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: