10 ways to support a friend who has lost a parent

Updated: May 26

Grief is a universal experience. No one is getting out of here alive and every single one of us will go through grief at some point in our lives. There can be such awkwardness around it, even though it's an inevitable and natural part of the human condition. So much of it is handled behind closed doors and taboo still surrounds death. In my experience, being by Dad’s side, holding his hand and witnessing his passing on 18th April 2022, death itself is nothing to fear. It's actually quite beautiful in its own way. Adjusting to life afterwards is where this gets difficult.

So, if it's at all helpful, here are some of the things that have come up for me so far, and have been mirrored by friends with similar experiences. I hope it brings some insight into how you can support someone who has lost a parent, or what might help you if you’re experiencing this loss yourself.

It seems to me, that if we love, we grieve. That's the deal. That's the pact. Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-negotiable. - Nick Cave.

It's worth saying that everyone's grief is different, and grief feels different on different days but here are ten areas to think about.

1. Texting or messaging your love and support is always greatly appreciated. As well as commenting with your condolences on a social post. It all counts towards acknowledging the loss and empathising with this being an extremely difficult time.

2. "I'm thinking of you and sending love, I’m here whenever you want to chat" - As time continues to pass, I've so appreciated friends sending this at all hours of the day and night. It may be better to avoid messages asking how the grieving person is doing as this puts the onus on them to fill you in - there will be moments when this feels exhausting. "How are you finding today?” could be another gentler way of asking how a person is.

3. If you're a close enough friend; call. It's the first time I've ever welcomed calls out of the blue. It's been so touching to hear the voices of caring friends and sharing tears with them, and extended family members, over the phone or on Facetime. I've enjoyed receiving voice notes too, from two close friends in particular, one of whom has shown me such understanding and the other has been making me laugh so much with hers. There's just something about hearing a human voice.

4. You're not reminding the person of their grief by mentioning it. Believe me, it's not something you forget. It's so much better to acknowledge the loss than to avoid it which can feel like you're pretending it hasn't happened. Take your cues from the person grieving as to how much they want to share and what kind of support they might like.

5. Kind gestures go such a long way, rather than asking if the person needs anything. Flowers, cards, essential oils/bath oil, offering to do a school run, food parcels are all kind ways to show you care. I’ve even been sent this incredible painting from a dear artist friend, a beautiful gesture that will stay with me forever. It's thoughtfulness that counts. Dad died in hospital in Spain, I was fortunate to get there to be with him before he had the second stroke which rendered him unconscious. I stayed by his side for the next 4 days and 3 nights. When I came back to the UK 10 days later, I started suffering the physical effects of grief. It's very much like extreme jet lag - severe headaches, fatigue, thin patience. It makes thinking about basic things, like dinner, a challenge. I have very much appreciated friends dropping off easy-to-cook food. If you want to cook a meal or bake something for your bereaved friend, do it, it will be so appreciated. A friend who lost both her parents in recent years told me it was like her brain had left her in the months following each death. She warned me to be careful crossing roads. Your presence of mind disappears, and every day tasks can feel much more challenging than normal. If you can think of a small way to help your bereaved friend without being asked, do.

6. Don't assume anything about grief. There's no right or wrong here. Sometimes I cry, sometimes I talk, sometimes I reminisce and laugh, sometimes, a lot of the time, I want to be alone. Mainly I want to be with my husband, who lost his own father in March of last year, my children and my Mum. I'm not really ready to see people, only 5 weeks have passed and I'm still in the very early stages. Grief has to do its thing and there's no place for judgement of ourselves or anyone else going through it. If deep grief persists, or if you believe the person is using other harmful methods of coping, then grief counselling could be suggested, but go gently - it's a private journey, there's no quick fix, it's going to take as long as it takes. Whether it was a good relationship or not, grief will take its toll. Depression can be a very normal part of the process. As can anger. I thought that anger in grief meant the death and loss itself but for me it's been annoyance at situations and others. People can very easily come across as thoughtless and self-centred, which is probably another reason not to rush into seeing anyone too soon. I was particularly close to my Dad and I have added myself to a 4-month grief counselling waiting list, in case I need the extra support down the line. An excellent resource in the UK is - you can speak to someone for a one-off chat too, which I have done and it really does help. I've read a number of books on the subject of grief over the past few weeks, it's my way of facing and understanding this. I also meditate on grief daily. This might not be someone else's approach, and that is ok.

