If you’ve never lost someone close to you it’s hard to know what to do when a friend experiences a death. Even if it’s been a while since you’ve lost someone, it’s easy to forget what to say and do in the days and weeks after.
I’ve had several major losses — all my grandparents, both parents, and my best friend — but it’s still hard to remember what to do for others when they lost a loved one. My mom just passed away and I’m noting the things that people did or that I wish they would have done. I’m writing this as a reminder.
File this post away and when you hear of a death, check back for ideas on how to help.
Yes, it’s awkward to talk to someone who has just lost a loved one. Do it anyway. The phone call I think I will always remember from the past week since my mom died is the most awkward one. I got a phone call at 7:15pm or so and I was already in bed because grief is exhausting. It was about five or so minutes of “s#@$. I’m just so sorry.” It almost meant more that this person made the phone call and had no idea what to say. Don’t wait until you have the right words; you will never have the right words. Just call. Text. Send a card. The awkwardness usually matches what the grieving person is feeling anyway.
Do something tangible.
Texts, Facebook and Instagram messages, and phone calls are wonderful. I was flooded with condolences via social media and it was nice to sit and read those when I didn’t know what else to do. I found myself, however, wishing someone would show up with a casserole. I went to the mailbox every day hoping for a card. I wished for flowers. I am not sure what it is about food, flowers, and sympathy cards, but holding something in your hands after a loss eases the pain a bit. It doesn’t have to be big or expensive — just a card or a small bouquet or some cookies — but do something tangible.
A funeral in the age of Covid is not like the funerals of the past. We did no receiving of friends for my mom and the only service was graveside. I knew it would be a small gathering and because our family cemetery is quite literally in the middle of nowhere, when people showed up, I was absolutely blown away. The fact that people took time out of their lives to drive an hour or more to be there for my mom — for me — well, it left me speechless. Even when my dad passed away 20 years ago, the people who took time to show up to the funeral are forever in my memory. The hugs. The tears. The “I am so sorry” looks on all those faces. It means something. If at all possible, show up.
Don’t ask what to do; just do it.
So many people have offered that old “let me know what you need” line and, while it’s so appreciated, I don’t know what to say. In the days and weeks after a loss, your brain doesn’t work. You feel tired and numb and the last thing you can do is think of what you need. Especially being a mom and losing my mom, what I needed was someone to just do what I needed without me having to ask. I told my husband several times, “I just want someone to put food in front of me and tell me to eat it.” Instead, I’m still the mom, putting food in front of my family and telling them to eat it, but not actually eating anything myself.
Be gentle, and let grief happen.
When my mom passed away we couldn’t tell anyone for a few days. My niece was taking the Bar Exam and we couldn’t risk her finding out and bombing the test, so no one but close family and a couple of friends were told. I went to work thinking that I could fake it and be ok. I was wrong. I realized then that I needed to be handled with kid gloves. Pretending that life was normal was impossible. Life was NOT normal and I needed people to know it! At least initially, be gentle. Hug. Say you’re sorry.