Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“How Can I Better Show Up For My Grieving Friends?”

I’d love some of your wisdom and that of your generous and intelligent readers. I am remembering your post about how your 40s are a time when life gets real — friends get divorced, children or spouses die, parents die or get old, etc., and I am learning that is true. I’m also thinking about your post from a few years ago about showing up, which really impacted me and I’ve done a much better job about showing up for my friends since reading that, but I want to be even better. Specifically, I’d like advice on how to support friends who are dealing with difficult challenges that often come with this transition into middle age that many of us in our 40s are experiencing.

In the last month, two of my friends have finalized their divorces and one of my dear friends lost her husband suddenly after a brief illness. They all have little ones at home. They are all incredibly brave and they have all been there for me when things were rough for me. When I was going through hard times, I wasn’t a mom (but I am now). These women are going through real heartaches while also showing up as a source of strength for their children. Do you have any ideas for showing up for our friends who are struggling with grief and loss in their 40s as they are also raising kids and doing their best to keep this grief and loss from having a long-term negative effect on their children?

Meals and thoughts and prayers just don’t quite fill the void… — A Forty-Something Friend

A couple days ago I read a HuffPost interview with Ada Calhoun who has just published a book — Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis — about this very idea — or at least, your question is super relative to her thesis that today’s 40-something women are under a unique kind of pressure different from that of previous generations of women. I have not read the book yet (though I plan to!) but I understand that the argument for Calhoun’s thesis is twofold: First, we are a generation of women who was/is expected to “have it all” (because of so many opportunities afforded to us through our parents’ success as well as through feminism’s influence on our culture); and, second, we are shouldering many of the same kinds of challenges previous generations of middle-age women dealt with – aging parents, sick spouses, marriages ending, our own aging bodies and peri-menopause, for example – but doing it while parenting young children because we’re having babies much later than previous generations, who, generally, were done raising young kids by the time they hit middle-age. As you allude to in your letter, this is incredibly challenging, AND we’re under so much pressure to gracefully balance being good mothers, good daughters, good spouses, and good employees because it’s the expectation, of course, that we’ll not only have it all, but we’ll be grateful to have it all and we won’t squander the opportunities we’re so lucky to get (that previous generations of women weren’t as lucky to have). It’s a lot. Even for women who don’t have kids!

If you notice, I say we’re under pressure to be good mothers, good daughters, good spouses, and good employees, but I didn’t mention the pressure to be good friends, and that was deliberate. I don’t think there IS cultural pressure to show up for our friends, and that’s one of the reasons I wrote about the importance of showing up for our people. It’s something I had come to notice as being UNexpected (but so appreciated!). That essay I wrote was picked up on Huffpost and “went viral” – probably more than anything I’ve ever written, save for maybe 30 Things That Will (Probably) Happen in Your 30s. To this day, I still get emails from people reading it for the first time or who read it years ago and, like you, still think about it and want to let me know how much it’s influenced them. It struck a chord with people – not just those of us entering middle-age, but in people from different generations, and I know it’s because it spoke a deep need we have — especially women who do so much caregiving — to be emotionally supported ourselves, to have our emotional reserves filled instead of just emptied, and how that kind of support is most seamlessly transferred between and among friends and peers.

I’m hesitant to add another pressure to our already too-full plates, but when we prioritize the needs of our friends, showing up is mutually beneficial because the expectation is that the favor will be reciprocated when the tables turn. This is a much different dynamic of reciprocity than exists between generations in families, where it’s somewhat expected that kids will grow up and help care for the parents who cared for them. The reciprocity between friends is much more immediate (and, not to mention, carries less baggage). It’s also different than showing up for work obligations where what you get in return isn’t generally emotional support, but an income and, if you’re lucky, personal fulfillment and career sustainability.

So, we know that showing up for friends is super important for our emotional well-being. But, with everything else, it also requires boundaries. We are still balancing all this other stuff, right? We can only do so much. The key, I think, is to make what we do have the biggest impact (and to stop doing so much if it feels our own emotional needs aren’t met by the same people we keep showing up for). And that brings us to your question (finally!), LW: you want to know how to make the biggest impact, with your limited time and energy (and I’m assuming your time and energy is limited because you’re a woman in your 40s and you’re a mom and that’s how it goes), for your friends who are suffering right now .

