A few years ago, my friend E’s father died suddenly. E and I weren’t close confidantes, but we were friends who had shared a lot of joyful, funny, important moments. We’d graduated from college by then, and didn’t live anywhere near each other. When I heard the news, I didn’t email E or send a card. I think at the time, the news registered — I was horrified and shocked — and, with very little experience dealing with death or loss, I did nothing.

(The flowers I should’ve sent.)

Several months later, I saw E at a party. I hadn’t seen him since I’d gotten the news. And all I could think of when I saw him was your father died your father died your father died. 

And then I didn’t say anything about the fact that his father had died. I asked how he was, made some small talk, and that was it.

Not too long after that, my mother was diagnosed with fatal cancer. So it was that I found myself emailing E during her illness.

Dear E: 

I know it has been some time, but I want to tell you how sorry I am about your dad’s passing. I am also sorry that I did not reach out to you sooner, when it first happened … I’ve gotten closer to the reality of mortality this year, and also seen how hard it can be for some people to acknowledge illness and death in a graceful way. Sadly, I was one of those people at the time of your Dad’s passing.

In the brief month that’s passed since my Mom’s death, I’ve thought often about the cowardly mistake I made. I shied away from the reality of Eric’s loss in a fearful, self-protective act. And I’m sorry to say that a few people have done the same to me. I understand their paralysis all too well, but it still stings.

Perhaps the most common excuse for evasion is, “I didn’t want to upset him.” We have all had this thought, and it reflects (I think) a deep misunderstanding about the nature of emotional pain. News flash: your grieving friend is already very, very, very upset. If there is anything that will compound the pain of loss, it is the feeling that you are ignoring and avoiding his loss.

So I consider this a kind of public service announcement, in hopes of reducing the number of Friend Fails, like the one I committed. There are a lot of things you can do to help a grieving friend. But the single most important thing you can do, in the immediate aftermath of a death is acknowledge the death. Out loud. Right away. It is a question of manners and etiquette, and it means everything. Put your big-girl pants on and say something. Send a card. It should be the first thing you say when you see your friend. Only three words are required.

I’m so sorry.