Friday, August 29, 2008

Helping The Bereaved

When someone suffers the death of a loved one, it's hard to know what to say or do and even when we send a card we don't know what to write. True?

Here's some help--both from my experience, after losing our 21 yo son to cancer, and from those who added tips for this post from our grief support group. The group consists of parents who have lost a child but most of these ideas are universal.

The outpouring of love and support we received from our family, friends and even complete strangers was phenomenal; I don't know how we would have survived without them. The best gift we received was prayer and love.

One of the hardest things was when I would see someone, like a neighbor, and I knew they knew but they never said a thing. It wasn't so much needing their sympathy (tho it's nice) but there is anxiety on both sides with the first meeting after a death. It's nice to tackle the elephant in the room. There is anxiety over what to say for both people so just get it out in the open.

So yes, rule number one: Do something, say something! ALL parents I know agree that the WORST is when people don't say ANYTHING.

If you don't know what to say (who does??) just say, "I'm really sorry," or "I don't know what to say, I'm just so sorry." Hugs can be great and don't worry if the person cries. One mom said, "Don't be afraid of the tears. They are healing and a normal way of expressing grief."

More thoughts:
Call soon if you are family or close friends; a little later if more removed. If you are able, go to the service. Several family members and some of my best friends flew in to be with us and I know it must have cost a bundle for last-minute airfares but I will forever be grateful for their love and companionship.

Send a card. If you don't know what to say just write, "I don't know what to say. I'm so sorry and wanted you to know I'm thinking about you." It's also great to share a memory of the person who died, something like, "I will always remember his great smile." Copy favorite pictures you may have.

More ideas:
Contribute to the memorial fund or donate to a non-profit of your choosing.

Food is great, especially if it can be frozen to use later.(One suggestion tho, several families said lasagna seemed to be overly popular-one family received SIX frozen lasagnas, so perhaps another selection?) Another mom said her sister and mother brought over a meal a week for a year!

Flowers--I especially love those I was able to plant in our yard to watch bloom again this year.

We also received cookie bouquets and fruit bouquets which were especially loved by our other children.

Gift cards--to restaurants, fast food, Target etc. We SOOOO appreciated those! Expenses are high following a death and of course, nobody feels like cooking!

Paper plates, cups, napkins, plastic forks, paper towels--great for large amounts of company and avoiding dishes.

Thank you notes, stamps, even help writing the notes.

Activities for the kids--art supplies, craft kits, writing supplies, balls, toys.

Books on grief for parents or kids.

A special gift; for instance, Joe'e entire high school baseball team attended the service and they all signed a baseball for us. Priceless!

Clean the house--don't ask or you will be told not to. Our church group surprised us with this. I am still mortified but it was such an act of Christian love and SO appreciated!

Offer your home for out of town guests--our neighbor did this and it was wonderful!

Offer your freezer for food.

When on the way to the store call and ask them to list five items to pick up. This works better than, "Do you need me to pick up something?"

Along the same lines, don't say, "Call me if you need anything." Instead say, "I'll call you next week to see what you need."

Offer to do errands, drive the carpool etc. Kim's godmother took her to the orthodontist for months--it was such a blessing!

Mow the lawn, pull weeds, sweep the front porch--or hire someone to get the front yard looking nice.

Detail the car--wash, wax, vacuum.

Offer to help with the funeral or memorial service.

Take the children on a fun outing giving the parents a chance to grieve without their children present. Don't ask if the parents would like you to do this, call and say you really want to do such-and-such with the kids. For us, this was one of the most helpful things.

If you are visiting the home keep the kids entertained--talk to them, cuddle, read books, give them your time and attention.

Along those lines, if the children want to talk about the person who died, let them. Patrick would openly share with his entire classroom that his brother died. The other children asked questions--good questions--like how he died, what his favorite color was, his age. The parents present usually got noticeably uncomfortable, and changed the subject.

