Apr 29, 2013

How to help when someone grieves

I know this isn't a craft or recipe related post but it is related to my life and since this is a blog about my life I thought I would share in hopes of helping at least one other person know how to help someone during the grieving process.
First I just want to say that these ideas are not universal and that this is not the Bible on the subject.  I am writing this list because before I actually went through the death of my father I really had no idea how to really help someone else.  I thought I did, but after having gone through this myself I realized that there are so many different ways to help someone that can really make a big difference beyond casseroles (which there is nothing wrong with casseroles).  I wanted to share some things that we experienced that were really helpful and also some things that I wished would have happened that would have really helped and hopefully the ideas will one day really help someone else.
1. The grieving process may begin long before someone passes away, and may not end for a long time after a funeral has taken place.  In our case, my family really has been grieving for 2 years now.  My dad's cancer was always considered terminal but he was blessed to have it go into remission multiple times in the last 2 years.  It was wonderful news every time but our family sure was on a roller coaster of sad news, happy news, sad news, happy news and in the end it was just sad news on almost a daily basis.  I am starting with this because any of the ideas that I share in this post can be done at any time.  They do not have to be limited to when a death actually occurs.  I had a dear friend bring my family meals a few different times over the last months-even after I got home from being at my parents house and having a funeral.  It is always nice to know that someone is thinking of you.  If you think, "But I don't really have a reason to go or take or stop by or drop off" do it anyway.  Chances are, most of the time you may not know why you feel a need to do something but the person or family you are doing it for most certainly does-it is because they need it.
2. Use your words.  Do you ever hear parents tell their children that?  Words are powerful.  Use them-share your feelings, share your thoughts or memories about the person who has passed away, use them to encourage and show love.  But be careful that the words you speak are genuine and meaningful.  Don't say that you "know how someone feels" if you don't really know.  Don't minimize what someone might be feeling.   If you don't know what to say then say that, "I don't really know what is best for me to say so I just want to tell you how very sorry I am."  It is better to say something than nothing at all.  One thing that I really loved was people who called our house to ask how we were, to say how much they loved my dad and to see if we needed help.  I also loved everyone who gave us a card with a personal message in it about our family or my dad or a memory they had.  Those kind of things just warmed our hearts.  One of my best friends called a few days after the funeral and it just made me cry because her voice was just like a hug-and I knew she would be giving me one if she was there right then.  Also one other note about words: some people may not feel like talking and that is okay too.  It might just be an overwhelming time and a phone conversation is not feasible at the time.  Leave a message or send a text or type an e-mail.  Friends told me that they didn't want to bother me, but I wanted to be bothered.  I wanted to read their messages and hear their voices.  I just wasn't able to get back to them each time but I needed to know I wasn't alone.  Express your sympathy and concern and don't expect anything back.  Your words will still be meaningful.  
3. Go if you can.  You might think, "Oh they are too busy and it won't matter if I am there or not," or, "I don't want to be in the way or be a bother," or, "I don't know what I would say or do," but let me assure you that in most cases none of those are true.  Yes for a family member involved in a funeral service, it is a super busy day but never too busy to receive a hug from a dear friend.  We were so blessed at my dad's funeral to see friends that we hadn't seen in years and it was like a ray of sunshine on what might feel like a really cloudy day.  I have to say that I am a bit jealous of my brother and sister in law who had friends drive about 8 hours to be with my brother and his wife at my dad's funeral.  They didn't even know my dad but they knew my brother and his wife and came just to be there as support, to cry and to hug and to visit.  That is what you need at a time like this so if you can go and be there to give a hug and shed tears with a friend do it.  It will mean so much.
4. Take something.  When a death occurs many people think of sending food.  This can be a great help.  Who wants to think about what to make for dinner when you are in the midst of funeral plans and family coming and going and trying to make decisions when your head feels like it is spinning.  Here are a few tips I want to share about taking food:
-If you can, use disposable containers so that the family doesn't have to worry about getting anything back to you.
-While it is very popular to take a dinner meal you might want to consider other meals like breakfast or lunch.  I think breakfast is a great idea because it is hard enough to wake up in the morning and face another day knowing a family member has passed away, let alone think of making breakfast.  Muffins, doughnuts, a breakfast casserole, breakfast sandwiches, fruit and yogurt or breakfast burritos are all great ideas.
-If you think a family might have more food then they can handle then maybe consider a gift card to a restaurant to get something at a later date.  Remember that the grieving may go on for a while and there may be an especially difficult day down the road when this could be really helpful.
-Remember that there may be others taking food to a family and while any food is usually welcome, too much food may be overwhelming.  I know that we think, "oh well, they will have leftovers if I make a huge amount," but if they are getting a new meal everyday there may just be too many leftovers to take care of.  So take food, but take a reasonable amount.
