When a friend receives horrendous news it can often be paralysing for those around them, how do you respond? How do you help? While we are not psychiatrists or psychologists we certainly deal with plenty of people in stressful situations, and specifically plenty of spouses dealing with the death of a loved one, and so we can share some observations of helpful and unhelpful responses.
How well do you know the person?
Much of the advice given in this article is given with the caveat that you need to consider how well you know the person, and whether someone closer to the person is already doing what you are proposing to do. Some of the advice will relate to everyone (listening well, not expecting the grieving person to help you process your pain) and some of the suggestions are best done by someone close to the grieving person (like helping them finance the funeral). This is really something for you to figure out. It may be that you don't know the person that well but no one has spoken to them about the funeral or life insurance, just ask them, they will tell you if someone has already helped them in that area.
Do not publish any details
It is sad that this has to be said, but do not share any information about the death of the person. So often a spouse or next of kin is trying to make urgent and necessary phone calls (like calling the GP to come and issue a medical certificate for the death or calling children of the deceased) and they can't use their phone because other people have heard about the death and are calling them. The closest person to the deceased should decide how and when to distribute information, do not do it yourself. If you think you might helpfully let one individual know who might provide practical assistance or pastoral care to the friend then call that person but do not Facebook or Email, these things are too easily forwarded or shared and can snowball.
What do I do immediately?
If you have found out about the death directly from the person by telephone or some other form of communication then ask them what can I do? Can I come and sit with you, watch your kids, drive you somewhere or otherwise assist?
If your friend's spouse has died at home our article on that topic might be helpful.
If they are telling you face to face then the first step is to take a deep breath and just listen, really listen. Don't say anything beyond very short responses (I am sorry, that is awful) until your friend is finished talking. Don't interupt them. It sounds obvious but it is harder than it sounds. Pastoral care for your friend is so important at this time, but people don't naturally know how to give it.
You could read our articles about providing pastoral care to a victim of domestic violence by clicking on the blue button. While the source of stress and grief is different (domestic violence instead of death) the way that we provide pastoral care to a grieving person is largely similar, and it revolves around listening, being present, and continuing to check in with the person in coming days, weeks and months.
While no one likes to talk about it, your friend may have an immediate problem with money.
The big expense that will come up quickly is the funeral. While most people don't like to discuss money this may also be your friend's greatest stress at the moment. Let your friend know that they do not have to pay for the funeral up front. This may be the most important piece of advice you can give them. Don't put it on a credit card, don't pay it up front.
There are a couple of ways that the funeral can be paid. Perhaps you could even direct your friend to this article. These ways include:
- Is there a bank account that is only in the name of the deceased? It would ordinarily take six months to get access to this money but if you take the funeral invoice to the bank they will draw a cheque to the funeral home for the funeral. The same bank will not draw a cheque to the person who paid for the invoice. Don't pay the invoice, take it to the bank.
- Did the deceased have superannuation? Again, do not pay the invoice yourself, do not let the spouse pay the invoice. Call the superannuation company and ask for their forms or process in order to have the superannuation company pay the funeral from the deceased's funds. It will take even longer to get any of the superannuation funds than it takes to get the bank account money so the widow or widower won't get access to this money for some time, except for to pay the funeral.
- Was there a funeral plan? It is worth asking, your friend is stressed. If the person did a Will find out where it is stored and check if a funeral plan is stored with it.
- Even if none of these is immediately available then most funeral homes will do the funeral on the basis that they are paid by the Estate later. They will charge interest but a bank will also charge interest on a credit card. If your friend is paying the funeral upfront they will probably be dipping into credit cards before the Estate has been finalised.
By law the first expense of the Estate is funeral expenses and tax expenses. This is why if there are funds or assets anywhere the widow or widower can get access to those. Don't let your friend be bullied into paying for the funeral up front. Ask them if they are aware that they don't have to pay for it upfront, and direct them to this information. They will have many other expenses to stress about over coming months so help them to dispense with this significant expense.
Encourage your friend to seek professional help
Again, our advice in this article is similar to our advice in the article on domestic violence even though the cause of the grief is different. Of course your friend needs the assistance of a good lawyer, but actually there is so much more help available.
Encourage your friend to seek help from:
- Their pastor (if they are religious)
- Their GP
- A psychiatrist
- A lawyer
- Government support services
Remember that you are none of these things. These professionals cannot provide your friend with pastoral support, and you cannot properly provide your friend with professional advice. You do what they need from you, pastoral care, and direct them to professionals who do what they do best.
You might think this is being repeated, but that is a reflection of the importance of the topic. Pastoral care is important. If professionals agree on one thing in this area it is probably that pastoral care either is not done, or is not done very well in our society. I will recap some of the important points here.
Listen to the person, really listen, don't interrupt them, listen and be supportive of them.
After they have finished disclosing you can tell the person that you are their friend, that you are there for them, that you will support them, that you are happy to attend any appointments with professionals with them, and that you are happy for them to call you if they need to talk to you about it again.
Don't tell the person how to feel, how you feel or how they should feel.
Remember that grief doesn't end after the funeral, or even in the months after the funeral. Continue to check in with your friend, a simple text or phone call with the question 'how are you' when you have the time to listen is valuable and important for your friend.
For more information about Estates, read some of our other articles on the topic by clicking on the blue button.