You’re not going to move in with these friends and help them raise their kids, but you can do other things to show your support. You mention meals as not filling a void and I disagree. People gotta eat! And when we’re struggling, getting food on the table is often the hardest thing. Bringing your friends home-cooked meals – or better yet, organizing a meal train in your community (here’s a site that will help you do just that) — is not only a very practical kind of help, but also it’s a wonderful expression of care and love. Any kind of childcare help you can offer that might give your friends some much-needed time to take care of themselves (and that might mean just having a good cry!) would be great and could include: school pick-ups and chauffeuring to activities; hosting playdates (and offering to pick up and bring home); babysitting for a few hours on a weekend. Checking in frequently — through phone calls and texts — is so important. Also good: carving space in your schedule for your friends when all of your kids are in the care of someone else (their other parent, a family member, a babysitter) and your friends can blow off steam or talk or just be — for a couple of hours, at least — with no expectation to meet someone else’s needs. If you can make this a regular thing — say, once a week — that’s even better.

There’s really no right way or wrong way of showing up for a friend (unless, of course, the showing up you’re doing is all about you). Making a heartfelt effort goes such a long way. Even when our efforts aren’t perfect, just the act of caring makes a difference, especially for those of us in a stage of our lives when we’re more frequently the care-givers and when receiving special effort and care from others is a treat. (As I’m writing this, I’m suddenly having a flashback of my mom making a birthday cake for herself every year when my sister and I were kids. Someone give a mother a birthday cake! Throw a mother a birthday party! Take a mother out for a birthday lunch. Give a woman friend some flowers!)

Anyway, LW, I suspect you are already showing up for your friends in far more meaningful ways than you’re giving yourself credit for. The simple fact that you’d ask how you can show up more and better indicates a thoughtfulness that is too rare in our culture. It’s my hope that by having these kinds of conversations, we make showing up for friends another expectation, not to add gratuitous pressure to our already-burdened lives, but to help give each other fuel before our tanks hit empty.

***************
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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy(AT)dearwendy.com.

23 comments… add one
  • avatar

    anonymousse January 9, 2020, 11:59 am

    Meals really do help. Taking the kids out for a couple hours helps. Offering to babysit and doing some chores while you’re there (if you can) and loading up the freezer with meals can help. It takes away some of the emotional labor and decisions she is now bombarded with.

    My SIL lost her husband tragically a little over two years ago. A friend of hers set up a meal train for one day a week that went on for a year for her. That was a huge relief for her. One less night of planning and cooking. We moved close to her and try to make dinner for her once a week or take her two young kids out. It’s not filling the void. Nothing you can do will fill the void left from this loss. But you can be there and help support her as much as you can. And yes, even checking in by text or phone and expecting nothing in return will help her know she has you if she needs you.

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    • avatar

      Fyodor January 9, 2020, 12:42 pm

      Yeah I think that simply freeing up some of the daily mental load that comes from having a family can make a big difference on giving them space to grieve and process.

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  • avatar

    Miss MJ January 9, 2020, 12:01 pm

    One thing my friends and I have pledged to do is plan monthly early happy hours, like from 4 to 6, or lunches. The idea being we get together while their childcare is already in place.

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  • Prognosti-gator

    Prognosti-gator January 9, 2020, 12:09 pm

    Wendy’s suggestion of pick-ups and chauffeuring is spot on.

    I recall in the kids younger days where we’d basically be split taking two kids to two activities in different directions. Trying to manage that if you find yourself suddenly alone, while trying not to further disappoint kids who are hurting already, without having to tell one of them “sorry, you’ll have to give up xxx” would be next to impossible.

    Someone who can help keep that load distributed would be a lifesaver, as you’re probably already trying to do everything to keep more heartache from reaching your kids.

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  • TaraMonster

    TaraMonster January 9, 2020, 12:53 pm

    My best friend from childhood just lost her father. They were estranged because he cheated on her mother while she was dying of cancer (with a girl we grew up with… she was in my kindergarten class). He had developed a drug problem, and went bankrupt in a failed restaurant venture, which caused their childhood home to be lost in foreclosure. It was a very messy situation. Her mother passed 7 years ago. She’s also been struggling with fertility issues for several years. And she lives 6 hours away from me.

    I have no idea how to support her right now. She’s stated she doesn’t want to talk about it. Aside from a card and checking in with her regularly, I’m at a loss. Any suggestions would be super welcome.

