“Let me know if I can do anything.” How many times have we uttered that sentence when a friend, distant relative or a colleague has informed us they have suffered a loss of a loved one? Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure most of us mean it and it seems like the right thing to say along with “I’m so sorry.” When I look back through my life, I can easily count how many times people have taken me up on my offer. As you’ve guessed, and I’m sure you can relate, it’s 0 number of times. In a time of loss and pain, people don’t want to ask others to go out of their way to help. They aren’t going to tell you they have no energy to cook, need help watching children, money to pay the bills or buy groceries. They won’t tell you they just need a hug and your gentle presence. We are afraid of impinging on people’s privacy and space. We don’t know what words to share or how to behave and in that uncertainty of what to do or say is where the subsequent isolation occurs for the one grieving. The isolation then leads to a sense of loneliness despite the rich number of friends and family willing to help but not knowing how.
Now that I’ve been through losing a close family member to cancer and experiencing the pain of grief, our family was grateful for people’s thoughts and prayers, however, we very much appreciated those friends who did simple things such as bring us a meal, watch our children (so we could have some quiet time) and checked in on us to see how we were doing. It was those who walked in our shoes through their own similar experiences who didn’t shy away, knew the right words to say and were insistent on being there for us in a tangible way. So what can you do if you haven’t walked in our shoes but want to be there for your friend, colleague or relative who’s lost a loved one? Here are few suggestions which really helped our family.
1. Ask “How are you doing?” The question is open-ended enough that it allowed me to elaborate on the days I felt like talking or cut the conversation short on the days I didn’t. There were days I didn’t want to talk about my feelings, however, I felt more alienated by those who never asked. The common mistake most people make is to assume they will make the person more depressed by asking, hence, reminding them of their pain.
2. Bring a meal. Sounds simple enough, however, this was much appreciated on several occasions when there was no time or energy to feed my family. Close friends didn’t ask if they could bring us a meal, they just asked what time they should drop it off.
3. If there are small children in the family offer to watch them or pick them up from school. We were so grateful for those families who took our children for play dates or out to meals with their children. It gave us some down time to let us be present with each other and our feelings.
4. Consider gift cards. This is helpful whether there are financial constraints or not. If there are financial constraints, I think it’s harder for people to accept cash, therefore, a gift card to a local grocery store or department store will be appreciated. On the other hand, we were given gift cards to local restaurants, which as stated above, allowed us to spend more time with family than worrying about cooking and cleaning.
5. As a follow-up to #1. We noticed immense support initially, however, it began to dwindle as the months went on which is understandable, however, those that have walked in the same shoes have continued to check in with us and see how we are doing. Nothing too intrusive but that great open ended question of “How are you doing?”
This is a short list but nevertheless a few suggestions that pulled me through some of the darkest times during the grieving process. For those that have gone through losing a loved one, what to do for a friend feels more natural, however, I hope this blog post will help others who genuinely want to help but don’t know how. It would be great to hear more suggestions from those who have experienced support from others so that I can expand this list.