What To Say When a Friend Loses a Parent

What To Say When a Friend Loses a Parent - The Calm Collective

These posts revolving around my process with grief are never easy to write. Even though it feels like I just shed a thousand pounds each time I hit publish, they’re still heavy and daunting and difficult. You have to dig into the pit of your emotions in order to evoke what’s real, to get to the center of your truth. That, my friends, can be hard.

And while normally this post would have been drafted ahead of time and would have slipped into your inbox at the ripe time of 5am – this morning, I woke up and decided that it was something that I wanted to write in real time.  My warm tea in hand, under the covers, no real time crunch. Just me, you, and my keyboard.

If you’ve been following along for a while, then you most likely know the gist of my story. It isn’t something that I hide from – I speak about it often because it’s both healing to me, and I hope, healing to others who are going through much of the same.  It’s a bit of a taboo subject – losing people we love and the daunting process of it all. It’s something that isn’t talked about in raw form all that much, and that’s something that I’m always hoping to change. I wish this could be more of an open conversation – a way to ensure that we’re honoring the process rather than running away from it.  Supporting each other rather than silencing each other.

So a brief recap on my story, in case you’re new to this blog: 

In March of 2010, my dad was diagnosed with a tumor in his head – just a mere 3 months after he had celebrated his 60th birthday and his retirement. The tumor was cancerous, a rare type called Nasopharynx Carcinoma. A cancer that lives in the sinus cavity and nervous system at the base of the skull. Anything within the head is immediately Stage 4, so he was admitted to Northwestern Hospital and started chemotherapy the same day with all of us by his side.

What felt like a month was actually around two weeks of us living at that hospital. I could draw you a map from memory of that place, as much as I wished I couldn’t. I can still hear the elevator music and I can still smell the pastries from Au Bon Pain – the coffee shop we’d frequent every morning. I remember going in rotation with my mom between the hospital room cot and a large blue recliner chair. I remember my job at the time sending flowers and allowing me to take a month off from work. I remember the personalized  t-shirts we wore to make him laugh. I remember reading Ellen’s Joke of The Day each day to try and keep things light.  I remember one of our nurses who happened to be my sister’s childhood best friends.

I remember it all. 

For the next two years, together as a family we would rally as he would go in for routine check ups, and then brain surgery where they would remove 80% of the tumor.  We’d support him through radiation in the head, which takes away your saliva, burns your face, and strips away your tastebuds. We would watch him go through major highs and major lows, try on different strains of chemo – some forcing him to lose his hair while others blistered his skin.  We would watch him go into a brief stint of remission, thinking that maybe this would all just go away.

And then we’d watch him grow weaker in the fall of 2013.

My mom called us to see if we could all come down to Florida where they lived in the winter, just to help her out; to lift up his spirits since he wasn’t doing too well. Without hesitation, we were all on a plane. I arrived first, and remember not even taking a beat before laying next to him on the couch. He just seemed really tired.  The only thing that felt a bit strange was that he felt really strongly about talking about my childhood – me as a baby.  I remember him playing with my hair a lot – and more than anything, I remember the eye contact. It was strong – stronger than usual. A silent unconditional love exchange happening between the two of us, but only one of us knowing the outcome of the next several days.

That person wasn’t me.

Within 4 days, he stopped talking and eating. We had come to find that the cancer had spread to his spinal fluid, which we learned from his oncologist at Northwestern was untreatable and the outcome would be quick – a month or so. We arranged for hospice to come to our home in Florida since he was feeling so weak, and within hours he was on pain medication and being taken care of by us and a rotating nurse.  I swear to you, throughout this entire thing I kept thinking that I would just open my eyes and everything would go back to normal. I’d be 25 and my dad wouldn’t have cancer. Not 28 and about to lose him. It never felt real. Often times, it still doesn’t.

While we were told we had around a month, a mere two days later my sister and I were sitting by his side, holding on to his hands. Without realizing it, we watched him take his last breath. It’s something I’ve had to cope with in my grief therapy – witnessing something of that magnitude. But four years later, I’ve gotten to the point where I consider it an honor. I’m grateful to have been sitting next to him. I hope he found comfort in that.

So that’s my story. Half of my make-up  left the Earth on December 17th of 2013.  Since then, my life has never been the same.  It’s been richer in a lot of ways, dare I say it. I’ve found peace in talking outlaid about the process and I’ve gained a new sense of intense perspective that has allowed me to value life in such a different light.  I’ve also made friends that I might not have otherwise made due to the bond of losing a parent – which has been invaluable and something I’m so grateful for.

