How Bystanders Can Help

Help! Someone I Care About is Grieving.

Unexpected death differs in so many ways from prolonged, expected death. With lengthy illness or old age, loved ones can sometimes express love for each other, resolve issues, embrace or at least make eye contact.

But, when an unforeseen death happens, loved ones are snatched away, leaving us standing in the middle of what seems like an earthquake zone. The ground has shifted, our homes are rattled, lives are shattered and we are separated from people we fully expected to see again.

The following is information on how bystanders can help that may be helpful to you if your friend experienced unexpected death. Please consider your friend’s personality and need, as well as your own, as you think about what to do for them.

As soon as you receive the news of an unexpected death, realize that this situation is urgent. Your response may be vital to your friend’s future and to your friendship.

If you have received this dreadful news, and you consider yourself to be a close friend, do your best to be with them as soon as possible. Make their emergency your own. Drop what you’re doing and get there, wherever “there” is, as soon as possible.

How bystanders can help? One of the most important things you can do is to stand by your friend. As soon as you are physically able, be with them. In most instances, it is best to drop what you are doing and go to them as quickly as possible.

Leave work unfinished. The rush from the gym sweaty. Forget about your hair and makeup. Grab your coat, your purse, and only what you absolutely need to attend to this emergency. Run to be with your friend. They were caught in the middle of whatever they were doing when they heard the news and will probably appreciate knowing that you were caught, too. Part of your unspoken message will be, “I heard what happened and came as fast as I could. Being with you is more important than anything else I could be doing right now.”

You may wonder if your friend would want you to respond this way. Our advice: take the risk. If you show up and your friend prefers privacy then you can leave for a while and touch base with them during the next few days. But if you don’t show up, and your friend wishes you had, you may cause serious and irreparable damage to your friendship.

Your presence will speak for you so you don’t need to worry too much about what to say. So how bystanders can help? In the early days, it may help to remember words that have been passed down through the ages: show up, shut up.

Especially in the moments immediately following a death, your presence – or your absence – will be noticed and remembered. For most survivors, visions of the moments and days after an unexpected death are etched as with permanent ink in their memory. So how bystanders can help? Be a friend whose gift of presence will become a keepsake they may treasure for the hard days, and even years, to come.

We lived hours away from our families when our son was killed. As soon as they heard the news, my siblings left their homes and families with only the clothes on their backs. They drove hundreds of miles to be with me. I will never forget seeing them as they walked into the middle of my nightmare. I don’t remember a word they said but their disheveled presence whispered love and support into my breaking heart.

Try to be with your friend for as long as you can during the first few days, at least. Be with them until you see an appropriate time to slip away and take care of your own needs. You may decide to stay an hour or 72. You may hold them as they cry in the middle of the lawn or find yourself sleeping in the dining room floor, like my sister did, for days. Let the situation, and your own discernment guide you.

Allow someone from your own support system to manage some of your responsibilities while you are away. Ask them to bring you the necessary items. Do whatever it takes to stand by your friend.

Be understanding. Now is not the time to moderate your friend’s verbal or physical reactions. Grief is brutal and demands verbal and physical responses. It will show its raw self whether or not you are there to see it. Unless the survivor poses a danger to themselves or others, just try to stand by. If there is any time a person should have permission to have a strong reaction, it’s when death happens.

Grief’s talk is often offensive, as is death. You may hear ‘inappropriate’ words come from your friend. I’m going to do my religious friends a favor (I hope) by saying this…

Oh, my god!

Damn it!

What the hell?


Whew … now that your ears are already ringing, you may be able to let these words roll off your back if you hear them from your normally reserved friend.

Grief’s physical assault on survivors can sometimes be distressing to watch. Try and let grief work its way, starting now, with you as a caring and understanding bystander.

Upon hearing the news of my son’s death I threw myself to the ground, tore my clothes and wet myself.

If you’re not sure that you’re one who should be with them immediately, answering these questions may help:

    • Did they call me, or direct someone to call me, as soon as possible?
    • Have I been with them in a small gathering in the last 2 weeks?
    • Would they be asking themselves about me, “Where’s ________?”
    • Do I know what drink they’d order with their lunch or dinner?
    • Have we told each other stuff that hardly anybody else knows?
    • Have I experienced the death of someone I love under similar circumstances?

If you can answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions, consider being with your friend as soon as possible.

He was one of my best friends. I watched for any sign of him. He didn’t call or come to my home. When he came to the Funeral Home it was already too late to mend the part of our friendship he had broken.

On communicating with your friend

How bystanders can help? As you listen to your friend, try to pay attention to (and use) the words they use about death: passed away, succumbed, slipped away, was killed, went home, is with God, no longer with us…

Notice (and use) the terms they use for:

Funeral     Wake     Vigil     Memorial     Interment     Committal     Vigil

We may have strong feelings about the way things are said. To respect and stay ‘in step’ with your friend, consider using their choice of words.

When you use phrases they haven’t used, such as: “He’s home”, “she’s with Jesus”, “he’s your guardian angel now”, “she’s spending Christmas with God”, “he wouldn’t want you to cry” – and they haven’t – you run the risk of causing unnecessary pain.

You may have already “messed up” by not showing up for your friend or maybe you haven’t been in touch with them for years and just found out ~ start now and step in where you can.

Posted on Facebook
(15 years, 4 months and 20 days after Christopher died)
“I didn’t know, but I just found and watched his friend’s tribute video. I’m so sorry. My prayers are with you.”

Letter received from new friend
(25 years after my husband died)
“If I had known you then I would have dropped everything and rushed to be by your side. I would have held your hand and told you how much I care and how it hurts to see you in such pain.”

Much of what we have learned has come from being on the receiving end of the kindness of good friends.

A lot of what we know comes from those who have failed us.

Too much of what we know comes from our own failures as a friend.