When something awful happens to a friend, our first instinct, as decent people, is to do one of two things: send flowers or bring food. These are the classic “sorry everything is terrible” options that have stood the test of time. Except they...kind of haven’t, at least not since we've all started moving further and further from our hometowns and hopping cities every few years. If you’re in Maryland and your friend is in a suburb in Michigan, it’s not like you can just leave a casserole on their front porch, and sending not-shitty flowers long-distance (to their house? to their office? WHO KNOWS???) can be surprisingly difficult. Even if you live nearby, these options aren’t for everyone — some people don't like flowers, or you may be a terrible cook. Enter Venmo, the dark horse third when it comes to expressing sympathy.
Yes, Venmo, the app that lets you seamlessly send and receive money from friends without ever paying any fees. Venmo, used most often to cover your share of bar tabs and Lyfts and Airbnbs and utility bills. Venmo, where there are very few words but a lot of emojis. That Venmo. Since I’ve entered my thirties — a time when shit starts getting REAL real, turns out — I’ve discovered that the PayPal's sexier younger sibling is also a fantastic way to be there for someone when they are in crisis, in whatever way they need you to be there.
Last year, after a friend’s miscarriage, our friend group discussed sending her flowers. But in the end, I just collected money from everyone via Venmo, and then Venmoed the sum to the friend privately with a note to use it for Ubers to and from doctor’s appointments, Seamless orders, wine, and snacks — anything that might make one of the worst days of her life a tiny bit less bad. Another time, when I was having a very shitty week, a friend Venmoed me $15 with the bouquet emoji. “I couldn’t get flowers delivered to you that quickly,” she said. “So pick some up for yourself on your way home.” I don’t think I ever bought the flowers, and instead spent the $15 to have a burrito delivered that night. I also could have gone and blown it on some new Essie nail polishes at Target, or spent it on margaritas. Who cares? Not my friend; it was important to her that I got some kind of nice thing for myself, not that I got the exact nice thing she believed I needed. We both understood that the cash was meant to be a choose-your-own-adventure care package.
Venmo also comes in handy when the thing your friend needs isn’t flowers or Essie polish or margaritas, but...money. Because tragedy isn’t just emotionally catastrophic; it’s also incredibly inconvenient. There is unexpected travel. There are errands to run that you would likely avoid doing in the best of times. There is paperwork that needs to be printed but your printer has been broken for the past year and also now you also have to FAX the damn thing??? In the year 2017???? There are entire homes to be packed up and moved. The easiest way to take the edge off of most of these inconveniences is to throw money at them. But in that moment of unexpected awfulness, your friend may not have the money. Or they have it, but won’t give themselves permission to spend it. And that is where you can, on occasion, step in.
Money can put gas in your friend’s car so they can drive three states to be with their sick parent. Money can pay for a babysitter to watch their toddler while they meet with a lawyer or go to therapy. Money will erase the late fees on the bills they forget to pay in the aftermath of their sibling’s suicide. Money can pay movers to come pack up all of their belongings after their spouse unexpectedly files for divorce. Money can cover the two-day shipping on the black dress shoes they’ve realized they need for the funeral they are currently planning. Your exhausted pal who is leaving the hospital at midnight after spending another day at her sick wife's bedside shouldn’t have to crunch the numbers to determine whether she can afford to take a cab instead of a long, uncomfortably bright subway ride where she will likely be catcalled, even as she sits there visibly weeping. Of course you would offer to give her a ride in that situation. But if you’re eight states away, or if you don’t have a car, sending her some money for a cab is the next best thing.
Of course, this assumes that you have the money to spend in the first place...but if you were going to send flowers, then that’s a safe assumption. And, honestly, what is even the point of having money if not to be able to these kinds of things for the people you care about?
Now, to be able to get on board with this, you may have to set aside some deeply-held cultural beliefs about money and etiquette and the “right” way to respond to tragedy. And I get that delivering a sympathy gift to a grieving friend in Venmo's pizza emoji-laden interface might sound a little...newfangled. Perhaps you are reading this and thinking that these damn kids need to get off your lawn (pretty sure we're the same age but okay) because you would NEVER do something so COLD or IMPERSONAL. (“MILLENNIALS ARE KILLING THE CASSEROLE INDUSTRY” —A Forbes headline next week, probably.) But not everyone mourns the same way, or wants a lot of attention when they are grieving. One of the more difficult aspects of experiencing loss is managing other people’s reactions to it; there's something to be said for offering support from a distance — especially if your friend is dealing with the sort of loss that tends to be stigmatized. Beaming a sympathy gift directly to someone’s phone (arguably one of the most personal objects they own) lets them receive it and react to it privately. Venmo doesn’t demand an immediate response, or force them explain to the coworkers who had no idea that they even had a brother that the flowers they just received are actually a sympathy bouquet because he overdosed a week ago.
(To be clear, I'm not here to knock flowers. I love receiving flowers when I'm sad! But not everyone does, which is why I prefer Venmoing money in a lot of situations. It's just good to have options in your "be a good friend" toolbox.)
Will giving a grieving friend cold, hard cash feel a little weird? I mean...maybe! Money is pretty weird! You know what else is weird? Trauma. Death. Anyone who has experienced tragedy knows that it is incredibly weird. And its aftermath is actually a great time to rethink the longstanding traditions that perhaps aren't serving us well anymore. Because when someone is suffering, they are less likely to be concerned with a bunch of arbitrary cultural rules; they just want to feel less sad.
Also, are you really giving them cold, hard cash? Or are you giving them warm, soft, beep beep bloop bloop ching chings? You and I both know that Venmoing money is not the same as stuffing a couple of crumpled, damp twenties in your friend's fist as you leave the funeral home. And, bonus: unlike those sweaty twenties, a Venmo transaction isn’t going to lead to the awkward, “Oh don’t be silly — oh but you must — I couldn’t possibly — I insist — are you sure?” song and dance, which is something we should all be happy about.
The key to making this not seem weird lies in what you say when you Venmo the money. What you're not gonna do is send $50 with "sry bout yr cancer" followed by a emoji. Instead, reference the well-known expression of sympathy that the money is standing in for. "This is for flowers" tells them "this is for you to buy something lovely." "Snacks/wine/bourbon" is code for "something comforting." "Seamless" or "dinners this week" clearly means "foodstuffs of any sort." And "Ubers/Lyfts" translates to "something to make your life slightly more convenient." When in doubt, you can always add a "Because I can't do this for you IRL" to it, e.g., "Because I can't be there to do X for you, use this to pay for Y."
When it comes to responding to grief, trauma, and tragedy, the thought is very much what counts. And thinking about all of the ways this might suck for your friend, and then giving them something that will make it suck a tiny bit less, in whatever way they need it to suck less? Yeah, I’d say that counts.
So if ever you don’t know what to do to support someone who is struggling, maybe just Venmo them. Remember to set the transaction to "participants only." Be sure to say “I love you and I’m here for you.” Select your finest emoji. Then tap “pay,” and be grateful that we have modern technology to make the age-old tradition of comforting the sick, the sad, and the grieving a tiny bit easier.
Rachel Miller is a Senior Lifestyle Editor at BuzzFeed and the author of Dot Journaling―A Practical Guide: How to Start and Keep the Planner, To-Do List, and Diary That’ll Actually Help You Get Your Life Together.