24 November 2007

A Primer for Friends of the Grieving

I am truly honored to have been asked by Tertia to contribute a post to her online roundup on how to help people who are grieving. When Tertia asked us to participate, she rightly pointed out that most people just don’t know what to do to help someone who is grieving, whatever the source of the grief may be. I’ll take that one step further and say that even though I’ve been on the receiving end of lots of well-intentioned gestures since John died, I still feel at a loss when it’s my turn to comfort rather than be comforted.

Part of the problem is that each person and each situation is so unique. Even worse, I’ve found that what helps one day does not necessarily help the next. Great, huh? So helpful! Aren’t you glad I’m here giving you advice on how to help your grieving friends?

Before I try to say something that might actually be of service, let me explain my perspective for those of you who don’t know my situation. My husband died seven and a half months ago after a long illness. At the time, our twins were nine-and-a-half months old. John’s illness had given us quite a bit of time to prepare for his death, and I feel like I did a lot of grieving before he died. Don’t get me wrong; I was and still am an emotional time bomb. But the fact that I’d had some time to prepare combined with the fact that I have young twins means that my emotional needs have taken a backseat to the logistical and practical needs of adjusting to life as a single, full-time working parent. My grief support has mostly been about hands-on help.

I know the other women who are posting on this topic will have lots to offer on what to say (or not to say) to people who have lost someone (won't you Tertia, Alida, Cecily, Vanessa, and Billie?) I’m trusting them to do a better job of that than I could. What I feel like I have to offer to this discussion are suggestions on practical things you can do to be of help. There are a lot of logistics to take care of when someone dies, especially if the person left behind has kids, and there are lots and lots of ways you can help your friend. Here are some things that worked well for me:

1. Make a tangible offer of help. Don’t say, “Let me know how I can help.” A grieving person is too overwhelmed to figure that out, so do that work for them. If you are a good cook, say, “I’d like to bring you dinner. Is next Thursday good for you?” If you are good at yardwork, say “Why don’t I come mow your lawn next week?” If you are strong and live in a snowy place, let your friend know that you will come shovel his or her walk/stairs/driveway when there’s a big storm. Whatever your talent may be, turn it into a practical offer.

2. If you feel like you have no talents, but you do have money, line up a cleaning service and set it up to be billed to you. Some family members did this for me and the twins, and it’s been a godsend. Ask your friend first, of course, but take care of getting it all set up if he or she says yes.

3. A few tips if you bring a meal: (a) Include a vegetable. I know that sounds nitpicky, but I got a lot of delicious main dishes with very few healthy sides. My eating habits went down the tubes after John died, so if someone showed up with a big salad or spicy green beans, or what have you, I was thrilled. (b) Bring the food in labeled, dated, freezer-appropriate containers. Sometimes people brought things by when I had other food on hand. It was nice to just be able to throw it in the freezer for later. (c) Don’t feel like it has to be homemade. Takeout is great. Prepared food from the grocery is great. Food is just great, no matter who makes it.

4. I was totally paralyzed by decision making after John died. I loved it when people just did stuff. Some people just left food or gifts on the porch, which was fantastic. I didn’t always have the energy to talk to people, but the gesture was so kind. Not all offers lend themselves to a dropoff like that, but if it’s an option, take it. The day after John died, my doorbell rang and a delivery guy was standing there with three pints of ice cream. I have no idea who sent that, but it was wonderful.

5. No matter what you do, make it clear that no thank-you note is required. I’m a little obsessed with sending thank-you notes, and even though I knew that no one would fault me for not sending one after John died, I still felt obligated to do so. Part of me wanted to, of course, because I was truly appreciative of what my friends and family were doing for me. But part of me totally lacked the energy. I loved it when people told me not to acknowledge what they had done.

6. If your friend has kids, offers to babysit are great. But yet again, be tangible with your offer. Say something like, “Would you like to get out next Saturday? I’m free, and I’d love to babysit.”

