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  • Writer's pictureEmily Rojas

How Grief Taught Me to Be a Better Friend

This is a blog post I wrote almost two years ago shortly after my grandfather passed away. Today marks the two year anniversary, and I felt it was appropriate to republish + elaborate on this post. It's as relevant as always.

Two days ago, an author and activist I deeply admire, Rachel Held Evans, died after a brief illness. She meant so much to so many people, and I've seen tribute after tribute flood my personal social media accounts.

For me, it's a reminder that life is so very fragile and brief. It's also a reminder that everyone around us is grieving something, or someone. Someone I've never really met in person died, and it's still hard and weird to process. Poppy passed away two years ago, and there are moments, however brief, it feels like it just happened last week. I know some of my friends are carrying grief of their own, some hidden and some public.

The point is this: We all need to be better friends to each other. Because grief is a life long process at times. Your friends still need you months, and years, after the initial shock or trauma has passed. The ways they need you will change, but the more we simply show up for each other, the better we'll get at taking care of each other.

With all that being said, here’s a story about one of those lessons I really should’ve learned a long time ago.

The first time I was (verbally) slapped across the face with this life lesson, it came from a beautiful Ted Talk by Brene Brown  where she discussed vulnerability, and the ways in which we can help people trust us. A big lesson in this Ted Talk? Showing up.

Even when it’s awkward and uncomfortable and inconvenient, you show up anyways. Brown goes on to tell the audience that one of the best ways to build trust with people is to show up at funerals.

Yes, you heard me right. Funerals.

When I first heard Brene’s talk, I nodded along haphazardly. I jotted down notes and underlined the important bits. And yet, I still hesitated awkwardly before sending texts to friends when they lost loved ones. Sometimes I didn’t send them at all, worried I would be a bother, or an uncomfortable reminder that something had gone terribly wrong. Besides, I didn’t know the exact right words to say – so it was better for everyone if I just stayed silent.

You wouldn’t catch me at a funeral, either. It was far too difficult, too uncomfortable. And, besides, I wouldn’t know anyone, I’d be out-of-place, and they wouldn’t notice that I wasn’t there anyways.

Turns out, I was the one who was terribly wrong.

Then, about two years ago my grandfather passed away unexpectedly.

He was the center of my large, loud, and extremely close family, and we were (and are) all devastated.

Thankfully, my friends, and my family’s friends, didn’t react the way I usually would.

They didn’t think they were being a bother, they didn’t get caught up in the awkwardness, they didn’t let fear stop them from just being there.

Katie called me the minute she woke up and saw my text, just to check in.

Rachel sent texts, and drove a good distance to be at the funeral.

My mom’s and grandma’s friends and family brought food for all of us to eat, often showing up just when we needed it the most.

I could go on and on, with name after name of all those people who embraced the terrible nature of grief and walked/are still walking with me and my family through it. Even if it was just a text or a call or some fried chicken – it meant the world to us.

Here’s the lesson: life is full of terrible things. Of course, it is full of beautiful, wonderful things, too. But, we lose people we love, we hurt, and bad things happen.

The important thing is to show up anyways.

Because here’s the thing, all of your fears are probably true. You don’t know the right thing to say, because there isn’t anything you could possibly say to make it any better.

The good news is, all it takes is a quick text saying “I’m thinking about you” to let someone know that you’re there. Now that I’ve gone through the terrible thing, it is so easy for me to see the many ways I have failed my friends in the past because I was afraid of being too much for them. Too awkward, too up-in-their-business.

I wish I could go back in time and be a better friend. But, going forward, I won’t hesitate to send the text, make the call, or show up to the funeral. Because the best thing you can do when life gets messy is to show up anyways. 

Now, here's the part I've learned in the two years since.

A few months ago, my entire family went to the beach together for the first time in two years. And even though it's been a couple years, we kept bringing up Poppy. How much he would've loved the trip, how happy he would've been that we were there, what jokes he'd be making or all the ways he'd make fun of each of our quirks. We watched my grandparents' 50th anniversary tribute video, and there were hardly any dry eyes left in the room.

So, you have to keep on keeping on showing up.

I'm not saying that my family or I still need covered dishes, KFC, or flowers like we did two years ago. But, we need the space to remember Poppy when we need to. To cry when it hits us out of nowhere. To talk about him, and remember his stories and jokes. And I'm guessing, if you're reading this, you need something like that too.

The first step is really hard. It's hard to show up to funerals and bring food and call your friends. But the next step is just as important, and I'm afraid we sometimes forget.

If you're the type that needs practical, step-by-step advice here it is: When something bad happens to your friend, do the best you can to show up for them. If you can physically be there, and it's appropriate for you to do so, do that. If all you can do is call or text, don't hesitate to send a message. If you can buy food for the person or family, do it, and then maybe do it again a few months or weeks later when the initial craziness has passed.

And then, a few months or even a year later, ask them how they're doing. I have to give a quick personal shoutout to my friends Abigail and Emma, who I think are both amazing examples of friends who think to ask hard questions or follow-up on hard things even when time has passed (so hit them up for advice they're doing this well). Send them a card, just because. Send food or $5 on Venmo for an iced coffee because everyone always loves food!

I can't tell you exactly how to be a friend to your friends, but you can just do like me and try the best you can until you figure it out. We're all struggling together through grief and pain. If we do this whole thing right, we can find great joy (even in the midst of darkness) by showing up and being together.


This post is dedicated to Poppy and Rachel this time, who both seemed to have figured out how to show up for others each in their own way. And to my friends who always show up, I love you always.

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