How to help a grieving friend

Chica asks: I was really working on myself this past month. I made progress. I gave my final semester and was feeling really good about everything. I am also planning on changing my diet and I have been going to the gym regularly. But there is this one thing that bothers me a lot. One of my friend’s mom is suffering from cancer. It was detected 6 months ago, but she never told anything about it to anyone. A few days ago she texted my another friend and told her everything, as their families are kinda close. She also told her to inform me about her mom’s condition as she can’t go through that pain of informing people again and again. I was numb. I was so shocked and I am really worried about her. We were not exactly close and we weren’t talking much these past few months. I feel really guilty because I was unable to see her sadness under her happy facade. She always seemed calm and content in school. One could never imagine that such things have happened. Shirelle I finally gained courage and spoke to her today. The moment I heard her voice, I knew she was completely broken from inside. I didn’t know what to say except “I am here for you, always” and “You have to stay strong around your mother, you have to be her strength.” She cried for a few minutes. But somewhere I was out of words. I told her that I am here whenever you need me. I asked her if she wants to vent or cry some more, or wants to stay silent. She said she wants to hang up and stay alone for a while. I understood and told her again that I am one call away. Shirelle I don’t know how to face her. It’s a really really difficult phase for her. I can’t even imagine the amount of pain she feels. I really want to be there for her. But I don’t know how I should approach her. Whether I should check on her every few days, take her out so that she relaxes, and also I don’t know what is the right thing to say to her, or is it right to just listen and not to say anything. I am really really worried about her and her mother. Please tell me how I should talk to her because I am afraid of saying anything that would add up to her pain or make her feel worse.

Hi Chica –

Oh I love your heart!  And I imagine your friend and her mother both do too.

I find that there are three, or I guess four, ways humans show emotion.  The one I wasn’t thinking of was to just show nothing at all, to be “too cool.”  But then there’s cruel emotion, showing anger or hatred; there’s politeness, expressing perhaps more emotion than you actually feel (“I’m so very pleased to meet you!”); and then there’s real love.

And the thing about real love – even for us dogs (who never even consider being “too cool”) – is that it always feels like more than you can express. 

When Handsome comes home after a long day, I go nuts.  I bark like crazy, run in circles, jump all over him, and sniff and lick every bit of him I can get to.  And do I feel like I’ve told him exactly how much I’ve missed him through the day, how happy I am to see him, and how excited I am about what might happen now that he’s home?

No way! 

But you know the funny thing?  He still picks up on all of those.  My being so overwhelmed with emotion I can’t find the way to adequately express it tells him exactly what I’m feeling.

And when he looks at me and tries to put his feelings into words, and gets all tongue-tied, ending up just saying “Oh Knucklehead it’s just more than I can say, you’re just the best thing ever and more,”  I feel his love and his frustration, and know I am as loved as loved can be.

So Chica, I think you’re just fine.  I think you’ve said exactly the right words to your friend, and more importantly, you’ve let her know that there are no words that can possibly express your shock and horror and sadness – which really means your love.

As you live longer, you’ll experience this more often.  You’ll feel shocked sadness like this, you’ll feel overwhelming adoration like what Handsome and I have, you’ll experience romantic love, which is maybe even harder to express, and you’ll feel devastating grief at loss, so painful you’ll feel you’ll never be able to get past it.  And every time you’ll believe that no one could possibly know what you’re feeling – but somehow they will.


Because of something humans and dogs share, called

Empathy.  Empathy is the ability to feel something that someone else is feeling.  That could be as simple as you watching someone sucking on a lemon and feeling your mouth purse.  Or it could be feeling someone’s pain.  The only time I’ve ever howled, truly howled, was when I saw a dog get hurt.  I just sat on the ground and yowled at the sky.  Nothing had happened to me, but I felt that pup’s pain and had to let it out. 

And similarly, when someone experiences an emotion that you understand, you’ll likely feel it too. 

Now your overwhelming feeling about your friend’s mother isn’t exactly Empathy; you’re feeling your own feelings.  But when you tell her how giant your feelings are, and try to say anything right that you can (like offering to be there for her), there’s no way for her to not experience your feelings.  She feels them, and she knows your love.

So it’s a very odd thing I’m telling you, Chica.  I’m saying that it’s totally okay that you can’t express all you’re feeling, AND that your inability to express it totally DOES express it!

So keep doing just what you’re doing, including being just as frustrated as you are.  That’s life and that’s love.

(And speaking of life and love, doctors are way better at beating many cancers than they ever have been before, so there’s a decent chance her mom is going to be completely fine.  She’ll almost certainly go through a very rough time in treatment, so keep that love coming, but also have some faith – very often this monster is beatable!)

All my best to you, and GIGANTIC wishes to her,


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