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A friend just told me that her mother isn’t expected to live for more than a few weeks. My friend is so close to her mother, I know she will be devastated by her death. After she shared her news, I fumbled for something to say to comfort her, but don’t think I did a good job. I’m dreading when her mother dies, and I have to attend the funeral. What will I say then?
A caring friend
Dear Caring Friend,
Talking to a friend about the dying and death of a loved one is an awkward situation. You want so much to offer comfort, but you are helpless to actually change anything. You can’t bring her loved one back to life. Plus, dying and death is an uncomfortable subject. We don’t like to think about our own mortality or the mortality of loved ones, and this type of situation makes you confront these issues. However, you can’t let your own discomfort stop you from reaching out.
I know from my own experience of my father’s death, and from what I’ve heard others tell me, that the support of friends during the period of mourning is comforting and very much appreciated.
So what do you say at such a time? Start with, “I’m so sorry.” Then go on to state what you think was special about the person who died. “I always admired how your mother was so warm and friendly. She was such a special person.”
It doesn’t matter if you didn’t personally know the deceased; you can still make a more general comment. “I know what a good mother she was to you, and I know how much you will miss her.”
Don’t say, “I know how you feel.” This comment can be considered disrespectful because you don’t know how she feels. You only know how you think she feels. This phrase is especially disrespectful if you haven’t lost a parent yourself. Until you have a parent pass away, you don’t know what it’s like. You can only imagine what it’s like. Also everyone’s relationship with her mother is different, and so is the reaction to her death. It’s better to say, “I can only imagine how painful this must be for you.”
Encourage your friend to share the details of her mother’s death and what she is feeling. It’s important you don’t interrupt her. The day of my father’s death, when I started to tell others of his passing, I noticed a tendency for my friends to cut me off and jump into sharing their own death experience. Their motivations were intended to convey empathy, but I wanted to talk about MY story. I didn’t want to hear theirs, at least not right away. Although I wouldn’t have minded if, after I’d finished, they told me their own death story. I first needed to talk myself out.
Unless the person is religious, don’t say, “She’s in a better place.” While you believe this is true, your friend might not. Or she might agree with you, but still want her mother to be here with her in this place. Try saying, “I know your mother is in a better place (or Heaven), but that doesn’t mean you were ready to let her go.”
If your friend’s mother experienced several weeks or months of suffering before she died, your friend will probably have mixed feelings. One is the relief that her mother is no longer suffering, and two is she misses her. The combination of relief and grief is often disconcerting, and it helps to have someone else verbalize these two conflicting feelings.
Another common thing people say at funerals is, “If there is anything I can do to help…?” While this is a thoughtful gesture, it’s usually unrealistic. Most people aren’t going to reach out for help to non-family members, even if they need it. Instead, offer something specific such as emotional support. “I know what it’s like to lose a mother. Call me if you need to talk.” Or you can offer physical support such as cooking some meals or helping around the house. Even better, drop off a meal at her home. If there are children, you can babysit so your friend can have some time to herself, to do errands, or see to her mother’s affairs.
Often the best time to offer this kind of support is a few weeks to a few months after the funeral. For the first several weeks, there is an overwhelming outpouring of support that decreases as people go about their daily lives. Reach out periodically to see how she is doing. Ask questions and let her talk about her mother. She might think she shouldn’t keep burdening you with her sadness--as if there “should” be a limit to her grief. Or she might be concerned she’ll wear out your patience with hearing about her sadness. If this happens, remind her that grief can last a long time.
Losing a beloved parent isn’t something your friend will “get over.” There will always be occasions when she’ll miss her mother. Hopefully with time, she will come to a place of peace with her mother’s passing and understand that the best of her mother lives on inside her.


Take care,


Dr. Debra

Feel free to write me with your questions

Debra Holland, Ph.D., is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in relationships and communication techniques.

To read previous 'Ask Dr. Debra' articles, please visit www.wetnoodleposse.com, where Dr. Debra is a regular contributor, or click here to view the archives.





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