Around the holidays a woman whom I’ve been friendly with for years lost her husband. I immediately got a card to send, but I never sent it. I felt that my words would be so inadequate, but as I told her in the card when I finally sent it, “there is nothing that can be said to change the situation so I’m here to send you love and support.”
Here is the question that I get asked a lot-“What can I do when a friend loses a loved one?”
As I was working on this post, this article- 15 Ways to support someone grieving came up on Facebook.
It has been 5 years since R passed away. I feel that I can finally process some things without completely losing my mind. As I’ve said several times, I have had the most wonderful support in the world- in all areas of my life. I know that many who lose a loved one do not have the support like I had.
I thought it might be helpful to share some specific things that people did for me to give some examples of things that can be done to help a friend.
1. Show up: I can’t begin to remember all the people who stopped by the house- most bringing food. One thing you can do is just show up and let the family know that you care. There is so much to do after a death, but there are some long, down times during the day as well. Having people stop by helps with the void/ space in that time.
2. Take food: We had so much food that I had to tell my co-workers to stop the meal calendar they were setting up. There was just no way we would have been able to eat all of the food. If you can’t take food, take paper goods. Napkins, plates, cups are always helpful at a time like this.
3. Send flowers, donate money etc in honor of the loved one. I can’t tell you the flowers that were sent to our house and the funeral home. A friend offered to take care of flowers. When C and I drove up to the house, our front porch was full of flowers and plants. I gave many of the plants away. I have a friend who sends me updates on how the Ivy is doing. It means so much. I also was able to reread the cards later and found that it gave me great strength.
4. Do something for the kids: My kids and their friends would gather outside by the pool to talk during those first few days. So many of my friends would make sure they went out there to say hi to the kids and give them a hug- it meant so much. My friend Claire’s husband paid for M and two of her friends to go get pedicures. Who would think of that? But Joe did- he wanted M to have something to help take her mind off of everything.
5. Be normal: After things calmed down a bit, my friends, Laura and Lori continued coming over to my house. The three of us had gotten together with every Thursday afternoon for years. That Thursday afternoon ritual continued, except they came more than just Thursdays. One would call the evening before and say, “Hey, we are stopping by for 30 minutes after school tomorrow.” It felt so good to have something so normal in my very abnormal new life.
6. Go the extra mile: My sister started staying at least one night a week with me after my kids went back to college. She had a full-time job, but she made the time and made the effort to be there so I wouldn’t go all week by myself every night. She will never know how much it meant to me to have her there. We cried all the time at first, but we always told each other that we knew there would come a time when we would get together and not cry- And we were right. We still have our moments, but we can now get together and laugh at stories.
7. Give them space- (and make them have some alone time) I went through a terrible period where the transition from my job at school as a middle school librarian to home sent me into a tailspin. It seems strange, but that was my reality. I became very anxious about going home to that empty house. My friend Pam S. called one day just as I got in my car to go home. I told her of my struggle, and she said, “You need to go home and cry.” She had been a friend who called to check on me, stopped by the house, etc, but in her wisdom on that day, she stayed away. She made me face my grief. I felt so much better the next day after an afternoon of tears and severe sadness from my grief.
8. In the same vein, Don’t leave a person: It was during this same time period where the transition time from school to home was excruciating that another great friend, Pam R, did some training for teachers at my school. We walked out together at the end of the day, and she could tell that something was wrong. She asked and I told her of my anxiety. She ended up going home with me and helping through that time. I know she was so ready to get home after a long day. She had dinner to fix for her family, but she stayed with me until I felt better!!
9. Send a candle: doesn’t that sound simple, but it meant so much. I would have never thought of it, but that is what someone did for me. One day I had a card in the mail from a childhood friend named Sandy. She wrote some very sweet words and included a gift card to Anthropologie. She told me that she hoped I could use the gift card to buy a candle and told me that her favorite candle was Volcano. It just happens to be my favorite candle as well. I went straight to Anthropologie and bought a Volcano candle. I thought of her and her kindness every time I burned it. (We live about 500 miles from each other so I thought this was such a great thing to do when you can’t physically be there.)
10. Send a card: Getting cards over time helps so much. It is like a hug from someone miles away. Once again one time, I had a card in the mail. This time from another great childhood friend, Alan. He handwrote the lyrics to the song, “I Still Believe” by Jeremy Camp. Alan and I share the same Christian faith so his taking the time to do that meant so much to me. Reading the words to that song gave me so much strength. I added that song to my running playlist, and I still run to it today. I text him every once in a while and tell him that I just ran to it. I want him to know that it still means so much to me!! He’s going through a rough time right now too, and I want to encourage him as well!!
11. Tell your stories of the one who has passed. M left for a study abroad study in Spain one month after her dad died. Our great childhood friend, Ronald, called her the night before she left. He wanted her to have a little piece of her dad before the trip. He told her stories about growing up with her dad. He talked about the future with her and listened to her goals and dreams. He will never know how much it meant to both me and M for him to make that phone call. I know that phone call was probably a hard one to make, but he wanted to show that he knew this next step was going to be hard and that he cared.
12. Be available. I started emailing Dr. T that summer after R passed away. He told me on several occasions that he was going to be there for me whenever I needed him- night or day. He reminded me all the time that he wasn’t going anywhere. He was a strong and steady presence in my life. He wasn’t physically there because he lived so far away, but he was emotionally there for me. He let me open up to him and I knew that those conversations would stay between us- that is the kind of friend he had always been.
13. Encourage them. I had many people encourage me, but my mom was my biggest cheerleader. She encouraged me every step of the way. I remember how lonely some of those weekends were. No one home, nothing specific to have to do. My mom encouraged me that I could do it, and also told me to call her as many times as I needed throughout the day. I took her up on it several times and just called for a couple of minutes many times throughout a Saturday to help me make it through.
14. Share a new experience- make new memories. I had decided to train for a marathon with some running friends a few weeks before R passed away. Beth and Laura kept me going through the months of training- they never wavered in their commitment to run that marathon with me!! What an accomplishment that was to cross that finish line after 26.2 miles! A very new experience for me– and made all the better by sharing it with great friends (and my sister and daughter who came to see me)!!
I really think the main thing is to simply acknowledge that a tragedy has happened. Let the person know that you know they are going through a terrible time. Acknowledge that you care. Acknowledge that you love them.
Acknowledge what has happened- then you can follow the person’s lead on how to continue. Everyone’s grief journey is different. No two people are alike. No two relationships are alike. What you do for one person may not be what you do for another. The point is to just do something.