So, You Have a Grieving Friend: How to be a Personal Patronus
I’ve talked about having your turn as the Hot Mess. We all get our chance. I’ve talked a little bit about grief (here and here). Today, I want to talk about a concept that helps people in grief, but it’s more for friends and relatives than the person who is actually in grief. Everyone needs to learn how to be a Personal Patronus.
A Brief on Grief
Disclaimer: I am not a grief counselor, nor do I play one on tv. I am writing from personal experience.
Grief isn’t just something people walk through with death. Grief is the word to use for the emotions associated around any change, especially loss. And everyone has those emotions, even if they ignore them. When you experience life with familiar patterns and then those patterns go away due to death or loss or change or unmet expectations, you will have emotional responses to that.
No One Has to Die to Have Grief
Grief is mostly associated with death because death causes the most profound grief, but people go through grief during a move, during a prolonged illness, a diagnosis of an autoimmune disease, a job loss, learning a child has special needs. The emotions surrounding that kind of news can be described as grief, even though no one has died.
And those feelings need to be heard and processed. All of them.
How to Be a Friend to Someone in Grief
First, two definitions. In the Harry Potter world, Harry and his friends often have to battle with Dementors, which are magical creatures that drain a person of all happiness and positive feelings. A patronus, according to Professor Lupin in The Prisoner of Azkaban, is “a kind of positive force, a projection of the very things that the Dementor feeds upon – hope, happiness, the desire to survive – but [a patronus] cannot feel despair, as real humans can, so the Dementors can’t hurt it.”
I think of experiencing grief as a battle with Dementors. Grief will suck all of the happiness out of you. The wave of emotions you feel can be so physically draining that you don’t feel like you can summon happiness within yourself ever again.
So, when I have a friend who is experiencing deep loss, I see my role as a Patronus. I am a source of light that my friend can draw upon to remember happiness again. It’s a nourishing force of goodness. I don’t need to offer advice or platitudes. I don’t need to say anything. I sit and listen and radiate love and light and goodness. I pour light and support and cookies and warm blankets and funny cat memes and television to my friend deep in grief.
If I am helping a friend who is grieving, I have to recognize that I am grieving, too, but I can’t go to that same friend to expect a reciprocal Patronus. I will find no comfort or light there. I have to find another friend who is not as close to the situation to handle my own emotions. The lesson here is: if you need comfort from a loss, do not turn to someone who is experiencing that loss more acutely.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been to a funeral or a visitation where I had to watch the grieving family have to support and encourage their friends who cannot get their crap together. Honestly, I get angry when I see it, and I have to fight off the urge to go over and slap people. “GET IT TOGETHER, LOIS!”
The grieving family can do whatever they want. They can be mad or sad or nostalgic. They can eat or not eat. They can decide to have a tap dancer at the funeral. They can all wear top hats. They can cry and shake their fists. They can talk about their loss and share their despair, or they can talk about anything else so they don’t lose their minds. They can make their kids’ lunches to have a sense of normalcy. They can do whatever they want to do, and they can take as long as they want to walk through their emotions.
As a friend, you are a Patronus — a source of light and love that this dear family can turn to as the bottom has fallen out of their lives. You only offer support and love, not advice.
I first read about this when Jen Hatmaker shared her manifesto to her family as her mom was walking through breast cancer. You can find it here. If you are supporting a friend through a big loss, you don’t get to talk about your own emotions with that same friend. You call your friend from out of town to talk about that. If your friend’s mom just died, you don’t get to expound upon when you might lose your own parents and how your friend’s grief has shown you the fragility of life. You don’t get to be angry or resentful around this friend.
You sit and follow a lead — you watch tv, hand them snacks (to eat or to disregard), you make coffee, you load the dishwasher, you hug, you listen.
If your friend just found out she has terminal cancer, you don’t process your own feelings of loss with that friend. You talk to a different friend who doesn’t have the cancer. Does that make sense? A person in deep grief cannot conjure a Patronus for you. They are trying to find light themselves, battling these Dementors. You need another source of light.
Recognize Your Place
Another lesson that’s hard to hear for people who genuinely want to love and support a family during the midst of a deep loss is that the family may not want you there. Some people want to take a nap instead of making small talk. You don’t get to ask about details. The family may already have their Patronuses around them when you go drop off a casserole. If so, you stick that casserole in the fridge, give a hug, and go home.
On the flip side, your friend may absolutely need you there, and you want to run for the hills, covering your ears and singing, “lalalalalalal.” But, you don’t get a pass. If a friend needs you around, you stick around even if you feel weird and you don’t know what to say.
But, grief is scary.
I understand why people are afraid of grief. It’s a time in your life when you absolutely have to face your feelings. Ignoring them or covering over them or getting mad at those feelings only prolongs the process. And watching a friend walk through that can be a little frightening. You have to witness, up close and personal, that humans have little to zero control over what happens to us in this life. We have to look around us and wonder why we are all here in the first place. Yes, grief can be scary, but I would never want someone to wade through that alone.
I’m not sure why we don’t talk about these things more often. Grief comes for us all, and though it’s not easy to talk about, being a genuine friend requires you to support and love people in the times when grief hits. Remembering the image of the Patronus helps me to be a source of light and love to those around me.