My best friend is losing his dad to a terminal cancer. I don’t know what to say when he speaks to me about it. How can I support him?
Anticipatory grief, which is what we experience when we know someone is going to die but have not yet reached that point, is exhausting and debilitating.
Your friend knows nothing can be done to change the situation, which is part of the reason why it's so tiring, and he doesn’t expect you to do anything about it either.
What is by far the most powerful and valuable intervention for your friend is to have people around who will just give us the time and space to talk about how we feel. That’s your role.
You don’t need to do anything or be any different. In fact, being consistent in the way that you always have been as his friend is a massive help because he has needed you in the past, he needs you now, and he will sure
as anything need you in the future. All you need to do is to be yourself and be there, strong enough to handle whatever it is he feels he needs to share with you.
Some things to be conscious of.
Never be afraid to raise the subject of his dad for fear of upsetting him. You asking after his dad and him will only do good and never make the situation worse. How could it?
Never ask him how he is because it will be obvious. Try and shorten the horizon of this sort of question. A favourite of mine is, “What sort of day are you having today?” His emotions will be all over the place so this helps to anchor him in the moment.
Never be afraid to ask him what he needs. You are not a mind reader and you can never know what he most needs at any given moment. Allow yourself to be guided by him.
Never discount his experience. We might think we’re helping when we suggest things such as “time is a great healer” but it's nonsense and is said mostly to make ourselves feel less uncomfortable.
Just be the friend you’ve always been, nothing more and nothing less. I promise you that will be more than enough. He’s lucky to have you around.
That sounds like a really tough time for your friend. It's so lovely you’re concerned for him and just knowing you’re there will be a huge help to him. Just be mindful about wanting to ‘fix’ their situation. Sadly there are no ‘magic words’ to make everything better but that doesn’t mean that any conversation you have with him can’t be helpful or supportive.
When he chats to you about it, offer him space to do so. And listen to him. By really listening, you can understand what he’s going through, rather than listening to the panic in your head of ‘I must say something helpful’. Sometimes we really don’t know what to say and this is okay — you can even let him know this (‘It sounds hard and I really don’t know what to say’). Acknowledge what he’s going through using whatever language makes sense to you (e.g. ‘that sounds tough’, ‘life can be really unfair, huh?’).
Supporting someone is about standing by their side as they walk their difficult walk. It’s about letting the other person be in control of their world whilst making it clear through messages or gestures, that you are part of their scaffolding. The easiest way to do this is to ask someone ‘What do you need?’. Everyone manages difficult times in different ways; there is no one ‘right’ way. Allow people to do it their way. He may need very little from you as he may be more private or stoic; he may need more input than usual. Check out what he needs. Don’t assume; ask. He may not know or he may say ‘nothing’. We can still offer gestures along the way — things like check-ins, homemade food, cups of tea, offers of help with stuff, and so on… basically, anything that eases their world. We can also invite them to do things with us so they stay connected – ‘Fancy a walk?’ or ‘I’m doing X later, would you like to join me?’ Ultimately though, everything is their decision and choice so also respect his request if he asks for time out.
When we try to make something better, it’s more about OUR needs. WE want this person to be OK and WE want to fix it for them. This can be unhelpful to both parties as the rescuer is always trying to find new ‘solutions’. They can be left feeling utterly helpless as it is not, as we know, up to the rescuer to make everything okay — and some things can’t be made okay, they just suck.
When someone we care about is in a difficult situation, the greatest gift we can offer is our time and attention. We listen to them and hear them; we reflect how we hear they feel – e.g. ‘that sounds scary’ — rather than come up with answers. I know it can feel frustrating and helpless at times to see someone hurting but do not underestimate the amazing gift you are giving your friend by showing them you are there.
Thanks for getting in touch with us. I am sorry to hear about your friend’s dad and I am also glad he has you to speak to about the experience. The best way to know how to support your best friend through this is to ask him what he needs for you. It may be practical support, it may be emotional, it may be he just needs someone to sit with him in silence at times; every person going through this type of family loss is going through their own unique experience which means rather than trying to guess what they need from you, being proactive and asking is usually a better approach.
I can understand you not knowing what to say to your friend when he talks to you about losing his dad, but who is expecting you to say anything? It isn’t likely that he is looking for answers or validation anyway. Talking about it with someone he trusts may be all that he needs; basically, a sounding board and someone with a little distance he can speak to in confidence. Simply saying “I hear you” when you have listened to him or “I don’t even know what to say” can be enough for someone in this situation. They just want to know someone is listening and they can release their thoughts with someone who isn’t going to be triggered in the same way as talking to another family member might be, can make a huge difference to the heavy load they are carrying.
If you feel it would be helpful for your best friend, you could do some research into local support groups for people who are going through similar experiences and if he thinks it would be useful to attend, perhaps you could offer to go with him.
It can feel really disempowering watching a friend struggle and not knowing what to say or do to help, so trust that if talking to you wasn’t helping your friend it is unlikely he would be doing it. You don’t have to do anything other than continue to be his best friend. That said, supporting someone through the death of a family member can be very emotionally draining so don’t forget to get support for yourself too.