7. Losing my spouse has left me with a lot of lonely evenings. I have friends who come over to help me with the twins on a regular schedule: one friend is my Monday person, one is my Tuesday person, and one is my Thursday person. I love knowing that I have adult company on those evenings, not to mention built-in babysitting if I want to nip out for a coffee or a trip to the bookstore after the twins are in bed. If your grieving friend has kids and you can commit to scheduled visits, it’s a wonderful gift.

8. I hated making all the phone calls after John died. The calls to places like insurance companies, banks, lawyers, government agencies, etc. needed to be made by me. But the calls to let people know that John had died? I was thrilled to delegate those. If you are close enough to your friend to help with that, do it. It’s exhausting.

9. Look ahead on your calendar. Mark the six-month anniversary of your friend’s loss. Send a card or make a call when that day rolls around. Your friend is going to get lots and lots of support in the first few months after his or her loss, but that support fades away. He or she will be touched that you remembered the six-month mark (or at least I was).

10. I can’t resist giving a few tips on what to say: Don’t be afraid to talk about the person who died. I talk about John all the time. I love to talk about him. I think about him constantly, and it would be weird if I didn’t talk about him. For me, it's OK if people just ask: "Are you comfortable talking about John?" Also, don’t ever say that the person who died is in a better place or that things happen for a reason or that we are only given as much as we can handle. SO NOT HELPFUL. And don’t mention any kind of god or angels or anything unless you know your friend is of that ilk. A simple, heartfelt “I’m sorry” will go a long, long way. And please, no comments along the lines of "I don't know how you do it." I do it because I have no choice, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't suck.

This may be my longest post to date. I hope that there is something in here that is helpful. I know the other women who are participating in this are going to be filled with wisdom. Be sure to visit their sites. And be sure to tell any grieving friend that you love him or her. A lot. That’s always a nice thing to hear.

To see other posts on this topic from different perspectives, visit:
Tertia
Alida
Cecily
Vanessa
Billie

41 comments:

Feener said...

This is very helpful. You are such a strong person.

jessica said...

You know, even though I am a social worker/therapist, I still find myself unsure of what to say when someone is grieving a loss. I know the things NOT to say and stay away from those, which is good I suppose, but many a time, I am left thinking in my head, "What to say???" I appreciated this post on what to DO. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

This is a great and practical list. My aunt just went through a loss and it's hard to know how to help someone you love, especially when they are not in a state to tell you what they need or want.

Thanks

Alice

Karen, Cape Town SA said...

Brilliant read, you taught me so much in this post, I hope to put of few of your suggestions in place when I have to deal with a situation like you describe. Thank You.
Karen, Cape Town SA

Rebecca said...

Thank you so, so much for this. It is so hard to know what to do (and what not to do) sometimes, and sometimes that leads me to not doing anything just because I am so afraid of doing the wrong thing.

Thank you for practical steps to helping me be a better friend, and a better support.

mlg said...

Hi Snick. Thanks for this great post. I must admit that I am guilty of vahuely offering help. Thanks for the great advice on that.

I totally agree with the comment "I don't know how you do it" Yes, I know being a single full time working mom of a kid with a major disabilty is A LOT! But as you said, it is what I do and what I know. I usally just say, "everyone has their shit, this is just mine." But the truth is, I don't know how I do it sometimes myself. That is one of the reasons I like reading you.. We have few peers when we are situations like these. I am not saying our situations are the same, but many of your struggles are so familiar to me.

Thanks for sharing.

Chickenpig said...

This was a very helpful list. I think a lot of the things on your list would be very helpful to the new parents of twins, even if they're not grieving. Many ppl brought us food, and if they hadn't, we would have subsisted on take out. Also a cleaning service and/or offers to get a new mom out of the house for a couple of hours. I would like to add to your list of grieving don'ts. If relatives specifically request to give money to a charity in lieu of flowers, please don't bring or send flowers. My MIL was swamped with flowers and plants of all kinds to the point where ppl at the reception couldn't move. She sent plants and flowers home with everyone, but she was quite overwhelmed.

buddha_girl said...