It’s one of the trickiest things in life – knowing how to be there for those we love in this specific category. What do you say to someone who’s grieving? What do you say to someone who just lost their parent?  IS there anything to say?

I want to help, because there are so many ways you can lessen the pain even just a little. Here’s how:

Empathy and Losing a Parent 

Practicing empathy can be a hard thing to tackle, especially when it comes to grief and loss. I’ll make it easy by saying the worst thing you can do is nothing. Simply showing up without being asked (to the memorial, the funeral, their home with dinners) and avoiding any of your own personal stories is a really good place to start.  Childhood friends that I hadn’t spoken to in years came to my dad’s memorial and it rocked me to my core. I had never felt so loved.  We also had people stopping by on a regular basis with dinners for us to freeze, since cooking was the last thing we felt like doing.  The moral of the story is: just show up. 

What To Say When a Friend Loses a Parent - The Calm Collective

What to say when someone loses a parent

Sometimes, nothing is best. 

Don’t feel like you need to fill in the silence or speak just to speak. If you have no words, either relish in the silence and use action instead, or simply say “I have no words. I just have love.” 

Share your memories.

One of the best things was hearing people speak on my dad’s behalf – their favorite memory of him, what they loved most, his accomplishments and his values, etc. Honoring your friend’s parent by sharing what you remember makes it feel far less scary than the reality.  Continue to do this for as long as you possibly can.

Send the right card. 

You may not know the person well enough to call them up, or perhaps you’re separated by distance or still trying to find your words. Sending the right card can make all of the difference and do the talking for you.  Here are a few great options:  

There’s no good card for this.

This just sucks.

Ask questions.

Asking about the person shows a great deal of interest.  I have people in my life now who didn’t get to meet my dad unfortunately, so I love when they ask me questions about him. It allows me to bring him back to life in some way, and to let others know how valued he was.

Speak on similarities.

Whether it’s appearance or personality, recognizing similarities between your friend and their parent is likely one of the best compliments and kindest things you can say.

Don’t speak on your own experiences just yet.

Even those friends who reached out to me who had also lost a parent, the magical thing about them was they didn’t bring up their own experience when offering their comfort. They said things like “it absolutely sucks” and “I’ve got you” or “I’m with you”.  Down the road it’s okay to share your own personal experience with your friend, but just give it time. They’re still focused solely on their own world being turned upside down.

Don’t compare apples to oranges. 

Trying to relate is one of the main things that people try to do when someone has lost a parent/loved one and is going through grief. Whatever you do, don’t compare the loss of a parent with the loss of an elderly grandparent. The same is to be said about comparing the loss of a friend with the loss of a sibling.  While the intentions are pure, they are not the same thing.

Humorous cards relating to this subject:

I wish I could take away your pain.

Died of lemons. 

Don’t say everything happens for a reason.

While your intentions are meant to be good with this statement, this is a sure-fire way to lose the respect of your friend.  Want to know what the word-equivalent is to losing someone you love? Yep, thats it.

The best card relating to this subject.

Don’t pretend like it didn’t happen. 

Unless your friend has made it abundantly clear that they don’t want to talk about it, talk about it. One of the biggest fears of those going through grief and suffering through a loss is that people will forget, and that people will expect their friend is to resume life as usual.  Honoring what happened, whether it’s on the yearly anniversary or occasionally bringing up memories and asking questions (as mentioned above).

A great card to send on the anniversary of a friend’s loss.

What To Say When a Friend Loses a Parent - The Calm Collective

Stages of grief after losing a parent 

As much as the internet and certain therapists will lead you to believe there are 7 stages to grief, I disagree.  Sure, I reflected some of them – but I don’t like the expectation that’s set.  People assume, “oh – well they haven’t gotten to anger yet, so I guess they’re not done.” or “Oh, they hit all stages – they must be on their way to feeling whole again.”  Life is just not that simple when it comes to human emotion, my friends.

For me, the grief cycle looked a lot like this: shock and denial, physical pain, anger, denial, depression, shock and denial, physical pain, denial, anger, depression, upward turn, depression, physical pain, acceptance, depression, acceptance, hope.

See what I’m getting at here?  Sure, the stages of grief are mixed in there, but they are in no way cohesive.  Just the other day I was slammed with physical pain and depression simply because we’re approaching the anniversary and the holidays are among us.  Keep this in mind when honoring your friend’s loss, as it will allow them to heal themselves without expectations.

I hope this helps – both you and your friend. I hope it brings peace to your lives and I hope that it’s something we can continue to talk about. After all, healing one another from the inside out is one of the greatest powers we’re given as human beings. xx