One of the sad realities of getting older is that your parents age along with you, and the day comes when you lose them. Just because this is the natural pattern of life doesn't make it any easier. A close friend's dad died unexpectedly a few days ago, and he now begins the journey of going forward without his father's presence. Of course, when we hear of such a loss, we are saddened and want to help in any way we can. I thought I would spend a few moments writing about how we can help friends who have lost a parent.

1. Don't be afraid to reach out. Depending upon the relationship you have with your friend, you might feel that commenting on their loss might be intrusive or awkward; you don't want to insert yourself into a situation that might bring up strong, complex emotions and make things worse. But I don't think there is ever a time when even a simple, "I am sorry for your loss" isn't appreciated. A feeling of support is so important when you are reeling from a such a life-changing event.

2. Relate...but don't over-relate. It can be a very powerful connection to let a friend know how you felt about or coped with a parent's death, but you have to always remember two things: this is not about you and your loss, and even though you "understand," you cannot know what this particular loss means to your friend. You just can't; not even a sibling will feel exactly the same about a parent's death. It's a complex and utterly personal event for us all, whether close to a parent or not. There is no "Parent Death Club" to join, and you don't want to hurt or offend a friend by insisting that you know exactly how he or she feels. Do share the experiences that you feel would be comforting to your friend, but in small doses. Don't overwhelm.

3. Step in, lightly. Depending on how bereaved your friend is, or how difficult the logistics are in the early days of dealing with a parent's death, your help may be needed quite a lot. Sometimes they may not know what they need. You can pitch in with the details of organizing food for mourners, child and pet care, finding hotel rooms or providing transportation for those coming into town for the funeral, compiling music or photographs that were meaningful to the parent for the wake or funeral, providing at-home meals for your friend or yardwork or any of a hundred little tasks that might go undone in the wake of a difficult loss. If you have an idea of how to help, ask your friend or someone close if it's OK to go ahead with.

4. Share your memories of the parent. If you knew your friend's parent, make time to write down or tell a story about how he or she was important to you. Whether it's personal characteristics or achievements that you admired, their quirks or unique talents, or how the parent influenced your life for the better, don't hesitate to let your friend know. These stories from others build a kind of perspective about the parent's life that is invaluable to healing, and often bring a smile through the tears.

5. Give your friend three gifts: time, patience, and you. There is no universal timetable for grieving a parental loss, and no "right way" to mourn. Losing a parent can be particularly rocky, as not only are you missing the person that is no longer there, but it closes a door on a huge part of your own identity as well. Even if you are a "Golden Years" person as well, you are always someone's child as long as your parents are living. A parent's death is a profound reminder of how incredibly short life is, and of your own mortality, too. Your friend might seem, to you, too sad for too long, or not sad enough, or might veer all over the place emotionally, including anger, indifference, irritability, or become hyper-focused on work issues. Allow your friend to process all the emotions in their own time and own ways. Be a friend, and be there through this tough time, even if it's not always easy or might not seem appreciated. You are needed.

Ride, "Vapour Trail"

First you look so strong,
Then you fade away.
The sun will blind my eyes,
I love you anyway.
First you form a smile,
I watch you for a while.
You are a vapour trail,
In a deep blue sky.

Tremble with a sigh,
Glitter in your eye.
You seem to come and go,
I never seem to know.
And all my time,
is yours as much as mine.
We never have enough,
Time to show our love. 

(photo: Ed Smith)