We have been there. We have cried with family members that have lost loved ones. We have comforted friends that have lost those closest to them. We have experienced our own loss and leaned heavily on our own family members and friends for support. And what we have learned is there are ways in which friends and family members can help that are invaluable and even crucial to helping those that have experienced loss. So here’s a list of what we consider to be the top 10 ways you can help.
In addition, we have listed an example from our own lives that describes what we were able to do when help was needed.
1. Be prepared to temporarily place your life on hold.
When a family member or close friend experiences loss be prepared to drop everything and be there for them. They are going to need a support system now more than ever and most things in your life can be rescheduled, rearranged or reassigned. Whether it’s a weekend vacation or a dentist appointment, under most circumstances, businesses are very understanding when it comes to loss and will go the extra mile to be accommodating and assist however they can.
It’s also important to realize that placing your life on hold does not become the burden of the grieving party. Cancel your plans, rearrange your schedule, do what needs to be done and do your best to keep the information to yourself. The family or friend that is grieving doesn’t need the added pressure of knowing that you had plans or cancelled plans in order to be with them.
Example: Placing your life on hold
Alice’s husband, Frank, passes away. Dan, Alice’s brother, and his wife have a weekend getaway planned for the weekend of the funeral. Dan cancels all reservations so that they can attend the funeral. Although the hotel and the rental car company were accommodating, the airline was not and they were not refunded the cost of their tickets. Dan gently dismisses any conversation about the getaway, with the response of “Our place is here with you and the family.” And when asked if they were able to receive all of their money back, the answer is yes, regardless of whether or not that is true. Again, there is no need to add additional stress to the grieving family members.
2. Patience and listening are key.
Come ready to be patient. There may be periods of simply sitting in silence or repeat conversations or fits of anger and tears. And often times what those that are grief stricken need is presence and acceptance - the presence of others so they aren’t alone and the acceptance to let their emotions take over when they will and give in to those emotions. Be willing to have the same conversation over and over again. When ‘Why’ is asked, it’s okay to not have an answer or to say “I don’t know” or to simply give a hug. Be willing to listen and then listen again.
Patience is also key when it comes to getting tasks accomplished during the immediate thereafter of loss. There are facts to gather for the obituary, pictures to compile, a eulogy to write, countless other details that need to be taken care of. And the family may need some gentle prodding or persuasion to get these tasks taken care of. Be patient with your time and know that along the way of gathering facts or choosing pictures, the family may stop and reminisce or remember a moment and need to express their emotions. And allow them that opportunity. Do not rush or push the process.
Example: Being Patient and Listening
Alice’s husband,Frank, passed away on a Friday. The local paper needs the information for the obituary by Tuesday at 5:00 pm. Alice’s siblings sat down with her and the children on Tuesday morning and asked a few questions at a time, allowing the family to memorialize Frank as they went through the timeline of when he went to college, got married, etc. They took a break where needed and then after a half hour or so, Dan, Alice’s brother, would gently steer the family back to getting the questions finished. Although the entire process of filling out the obituary questionnaire took about four hours, the family was never rushed through the process and the deadline was still met.
3. Think about how you can REALLY help them.
We all have our strengths. What are you good at? How can your strengths as a person help the family? Are you organized? Get meals planned with friends and family that want to drop off food. Good with words? Offer to take notes for the obituary or the eulogy. Offer to pick up out of town guests at the airport, make calls to family and friends, mow the lawn, keep an eye on children, go and get coffee. There are any number of things that can be done to help the family, normal tasks that right now, may take extraordinary effort during a time of grief. Be ready to help however you can.
And know that sometimes just doing something, anything, is okay. Walk in the kitchen and take care of any dishes in the sink. Take a quick look in the fridge to see what is needed and run to the store and grab it. Straighten up, grab some coffees, make hotel arrangements or phone calls. During a time of loss with all the questions and decisions that need to be made, sometimes making one more decision over a trivial matter is simply too much.
Example: Offer them real help
Nancy, a close friend to Alice, runs a catering company. The days following Frank’s death, Nancy sent over pints of soup, fresh sandwiches and salads to feed the family as well as any out of town guests. Everything was in containers and labeled and could be thrown in the microwave to reheat. Nancy sent paper plates, napkins and plastic silverware so that Alice could simply set things out and allow people to help themselves.
4. Don’t be afraid to use your own resources.
There are flowers for the service to be ordered, food to be arranged for a reception after, people to contact, pictures to collect. If you have resources at your fingertips - use them! Have a close friend who is a florist? Give them a call. Know someone that owns a cleaning service? Put them on standby. Know a caterer? Arrange to have food delivered. A manager at a hotel? Call and have a hold put on rooms for out of town guests. Don’t be afraid to use the resources you have available at your fingertips to assist family during a time of need.
It is important, however, to remember the wishes of the family and be respectful when using your own resources. If it pertains to the funeral or memorial services, ask the family before making any sort of concrete decisions. Although it may seem like a minor decision to you, for the family that is grieving, it may or may not be so minor. Be mindful of their loss always.
Example: Use your own resources
Dan, Alice’s brother, has a close friend that owns a limo company. Dan spoke with the owner of the limo company and the owner was happy to provide limo service to and from the services for Alice and her children and any additional immediate family at no charge. Before making the arrangements, Dan spoke with Alice and told her of the limo company’s offer. Alice refused, telling Dan that she wanted to ride in Frank’s classic car with her children to and from the service. Dan asked her if she would like a driver from the limo service to chauffeur them in Frank’s car and Alice instantly approved of the idea.
5. Be accepting of offers to help.
We all have countless friends who ask during times of loss “What can I do to help?” Don’t be afraid to accept the help. Send a willing friend to collect pictures from family members. Let the neighbor have the kids for the day. Allow a relative to send over dinner. At the end of the day, people truly do want to help however they can. This is not a time to be proud - it’s a time to say, “Yes, I would appreciate your help very much.”Allowing others to help you during a difficult time helps your focus be on the family and being a support system for them.
Also be understanding of those friends that are close to you that don’t know what to say or do to help. Maybe they simply sent a card, called you on the phone, sent a text. Everyone deals with death differently and for some that may mean they say or do little because they are uncomfortable or don’t want to say the wrong thing. Know that people do care and don’t assume that a lack of offer to help means a lack of compassion or sadness for the loss in your life.
Example: Say yes when others offer help
When Frank died, Dan and his wife spent the next several days with Alice. Dan has three young children and it was during the school year. Dan’s mother-in-law asked how she could help and Dan asked if she could be at their home when their children got off the bus so that the kids weren’t alone. His mother-in-law readily agreed and for the next several days, stayed at their home every evening until Dan and his wife got home. This allowed Dan and his wife the ability to focus all of their attention on Alice and her children and to assist them in any way they could.
6. Don’t take anything personal.
Emotions are at an all time high during a time of loss. Don’t be offended or take personally anything that is said or left unsaid. This is not about you. It’s about the loss of a child, a parent, a spouse and your job is simply to be there and support however you can. If you are helping writing the obituary and the family doesn’t like what you wrote or wants it rewritten, than do exactly as they asked with no hurt feelings. They may not like the pictures you chose, your music suggestions, the food that you brought. And all of that is okay. Just remember that it isn’t a time that’s about you and go above and beyond to respect the wishes of the family no matter how big or how small the task.
And it’s okay to take a minute and simply take a break. If emotions are running high and you are in need of a breather, take one. Go outside and give yourself five or ten minutes to just decompress and feel your own emotions. It is not easy being the support system for someone that has experienced loss. So take a break when need be, let things go that could be taken personally and get back to doing whatever you can to assist the family.
Example: It's not about you. Don't take it personal
Alice asked for Dan’s assistance with writing a message for Frank’s social media page. His page was inundated with people expressing their sorrow over his passing but Alice simply was not emotionally ready to read all of the messages. She asked Dan to write a message, thanking people for the posts and asking them to please respect the privacy of the family at this time. It took Dan several drafts before the post was exactly as Alice wanted it. He made every change she asked for and posted the message immediately.
7. Be willing to do things that the family may not be able to do.
There may be tasks that have to be done that the family is just to raw and full of grief that they simply can’t. It could be going in a loved one’s bedroom to choose the burial clothes, cleaning out a vehicle after a car accident, emptying a safe deposit box, gathering clothes or belongings from a crematorium. Be willing and able to put your own emotions on the back burner and help the family with these tasks as the emotional burden of completing the tasks themselves may very well just be too much to handle.