His teacher was awesome tho! She would always acknowledge Patrick's feelings. I love her for letting Patrick feel free to bring it up all the time! Adults should take a lesson from children :-)

At the same time, remember that some children, especially older children/teens, may not want to talk about the death so respect their need to grieve in their own way.

Several parents said they didn't appreciate people trying to explain why their child died. One mom said, in regards to her daughter's sudden death, "I am a Christian but Christian cliche's are hollow and not a comfort. I know she is in heaven and do take great comfort in it. But when someone comes up with a smile and says she is in the arms of Jesus now--it isn't comforting because I want her in MY arms. Tell me you are praying for me, but don't tell me why God chose to take J. home. Quite frankly you don't know and neither do I and we will never know this side of heaven."

Keep in touch with the bereaved. One of my dearest friends sent me a card every week for months.

A card on the anniversary of the death is appreciated.

One mom had the gift of a big candle that smelled of sugar cookies and she burned it all day on the anniversary of her toddler's death.

Another mom's neighbor planted a strawberry garden in her yard because he remembered how her son loved strawberries.

Feel free to continue to talk about the lost loved one in the future. Personally, I've noticed when I bring up Joe's name, people often freeze and aren't sure what to say. It's okay to talk about him! It's not going to make me sadder by talking about him--it's not like I don't think about him all the time!

One mom said, "I think what's been helpful for me is when people are willing to listen to me talk about N. and to look at my picture of her if they've never met her. I really love it when people who did know her share a memory they had. Even though we were attached at the hip, often they will tell me something I don't remember. It's such a gift to hear these stores. Huge. I would love for people to write them down, too, but no one has done that yet! A couple of people have shared pictures they took that they hadn't given me before, and I really love that because I've looked at our pictures so many times, it's great to see other ones."

Another said, "Bring up J's name and the memories you have. She was alive for almost ten years. Don't pretend like she never existed."

Lastly, accept the fact that the bereaved will forever be changed. Things will never get back to "normal" tho there will eventually become a "new" normal. It might help to keep in mind this brief overview of an article on grief by Jana DeCristofaro entitled "Three Common Myths About Grief":

Three Common Myths About Grief:

Myth #1
We grieve in stages.
The reality is, we go back again and again through the stages.

Myth #2
There is a right way to grieve.
The reality is that everyone has their own way of handling grief.

Myth #3
Grief follows a timeline.
The reality is that grief never ends.

So, there you are, several ideas when you just don't know what to do or say.

I'll end with a HUGE THANK YOU to all of YOU, my blogger friends, for your love, support and prayers during this last year.

Thank you to our grief support group for listening and understanding and for helping with this post.

Thank you to our family and friends. You've been our rock.

Thank you God for the promise we WILL see our son again and it will be for ETERNITY!

Truly. Thank you.

One of my favorite pictures of Joe--here with our youngest son Patrick. Patrick had just cut his own hair and Joe's was just growing out after chemo. Twins!


StaceynCorey said...

Thank you for this. I have learned so much from reading your blog.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! I am going to remember these things so I can be a better friend, neighbor etc to others!

Elaine Williams said...

This is a wonderful post. I would like to add that when my husband died, and my then 11 year old went back to school, I had to tell the teacher before he went back to have the kids respect his silence on his father's death. My son was so afraid the kids would say something and he'd start crying. So for some children, this is the way they handle it. We talked about his father at home, but he didn't want to talk about it to friends at school.

Party of Seven said...

You have taught me so much the past 11 years!! You are an amazing person. Thanks for your friendship!!

Ann said...


First, I am sorry to hear of your husband's death. My heart goes out to you.

Second, yes, thank you for adding that some children, especially older children, often DO NOT want to talk about the death. That is exactly how my teenagers were. I will edit my post to reflect this. Feel free to add any other ideas for the post.


Anne said...

Thanks for permission to share this in the Sparrowgirls guest blog! I know these suggestions will be so helpful to a lot of people.