Life

Ask Fiona: I don't know what to say to my grieving friend

Columnist and trained counsellor Fiona Caine advises on what to say to a grieving friend, and a parent who's worried about their protesting son

It's a difficult time for your friend and all you can do is be there for support

MY friend has been through the most terrible time lately and I just don't know what to say to her. Her dad died last August and then, three weeks later, her mum died too. Both of her two sons have emigrated to Australia – one some time ago but the other, just before her dad died, so neither were there for their grandparent's funeral.

As if that weren't enough, her husband – who was several years older than her – has just died of the coronavirus, and she couldn't even be with him at the end.

She has one sister that she gets on well with, but who has serious health problems, so cannot do very much. Other than that, she has no family to help her. I can't believe one person can go through so much.

I can't even hug her – although I'm tempted – because she's still in quarantine. I just don't know what to say that will be enough, and I don't know what to do to help her. She has strong religious beliefs – which I don't share – but she was saying she's losing faith at the moment.

GG

FIONA SAYS: Your friend certainly is going through it, and it's not really surprising her faith is being tested.

Don't succumb to the temptation of trying to do something that's not you, though. People often say their "thoughts and prayers" are with the bereaved person but, if your friend will know praying isn't your thing, it will sound hollow.

While you want to hug her, please do keep your distance – if, for no other reason, just imagine how awful she'd feel if she gave you the virus, She needs you to be well and healthy now, so you can support her as best you can whilst she is living through this.

Do talk about the pain she's experiencing – so many people say things like "I'm sorry for your loss" or "I'm thinking of you" without acknowledging how painful it is. Sometimes we need to have validation that the pain we feel isn't abnormal, and that we're not weird or peculiar for feeling so terrible.

Tell her it's awful; tell her you can't imagine how hard it must be for her. Don't tell her she's "brave" or that she's doing so well, because she may be putting on a front when what she really needs to do is talk. Encourage her to do so by sharing stories and anecdotes, particularly about her husband, but perhaps about her parents, too – if you knew them.

A lot of people will say, "If there's anything I can do to help, just ask" - but a bereaved person often won't know what to ask for. Offer something positive, instead, like some home-made soup or a cake.

The other important thing is to keep in touch – don't say, "Ring me if you need me" – ring her.

Quite often, people who are bereaved think they're becoming a burden to their friends and don't like to make a call for help when they need it - so call her.

If she doesn't want to talk, she'll almost certainly say so. There are points when it's all too much and you don't want to see, hear or talk to anyone. But if you're thinking about her, call her and encourage her to share stories and positive anecdotes about her husband.

As we're coming out of lockdown and beginning to be able to see one another again, it may become easier to be closer to her. If you're in a position to, perhaps you could invite her to come and stay for a while – if the rules in your area and family state this is safe, although you still have to keep distant.

If you're not, then at least you can meet up – as soon as she is out of strict quarantine, make a point of going to see her. While you may not share her religious beliefs, this doesn't matter; the most important thing is that she knows you care and are there for her if she needs you.

MY SON WON'T STOP PROTESTING

EVER since my son went off to university last year, he's become a protester about everything. He's forever going on about what a disaster Brexit is, the environment, genetically modified food, veganism, you name it – he's got an opinion he needs to share.

If there's a demonstration, he wants to take part and, despite my warning him about social distancing, he took part in the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations. I made him isolate himself for a week after that.

He's a clever young man who could be achieving so much more if he wasn't wasting his time with these groups. I have tried to get him to see this, but he refuses to listen to me.

I'm really worried that, with his university course being run remotely for what looks like most of next year, he's going to be impossible to live with. What can I do to make him see he needs to get on with his studies and stop worrying about the rest of the world?

OS

FIONA SAYS: I, for one, am delighted to hear that a bright young man is prepared to campaign for, what I think, are important issues. It's a refreshing change to the letters I normally get from parents – whose children are more typically unfocused, drifting or bored.

Your son's ideals may not be yours, but the fact that he is prepared to do something about them means – I think - that there is a lot to be proud of here. There are some awful things happening in the world right now, people are suffering poverty, neglect and isolation for all manner of reasons. The colour of their skin, their sexual orientation, religion, gender and more besides are, in some quarters, reason to exploit, denigrate and humiliate.

Sometimes I despair for the country and the world in general, but then people like your son give me hope. I might not agree with all he campaigns for, but I'm profoundly grateful that he's prepared to do so. He is facing a very challenging future, as are many of his generation, and certainly his education isn't what he expected it to be when he signed up to go to university.

Leaving home and becoming a student is a rite of passage – an opportunity to find yourself by exploring new ideas and challenging the views you've been brought up with. Doing that, together with like-minded people, is part of what university life is about – and it's something he will be missing out on.

I'm sure he recognises the importance of his studies too, and realises that if he wants to get on in the world and make changes to it, they're going to be important.

Rather than try and block his ideas, encourage him to express them – even to argue (or debate) with you, because that will be something he's missing out on. I can understand your anxiety about him going on demonstrations whilst we're in the midst of this pandemic, but I don't think you'll be able to stop him. So, encourage him to wear a mask; to take hand-sanitiser with him and to try, at least, to follow social-distancing guidelines.

I am sure that is not the reply you wanted, but I think you have a son to be proud of. Give him an opportunity to discuss his ideas with you, and you may even find you agree with him – you might even feel like joining him on those demonstrations sometimes!

HOW CAN I FIND OUT HOW HE FEELS?

FOR the past year I've been seeing a wonderful man.

Like me, he has been married before, but we have grown very fond of each other very quickly. We've spent lockdown together and I'm sure I love him, but I am not sure how he feels about me. What if I tell him how I feel, and he doesn't feel the same way? That would be so embarrassing.

How can I find out what he really feels about me without it sounding as though I am totally insecure?

JE

FIONA SAYS: Asking for some sign of how a partner feels about it you isn't insecurity, it's perfectly normal to need re-assurance.

If, after all these weeks of being together, this man hasn't given you any indication how he feels, then I'm not surprised that you are anxious. Perhaps he's one of those people who struggle to express themselves and who avoid saying anything in case it comes out wrong. In which case, maybe you need to make the first move.

Falling in love always involves the risk of getting hurt, but it's one you have to be prepared to take or you'll never get past this dreadful uncertainty.

If you genuinely love this man, then tell him – otherwise it could be a terrible waste if he felt the same way but you drifted apart because neither of you said anything.

I JUST WANT TO SAY...

For the past six years I have suffered badly with my nerves and low self-esteem. So much so, there were days when I was unable to leave the house.

At the start of this lockdown, I almost went to pieces completely as I was so terrified, but my doctor persuaded me to go on anti-depressants. I'd never wanted to, as I was afraid I'd become addicted. However, I am delighted to say they have worked a miracle, I've been able to go out and do my shopping and meet people (socially distanced, of course). I even managed an online interview for a part-time job which I'm due to start in September.

There's no problem here at all – I just felt I needed to tell someone.

CC

FIONA SAYS: Thank you for passing on such a positive message. While some people see anti-depressants as a negative treatment, you are living proof that they really can help.

If, after a discussion with your GP, it is advised as a form of treatment, then giving them a try does not mean becoming an addict.

Gradually, as you regain your confidence, your GP will probably want to encourage you to reduce your dosage. Maintaining the new you without them may seem daunting, but just getting out of the house and starting a job will have given you such a boost, I am sure you will make it.

I hope others reading this are encouraged by your experience. Good luck – I am delighted for you.

If you have a problem you need help with, email Fiona by writing to help@askfiona.net 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.

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