And sometimes these may be tasks that the family doesn’t ask you to do but they simply need someone to step up and do them. Don’t be intrusive but if the family is looking for something and simply can’t bring themselves to go into a bedroom, a vehicle, an office to look for it - gently suggest that you are willing to do so for them. Depending on the closeness of your relationship, for some, it wouldn’t be intrusive to simply look for the item, being careful not to disturb or disrupt anything. It all depends on the personal relationship you share with the deceased and the sensitivity of the task.
Example: Contribute by serving others
Frank died in a car accident. When his belongings were gathered from the site of the accident, his laptop was missing. Alice spoke with the police department and the towing company and no one had any knowledge of the laptop. The house had been searched with the exception of Frank’s office which Alice could not bring herself to enter. Dan, Alice’s brother, went into Frank’s office and took a look around without disturbing any of the papers or other materials in the office. He saw a laptop bag on the floor next to desk, looked inside and saw Frank’s laptop. He then left the office and let Alice know that the laptop was in Frank’s office so she no longer had to worry about tracking it down.
8. Be a buffer if necessary.
Maybe it’s an annoying, intrusive family member or friend. Or the phone hasn’t stopped ringing. Or it’s the nosy neighbor from across the street. The family may need a buffer during this time. Don’t be afraid to gently pull the person aside and tell them in a nice way to give the family some space. Answer the phone and take messages. Greet the neighbor at the door, thank them for their kind words and that you’ll be sure to pass them on to the family.Being a buffer allows the family to focus on their own grief and not be burdened with additional stress.
Know that when being the buffer, it may or may not be well received by the recipient. When people feel they are trying to help and their efforts are being rebuffed this can easily cause hurt feelings and misunderstanding. Be prepared for anything and do your best to not only diffuse the situation but to also not call any attention to any misbehavior or bad manners from the recipient.
Example: Mitigate tense situations
Alice’s stepmom, Karen, could be bossy and abrasive at times and Alice and Karen have a very strained relationship. Karen came into the house and immediately started to take charge and make decisions that Alice was upset by. Dan, Alice’s brother, gently pulled Karen aside and said that Alice is having a very difficult time and is very sensitive. He told Karen that he completely understood that she too was grieving, having lost her step-son, and that he was sure that there were things that Karen wanted included in the services. He said he would be happy to relay any wishes to Alice for her in due time and that wouldn’t it be a good idea to write it all down. Karen was receptive and Dan sat with her for the next half hour, discussing her ideas. This not only allowed Karen to feel ‘heard’ but also gave Alice a much needed reprieve.
9. Be okay just being.
What exactly does that mean? Be willing to just be present with the family. There doesn’t have to be constant conversation. Maybe they just need someone to sit in the family room while they go take a nap. Maybe, for an hour, they want to try to have a normal conversation or talk about something completely meaningless. And maybe they just need you to sit and let them cry. Don’t be afraid to just ‘be’. That in itself can be a tremendous comfort.
And know that you don’t always need to be strong. You are grieving the loss as well and don’t be afraid to cry with them. Reminisce, talk, be angry and sad together. Let them be your guide and do your best to show support and love during the time of loss.
Example: Take the time that is needed
Alice asked Dan to write the eulogy for Frank. As Dan was taking notes, Alice was reminiscing and brought up a camping trip they had all taken together. Dan put down his pen and they spent an hour laughing over the memories they had made. And then Alice broke down in tears. Dan simply sat with her, saying nothing for the next several minutes. When Alice was ready, they continued talking about the eulogy and the finished product contained memories from the camping trip. Not only were Dan and Alice allowed to share in a memory of someone they both loved, by talking about it and reminiscing, Dan was able to bring life to the story and make it a poignant part of the eulogy.
10. Be there for the long haul.
After the services, life returns to normal for everyone but those that have suffered the loss. The days, weeks and months ahead will bring with them many firsts - first birthdays without, special occasions and holidays without, milestones where they are without their loved one. Be there for them for the long haul. Continue to call, stop by, bring meals, help and support however you can. Their life will never be the same and finding a way to move forward after loss is not something that happens overnight. Let them know that not only is their loss not forgotten but neither have they been forgotten.
Know that the grieving process can take months and even years. And that it truly is a process and everyone’s journey is different. Continue to be patient and understanding and present in their life.
There is no rule book about how to support our family or friends that have suffered loss. Being present in their lives and doing what you can to support them at the time of loss and in the months ahead can help them in their journey of grief and finding a way to move forward.