I think you've given us more sage advice and insight than many professionals who hand out advice that's not even been sought!

Before my Dad died, I recall telling "well-meaning" people that they should avoid voicing the "he's in a better place, god, blah blah blah, you're so strong" shit. Like you, when I lost my Dad I didn't want to hear it.

Someone said it to me when I was 15 and my sister had died in an accident. When the uncle said, "You know, she would have died anyway. If not by that car, she should have say...fallen down the stairs and broken her neck," I honestly almost MURDERED him.

Becky said...

This is a great post full of totally relevant advice. Dealing with death makes many people clam up and not know what to do/say/how to act around those who are left behind. I'm glad that you compiled this list, it will help me very much in the future.

meg said...

I think this is a great list. Thanks for compiling it.

Even though I knew most of the things on the list, I think it's really helpful to have it there in print to refer to.

Angela said...

Snick, once again another extremely well thought out and well written post. Thank you so much for the list, I'm going to keep it for future reference.

Melany aka Supermom said...

Thank you. This makes complete sense and I would never have thought of most of these.

Thank you for taking the time to write this

Kathy said...

What a great post! It's filled with practical and straightforward suggestions. I wish I had read this years ago; perhaps I might have been more help to my friends during their grief.

spare teeth said...

Thanks for this; it all seems so obvious when it's written down, but I never seem to think of these things at the time.

Emmie (Better Make It A Double) said...

What a great idea to do multiple posts on this topic - we interneters should do more of this type of thing.
This is really wonderful and helpful, and I'm printing out a copy to save for the next time someone I know is grieving. Also, not that it compares in any way with what you've been through, but so much of it also applies to people who are laid up or ill. I found myself nodding with quite a bit of it, from when I've been on bed rest or sick.

peach said...

awesome post may i copy it and print it for work? we deal with death and dying often and many many times just dont know what to say or do or better yet what NOT to say or do. thank you so much for your insight.
Hugs Laura ~peach~

halfmama said...

This is incredibly helpful, Snick. I wish we still loved close to you so I could put some of your advice to use. I can do #10 though... and I'm here to read/"listen" whenever you want to write about John.

Snickollet said...

Peach,

By all means--I'd be flattered if you wanted to use this in your work.

And Halfmama,

I, too, wish you still lived out here, but maybe someday we'll have a meetup in Chi-town when I visit my sis-in-law (when I feel brave enough to drag the twins there). And until then, keep reading about John.

And Emmie!

Yes, we should do more of this cross-posting. I'd love to do a group effort on twin tips--maybe even a series.

-snick

Nina said...

Exactly right, as always.

AlieMalie said...

thanks for posting this, Snick. i went through a period starting two years ago where i lost three friends in a 9 month period, so i think i have a decent idea of what to offer those who remain, but then i was recently confronted with death again and had no clue how to approach my friend who was grieving.

this is a good place to start.

thanks again.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting reading what people have to say regarding grief - and how different everyone's views are. In my counseling experience, I have witnessed so many clients who go through such a wide variation of ups and downs. I think this collaboration between bloggers is fantastic, but I also know that, in reality, every situation is different, and there is no "right" list of things to say. However, your things to DO is more universal, because everyone have tangible needs to meet.

The one thing I think anyone can say in almost any circumstance is "I'm sorry"...the rest is up to the situation. For instance, many, many, many people I've worked with find huge comfort in talking about reasons, God, peace in Heaven, etc. - even plenty who do not consider themselves devout in any religion. I think part of that is just a human perspective, a spiritual side of our being.

Either way, one thing this society needs to do is open up about grief. Our concept of someone dies, a funeral happens four days later and then everyone moves on is just not cutting it. We need to allow others - and ourselves - time to heal.

- A

Glizzer said...

