. His children need to understand that their mother will never return. Teenagers may try to handle their grief in isolation. Be sensitive to the possibility that his children could be frightened and confused about the changes in their lives. They may become disruptive both at home and at school. Suggest counseling for the children if you are aware of negative changes in their behavior, inability to sleep, or they show a lack of interest in life.
Throughout the first year after the death of your friend's wife, make regular calls or send cards or emails. Realize that special times like birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays will be particularly difficult. Knowing he was thought of on these days will be especially appreciated.
Luisa Dillner: "Talk less and listen more."
Source: Luisa Dillner. "How to talk to someone who is dying." Guardian.co.uk. 10/6/2009.