7. If you ever met the person who died - share what you remember of them! Even reminding your friend of the stories they’ve told you in the past is lovely. I can't express the joy I've felt hearing brilliant things about Dad from friends who met him over the years. My best friend from university remembers some of his funny stories over the past three decades better than I do, and we’ve been cracking up. It's so important to keep the lost loved one alive and this is by far and away the best thing you can do. I'll endlessly welcome hearing stories and memories about my dad. He retired from British Airways almost 20 years ago, and the other day I received an email from his old friend and ex-colleague, Flo, kindly telling me how proud Dad was of me and how she'll always remember him with kindness. She told me she always felt protected by Dad when they worked together, as he stood up to people who had an issue with the colour of her skin. It made me cry proud, happy tears.

8. Let the person suffering discuss whatever they need to. Whether it's the death, the person who died, how they’re trying to make sense of the world and its impermanence, anger at a person, place or thing, or the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard trial. It doesn't matter what they want to talk about, let them. It’s a release. If they've ever been there for you, it's time to totally be there for them and listen. I get it now and I look back over times other friends suffered the death of a parent and wish I'd listened more. But these are the very friends who are helping me the most right now because they know exactly where I am. I've found it so important to talk and repeat myself, and one friend, who lost her dad 5 years ago, confirmed I must keep doing this. It's my brain making sense of Dad’s unexpected death. I will never forget the friends who have held space for me and listened during this time.

9. Equally, don't be surprised if someone grieving doesn't want to talk. Grief is all-consuming and it isn't about anyone else. They may find talking to a complete stranger easier or they may not want to talk until they're ready. Commonly, I've been told by friends that it was at least a month before they wanted to see or speak to anyone. I don't think my grief began until I came back to the UK almost 4 weeks ago. I know part of me avoiding social situations is that I have no interest in casual chit-chat at the moment, I don't have the bandwidth for it. It's the one time you find you can't listen to other people's issues or problems. One very considerate friend was going through a her own worrying time, taking shifts to be with their young son in hospital, just as Dad died. She didn’t tell me until her son was home and thankfully on the mend. I was so upset for them but I couldn’t get over how thoughtful she had been towards me. It’s not that the grieving person doesn’t care, but everything else loses significance when a parent dies. As one grief counsellor I spoke to put it,

“Your brain and subconscious are working overtime to make sense of the loss. This can be draining. You'll find you're at full capacity and can't take anything else on board.”

10. Keep an eye on your grieving friend over the months and year following the loss. Condolences come thick and fast when a parent first dies, and that buoys you to a certain extent, then over the coming weeks and months life obviously moves on. But it may not have done for your bereaved friend. Acknowledge that losing a parent will change them. Now that Dad is no longer walking the earth, I'm not the same Sara anymore. I'm in a period of deep learning, assimilating what I've experienced and understanding this immense loss. Some very enlightened themes about life and death are coming up for me and I’m filled with love, pride and gratitude for my father. He lived his almost 80 years to the full; with a voracious appetite for literature, travel, music, and laughter, and he loved with an open heart. He left such a legacy.

According to The Grieving Brain, the "neural trace persists until we learn that our loved one is never going to be in our physical world again. We must update our virtual maps, creating a revised cartography of our new lives. Is it any wonder that it takes many weeks and months of grief and new experiences to learn our way round again?"

I don't know exactly what grief has in store for me, but I do know I will forever carry the love Dad had for me and I have for him in my heart, keep his hilarious sense of humour alive in my children, and continue to make him proud until the day I die and I see him again.

Phillip Terence Morgan, better known as Terry, Darling by Mum, Dad and Taid: 25th October 1942 - 18th April 2022.

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