Yesterday a student emailed me asking for tips on how to help her friend, who was very close with murdered Wesleyan University student Johanna Justin-Jinich. While everyone is different and has their own way of grieving, below are some things to keep in mind when trying to support your friend after a tragedy like this. I’m no grief counsleor, but I hear many stories of homicide in my line of work and I have personally lost a friend to homicide. So here are some things I’ve learned…
1. Don’t send flowers. I remember when my mother-in-law was battling cancer, she used to hate receiving flowers, especially ones with a strong scent. It reminded her of a funeral home. Flowers are often sent in sympathy, so some people can perceive them as constant reminders of the sadness in their life. If you want to send something, I suggest something caring but neutral, like a small basket of treats, a good book or a something else you know your friend would really enjoy based on his/her likes and hobbies. Personally, I’m a big fan of sending comfort things after violence, because a person often feels psychologically unsafe, even if there is no apparent safety threat. Gifts I’ve sent include really soft blankets, pretty journals and cookies/muffins that I personally baked and sent with a handwritten note.
2. Don’t recommend self-defense…yet. Many people refer women who have been touched by violence to the Girls Fight Back website. While I really appreciate the link love, usually people are not ready for ass kicking in the direct aftermath of a homicide. There are stages one must go through – denial, guilt, anger, depression – before making the upward turn towards hope. When you feel they are in a better place emotionally, recommend proactive options to start giving your friend her peace back – like a self-defense class. After the 2005 murder of Johns Hopkins University Alpha Phi President, Linda Trinh, I offered to donate a Girls Fight Back seminar to their chapter. We waited several months before holding that event, and by the time we did, the women were ready to laugh again and learn to fight. It was incredibly healing.
3. Avoid insensitive comments. People ususally say the wrong thing when they are trying to fill a silence. Silence is fine and actually quite normal when there is really nothing to say. (Often the case after a senseless killing like Johanna’s.) Silence is also a great opportunity for a good hug (if they want one – ask first) or verbal reassurance you are there for them. Don’t say things like, “You’ll get over it someday” or or “I wonder what she did to make him snap like that.” In general, now is not the time for finding the bright side or logic in a tragic event. It just sucks, period. Let that dark time be what it is, and know a light will show itself as people go through the grief process. If you want to say something, stick to unconditionally supportive phrases like “No matter what, I’m here for you” or “I will be calling to check up on you over the next few weeks.” (I prefer telling people I will call them to check in, as opposed to telling them to they call me if they need anything. This takes the burden off them, and places it on me to reach out. And many grieving people don’t want to be a downer to their friends. How many times have you offered someone to call you if they need anything, and they actually took you up on it?)
I hope this helps. Thanks to Kendal for inspiring this post – your support will surely help your friend through this difficult time. My deepest sympathies to all who were affected by Johanna’s murder, as well other violent crimes.