Now if you don't want to take food, or don't know what food to take here is another GREAT idea of what to take: PAPER PLATES, BOWLS, CUPS, PLASTIC CUTLERY.  My mom and I decided this will be our "go to" idea for funerals (and I would include having a baby too, or during an illness).  Dishes are just overwhelming and who cares about them when there are so many more important things to worry about.  A huge bag of paper plates is a lifesaver during stressful times.
5. Offer service.  While it is really easy to say, "let me know if you need something," the truth is that those words really are of no help at all.  Why not say, "can I come do your laundry?" or "can I come rake your leaves?", "can I vacuum for you?"  They might say no, or they might say yes but it is better to come with an idea rather than waiting for the family to give you a suggestion.  Think about all the things that you do in a home on a daily basis.  Now add a death on top of all of that.  We were so busy the week following my dad's death that when my brothers friend arrived to be with out family I took one look around our house and said, "Oh crap...it looks like we are a sloppy bunch of hoarders around here." Stuff was piled up everywhere, dishes were piled up, the table hadn't been cleared off  and the floor hadn't been swept in days.  We just hadn't had time.  Our sewer backed up two days after my father died and my mom came down with a stomach flu.  There were plenty of things that could be done.  Another great service: taking the kids for a bit. Oh how dearly we love our children but it is very difficult to mourn when you have children to tend to as well.  They aren't as aware of what is going on and life just continues as normal for them.  They don't understand the stress of a household and it is such a relief to have someone watch them for a bit.  We had friends offer to take our kids during the viewing and also during the funeral service and I am forever grateful. The kids in our family were too young to go to either thing and it was nice to just have those few hours to be in the moment and really "feel".  It wasn't until the day of the funeral that everything finally hit me because I had a moment to breath and soak everything in.  Child care is such a necessary service that can be offered.
6. Consider a donation.  Many families have specifics about where or how they want you to donate money so do a bit of investigating first.  If you are not near by or don't have a clue how else to help then maybe you will want to consider making a donation.  We received many donations from family and friends and while it is hard to sometimes accept money from other people, it was actually very much appreciated.  There are so many extra expenses that come with a funeral and having family coming and going and when all the dust settles it might be just what the family needs: a little bit of extra cash on hand.  This might not be welcomed by all so be careful but it is a very generous gesture.  We used some of the extra money we received to help each of my siblings and I with travel expenses we each had with getting to our home in Canada.
7. Shed tears.  If you have the gift of weeping then don't hold back.  Some people are not comfortable with crying but some can't hold the tears back.  I share this because I just want to say that it is such a great comfort to be able to cry with someone you love.  The day my mom took my brother to the airport I found myself home alone with my kids.  Everyone else was gone.  I called one of my best friends and said, "my husband is gone, my brothers are gone and my dad is gone and I don't know what to do."  I cried and she did too and said, "I am just so sorry."  I didn't need anything more than that at that moment.
8.  Check back in.  You may do some or all of the above things and then move on into your normal routine but just remember while it might be easy for your to move on, the wound of death may take a very long time to heal for a family member.  It is very comforting to have support and communication during the actual event but when all of that tapers off or even ends shortly after a funeral it may be very lonely for the family.  So if you can, check back in.  Call a few weeks later and a few months later.  The family may have to be back to normal life too but I guarantee that there won't be a day that goes by that they don't think about the recent event.  You may even want to wait and spread out your service over time.  The paper plates may run out after two weeks but the desire to do dishes may also not have returned yet so maybe wait and take paper plates 2 or 3 weeks later.  Or just drop off a meal out of the blue with a message, "I was thinking of you and wondered if you might not want to cook tonight."  Offer service down the road.  In our case with the death of the father/husband of the family we also lost our mechanic, our plumber, our electrician, our garbage man, and our gas service attendant.  When my brothers left and my husband had left and it was just my mom and me and my kids I was so nervous that something might go wrong and I wouldn't know how to fix it.  Keep that in mind, "What roles did the person who passed away play in that family and what might they now need help with."  A phone call, a visit, a hug and a cry might be needed weeks later when everyone else seems to have moved on.
 I hope this list has been helpful to someone.  If you haven't gone through this then it is really hard to know what to do.  I hope I have been able to share what I learned from going through this myself and what I will do when someone that I know and love has to go through the hardship known as death.  Do you have any suggestions that you would like to add?
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  1. Well written and full of ideas to make you think. So sorry to hear of your loss and wishes for you that the days will pass quickly and smoothly.

  2. These are really helpful ideas, because I'm never sure what to do in these situations. Thanks for taking the time to post them. I'm very sorry for your loss!

  3. Heather-Thank you so much for posting these. They are so helpful. I will definitely refer back to them when others go through loss of loved ones. Thank you for taking the time to put this together. Love ya...Ashlee

  4. Heather thank you for this post, great suggestions of things I had never thought of. I especially liked your last suggestion. When my own father passed away unexpectedly a year and half ago the support I had initially was amazing but soon after everyone got back to their lives and I was still grieving. It would have been nice to have some people "check back in" even months later.


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