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    • Dear Wendy

      Dear Wendy January 9, 2020, 1:07 pm

      How about a little care package? You don’t need to spend a lot to express care: if you have an empty shoe box, fill it with stuff that might express comfort, like some hot chocolate mix and maybe special marshmallows, a book or a magazine she might like (or that you especially like), maybe some cozy socks or slippers, some nice hand cream. And you could include a note that says something like, “Just thinking about you and hope you’re taking care.” You could also send flowers or maybe even plan a visit if that’s at all feasible (or invite her to visit you?).

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    • Pheebers

      Phoebe January 9, 2020, 1:13 pm

      I think if she doesn’t want to talk about it, believe her. Checking in regularly so she knows she can change her mind is wonderful, and she may be just looking to take her mind off of everything right now.

      Just don’t mistake her not wanting to talk about the stress for her not wanting to be friends. She may just have extremely complicated emotions and doesn’t want to discuss them.

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    • avatar

      ktfran January 9, 2020, 1:17 pm

      I was going to say something similar to Phoebe. Checking in to say hello, how are you goes a long way, I think. Distractions help too. “I saw this movie and thought of you, have you seen it? Or something.

      This is what I try to do with my more private friends who live far away and who I know are having a hard time. Regularly check in so they know I’m thinking about them and offer a distraction, even if it’s for a few minutes.

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    • avatar

      ktfran January 9, 2020, 1:21 pm

      Oh, and occasionally I’ll send a well written, well thought out article that I’ve read if I think it will help. For instance, my niece was being bullied at school and the school (ironically catholic school) was blaming the niece because she’s quirky. My sister was really struggling with pulling her out / how to handle. There was a really well written response to a similar situation on Slate’s Care and Feeding. My sis really appreciate it. It made her feel less alone.

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    • avatar

      LisforLeslie January 9, 2020, 1:30 pm

      If you’re near one another – take her out to dinner. Make a plan, talk about anything else. Distraction is a good thing.

      If you’re not near – just call. Make a “date” to watch a show together like Queer Eye or a baking show. Make it a standing date. Comment on how much Bobby does and how he is the best QE.

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    • TaraMonster

      TaraMonster January 9, 2020, 2:08 pm

      Thank you so much, everyone! These are such great tips. I’ll definitely send her a little care package. And I absolutely can make a plan to visit her in the near future. I’m having brunch with our other friend this weekend (we’ve been a trio since we were little girls) and we’ll make a plan to see her together.

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  • thatswhat-she

    Anon January 9, 2020, 1:09 pm

    I think the best support is tailored to the specific needs of the person in question. “Love languages” don’t apply only to romantic relationships- we all have things that make us feel supported and other things that might be wasted effort.

    My best friend has gone through a rough few years, including a struggle with addiction (which had lots of ups and downs) and an event that left him diagnosed with PTSD. I’m in a slightly different situation since I’m single and he doesn’t have kids- but the ways I found to support him best came from listening to him. When he couldn’t stomach solid foods, I stocked his fridge with healthy smoothies and greek yogurt popsicles. I listened and learned what situations were most likely to trigger a panic attack- and then I made a special effort to show up then, not necessarily to “do” anything, but to be a reassuring presence. I learned that being pushed to talk was counter-productive, but that having the space to talk on his own terms was super helpful… so I got comfortable with silence so he could fill it when he was ready. I reminded him- over and over- how proud I was of him for doing things that were hard. And probably most importantly, I made sure to take care of myself and encouraged him to get professional help.

    In my case, I learned that listening and consistency were more important than any particular action. I think things feel most overwhelming when we feel like we’re in it on our own, so continually showing up- whether that means cooking meals, hosting playdates, offering rides to kids’ activities, or having a standing coffee date- is most important. I have to imagine that holds true in your friends’ cases too.

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  • avatar

    golfer.gal January 9, 2020, 1:26 pm

    Gifts or cards on holidays- valentine’s day, birthday, mother’s day. Not that it is exactly the same but I had a friend go through a gut wrenching called off engagement, and I made sure to send her flowers for valentine’s day and a box of local chocolate on her birthday for the next few years. People who have lost or divorced their spouse also lose the person who would acknowledge them on those special days. It can be a small or moderate gift, even just a card.

    Also, chipping in with others for a housekeeping service, whether once or once a month for a while. Having someone else to take care of that can be a huge relief for someone who is struggling.

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  • avatar

    ktfran January 9, 2020, 1:58 pm

    One thing I recently found out that my coworker does and I find amazing is she and a few friends get together once a week, during the weeknight, watch a movie or show or something, drink, and hang out. They all have kids!!! Sometimes it’s just a few who can, others it’s everyone.

