We never know what to do when the family member or friend of someone we love dies. We want to help and our intentions are meaningful but sometimes our actions don't follow through or are not really what is needed. So how do we help when we feel so helpless? We often find ourselves caught between wanting to do anything and wanting to give people the space and time to grieve.
Our family lost my father in law this past January. It had been some time since I went through such a traumatic loss and I had completely forgotten what it feels like. To be honest, going through such a sorrowful event feels like you don't want anything from anybody and at the same time needing everything from everybody. It's like a voice in your head is screaming out "help me, I'm drowning, but don't get too close because I'm a mess." You live on another spectrum for those few days and its hard to make sense of your own world and do the normal things you are supposed to be doing. It's like you don't even think about what needs to be done much less have the energy or want to do them. Life is still moving and people are coming and going and you can't control or get a grasp on any or it, so all you do is smile and say thank you and wonder why life hasn't stopped for everyone else.
Grief is strange and hard and disrupts your life like nothing else and although we need people, sometimes people don't know what we need. So I have made a list of some ideas of what to do and not to do when someone you love is grieving.
Don't bring food after, bring it during.
When my father in law was in his last few days of his battle with cancer, our entire family gathered around promising to not leave his side. We took shifts staying up with him, we drank gallons of coffee and we took turns running to town to load up on more water, cokes, toilet paper and every other thing you can think of. My husband and I were actually at KFC getting lunch for everyone when he passed. I know its awkward and I know you think you are being intrusive, but trust me, you are not. Bring us food! Bring us plates and cups and napkins and cokes and coffee and cookies. We need to stay right there every moment. THIS was when we needed people. Once he passed we had more food than we could ever eat. When someone is dealing with the passing of a loved one you can show up and drop off supplies. Stay if you want, pray with us if you want or just drop it off and leave. But do this when we need it the most, not when we are dressed in black and unable to eat a thing.
Clean the bathroom.
I had a dear friend say to me that when her friend lost her spouse she didn't know what to do to help. But this friend had boys and boys have issues hitting the toilet sometimes. So when her husband died my friend thought to clean the bathrooms for all her visitors. And so that is what she did. There was no need to make a big announcement and if you can do it in secret, even better! Just show up, bring a toy for the child or a new bone for the dog and ask if you can use the bathroom. Does it need cleaning? Clean it. This is something a grieving person is not going to think about nor do they need to worry with a dirty bathroom. This is one of the most generous and selfless ideas I have heard and it may be my favorite.
Do laundry, clean the car or buy groceries.
Just like with the bathroom, things still need to be done. If the family of the deceased is having lots of out of town guests coming to visit then there is a lot you can do to help. Don't ask. Just look around, is the laundry piled up? Is there soccer stuff, shoes and old fast food bags in their car? Clean it. Make a grocery list based on items in the fridge and cabinet, ask the kids what their favorite meal or snack is and go pick up and deliver those items back to the house. Put everything away and even make the first meal. Do the kids need to return to school soon? What are some lunch box ideas? Can you pre-make anything such as a casserole to put in the freezer with warming directions taped to the top. All the things that need to be done at your own house still need to be done here too and the person grieving is in no shape to handle all the things.
YES! Instead of bringing food, bring a gift card. We had a few people do this for us and we loved being able to go out to eat days or sometimes weeks later at our favorite place without the guilt of throwing out food we never ate. Maybe you have a funny story about the person who has passed and you can share that memory with the family along with the gift card to their favorite restaurant. Retail stores, grocery stores and even Visa cards are all appreciated.
Plants are the worst!
I may be alone here but I appreciated the flowers sent to the funeral home so much more. They were pretty and smelled nice and in a few days I would throw them in the trash. But not the plants. The plants lurk around as a constant reminder of what you have just been through. I hate the plants and I recently just got rid of our last one that had been sitting my living room for 10 months because I just can't look at it anymore.
Please don't try to make sense of this.
Look, we know you mean well. And we are thinking "this person really means well" as you are saying things like, it was just his time or she's not in pain now. That's not helpful. You know what is, when you tell me a good story that I may not know. When you share with us something that happened that was really funny or borderline embarrassing when you both were 14. That is what we want to hear. The good stuff. This makes no sense and it won't for a long time. Don't rationalize this right now.
The last point I want to make is more about my own personal issues with loyalty. Perhaps you feel the same way or maybe this doesn't matter at all to you. But just hear me out. There were people that took time, days off of work to hold our hands and just listen and bring us another glass of water. There were people that made arrangements for their children and drove hours to hug us and smile and say call me if you need anything. There were people that came to the visitation, handed me flowers, hugged my neck then drove 2 hours back home. There were people that just couldn't be there but called and texted and called some more. Those friends showed up. And I will forever be grateful.
Have any other ideas? Share them!
Photo cred: Funerals.com