Thank you for posting. I sat up and read through your blog, and I'm just blown away by your strength and your eloquence. Again, thanks for posting.

Glory Laine said...

I loved this so much. I want to print in out and put in a what-to-do-when-you-don't-know-what-to-do-but-you-want-to-do-something file.

Christine said...

Amazing post, Snick. Thanks for sharing.

amber said...

this is a wonderful list. thank you for posting this.

django's mommy said...

thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou. I want ALL my friends and family to read this- it captures everything I need from people perfectly!

bg's Little Sis said...

Great list, thank you so much for sharing it!

Anonymous said...

I am also a widow, my 44 yo husband felled by a quick and insidious cancer 2 years ago, and I want to add my voice to the chorus; snick's list is perfect, most especially those tangible, pracital things that can be done to help meet the grieving's person's needs. Mrs.Snick, you have my admiration as I don't think I could have written a post like yours just 7.5 months out. It's been two years now and I am just beginning to emerge from my own emotional coffin. Thanks so much for writing this. You and twins will be in my heart as you approach a difficult season of firsts.

glove said...

This is so helpful. And true - it's so much easier for me to say "Let me know how I can help," than to actually evaluate the grieving person's needs and try to meet them. I'll try to do better about that.

FunnyGal KAT said...

Great job with this post. These are all the same conclusions I came to after my mom died. I especially agree with making tangible offers of help rather than general ones. I used to say "Let me know if there's anything I can do to help" until I went through my own grieving and that's when I realized there was no way I was going to call someone and ask for help, even if they had offered.

Even after going through it, I-- like you-- still have trouble figuring out what to say to people who are grieving. But I've learned that sometimes just sitting with them or getting them out of the house for awhile can make a difference.

baasheep said...

What a great list. I hope you don't mind if I link back to it on my blog?

Thinking of you and your family.

Heather said...

Thanks for posting this! I have always been a practicer of the offering something specific (deaths, illnesses, new babies, new homes, etc.), and was worried that I was just pushy. Certainly if someone said no, I would leave them alone (unless I knew them *really* well), but for the most part when I call and say I'm going to bring dinner on Friday night, will you be home, the answer tends to be yes, thank you, do you know how to get here? So, I assume that works, and glad to know that's what you would have preferred.

kathy said...

Wow, thank you for writing this. It really is so helpful and I will probably think back on it every time someone I know loses someone.

I'm sorry about John. I can't cook, clean, babysit, or take you out, but I surely can make you laugh when you need it. :-)

fishface said...

My best friend's husband has been hospitalized for the last 5 weeks and I have been at a loss as to how to help. Thank you for making this list and giving me some guidance.

annie said...

De-Lurking to comment. I have a friend now going through deep awful- to -watch -grief with sudden loss of teen son. Your post was helpful- just keep doing and thinking ahead of her. Also, don't take any of her crabbiness personally is another thought- don't make it about your needs: just keep making the meals, walking the dog and having her younger son over for playdates or WhatEver! Concrete actions that "help" in some nano measurable way. Oh Lord, I hope, I hope.........

Julia said...

Late to the party, such as it is. But had to say "right the fuck on!"

I might tackle the subject tonight, if I have it in me. Not sure I do.

Jolene said...

what a wonderful list. Thank you. I have to admit...I'm one of those idiots that's commented "I don't know how you do it." You're right...it's not by choice. You do it because you have to. I'm sorry I was so incredibly ignorant. I admire your strength every single day.

Anonymous said...

Great list. It's too emotionally exhausting to take people up on "anything I can do." Specific offers -- boy, that's so much easier to accept, because you know they mean it.

Shelley

Serror said...

Thank you! This offers so many good ideas and insight, it makes me feel like I would have much more of an idea of what I can offer a grieving friend.

Bea said...

Very helpful and well written. Thankyou for putting this out there.

Bea

Supa Dupa Fresh said...

Okay! So this is going on my "grieving basics" post, which has been in draft form for two, um, years.