    I’m in awe of this and I think it’s amazing that they carve out time for themselves/friends. And I know my coworker, who is beating breast cancer, looks forward to this every week. I mean, ONCE A WEEK!

    I mention it here because to Wendy’s point, I think this kind of closeness and familiarity breeds the ability to step in, step up and help when needed.

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  • avatar

    Hazel January 9, 2020, 5:05 pm

    one thing I have found out from someone dear to me who is recently bereaved is that the evenings are really really long and empty. She has lots of people visiting through the day which is wonderful (and deserved, she’s a great friend herself to many) but it is the late void which is hard to face night after night. I and a neighbour make a point of frequent late visits, and some relations and friends make a point of evening calls to break up the loneliness when otherwise she’d have been sitting on the sofa with her loved lost one. If late visits aren’t possible the odd later evening phone call seems to be just as good, and also gives her news to tell me every morning, before we get on with railing about the state of the world and why if America has so many damn guns Trump is still standing etc etc.

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    • Guy Friday

      Guy Friday January 11, 2020, 12:58 pm

      I think that’s a tremendous point that a lot of people don’t realize. When I’ve struggled, it definitely hasn’t been during the day when it’s hit me like a Mack truck, because I can distract myself with work or errands or something else. It’s at night, when I have nowhere else to go and I’m left with my thoughts, when it hits, and to have someone just to be THERE is incredible.

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  • MaterialsGirl

    MaterialsGirl January 9, 2020, 6:22 pm

    Wendy, because of the essay you had written, I stocked up on cards at Trader’s Joes for “anytime” as well as condolence cards. Just so that when I hear about a death that affects a friend or coworker, I can get something in the mail. Like you said, doesn’t have to be long winded, just an “I’m thinking of you” goes a long way. It applies to other situations too. I’m several friends’ “divorce” friend. So when they go through it, they often want to meet up to talk about the experience or things to keep their minds from going crazy. I’m starting to just send cards off at intermittent times to them to know that, again, I love them and I’m thinking of them.

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  • avatar

    Kimmcd January 9, 2020, 9:36 pm

    Being there by helping your friend get out, laugh and feel like herself. Or, if she can’t get out, going to her and getting kids to bed and having a really good hang on the sofa with her. Basically showing up when she needs not when you feel like it.

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  • avatar

    Jolie January 10, 2020, 9:10 am

    I’m the friend going through the divorce. And raising a kid. And going through the ups and downs of dating. I’m so grateful for my friends who have showed up in ways that I never anticipated.

    My advice is to check in and listen. I have one or two lunch dates with these women and it helps tremendously. I will also echo that nights are hard and if you can be there when the world slows down it can be a balm.

    Stress steals my appetite so I don’t want food. Please ask because the guilt of wasting food was hard until I put a stop to that part.

    Be there for us. We thank you.

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  • avatar

    csp January 10, 2020, 1:51 pm

    For Deaths – I go to plantatree.com. It is $14 and they send a nice card. I do it for parent deaths and miscarriages. I also like Emily McDowell Studios Empathy Cards. When it comes to parent deaths, I normally put it on my calendar as a reminder a year later. I then send an email or make a note on the first major holiday. All the email says is I know this is the first holiday without your dad and I am thinking of you. These little things really have big impacts.

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    • avatar

      csp January 10, 2020, 2:20 pm

      Wendy – I also talk and link the showing up article the most of anything you have written. Also the list of before you get married. Just thought you should know.

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      • Dear Wendy

        Dear Wendy January 11, 2020, 2:31 pm

        That’s so nice to hear – thank you.

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  • Guy Friday

    Guy Friday January 11, 2020, 1:07 pm

    So, there’s a quote that I carry with me that this column made me think of, and I hope you don’t mind me sharing it, LW. There was a Jesuit monk named Thomas Merton who wrote a book called “Thoughts in Solitude”, and one of the more famous passages in it has become colloquially known as “The Merton Prayer.” It’s been paraphrased in a number of movies and TV shows, and I happen to like the phrasing from an episode of The West Wing, which goes:

    “I don’t always know the right thing to do, Lord, but I think the fact that I want to please you pleases you.”

    I think, at the end of the day, the love you feel for your friends and your genuine desire to help them and bring them happiness is going to be more important than the actual actions taken, so even if you misstep they’re going to know that it came from a true and genuine desire to be a positive presence in their life. To know that you matter enough to someone to be loved by them? THAT is one of the greatest rewards of friendship.

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