Recently a friend and colleague of mine lost her husband in a sudden, tragic accident, leaving our entire community stunned with this reminder that life is fragile and fleeting. During the days after the accident I received numerous phone calls and emails from people asking for my advice, wanting to offer their help but having no idea what to do or say.
I realized then that most of us have little experience with loss and grief until we reach our elder years, when it becomes more common to lose our friends and loved ones. So when unexpected loss does occur we feel unprepared and inadequate to be of help, even though we desperately want to do something to show how much we care.
But grief is a universal experience that we ultimately share with every other person on earth. By participating in the grief of another we break down barriers and establish connections that make our families and communities stronger. . When we grieve together we honor the precious and impermanent nature of life on this planet and find an even greater appreciation for our own existence.
Still it is difficult to face our own discomfort with death and offer support to someone who has suffered a loss if we don't know what to do or say in that situation. Here are some suggestions for offering your help to a grieving friend:
1. Show up.
Offer your friend your presence by going to the home and making yourself available for support. This may sound obvious but many of my grieving patients have told me they were abandoned during this time of need by some of their friends who were too uncomfortable to call, come for a visit or talk to them at work.
TIP: If it feels awkward to just show up at your friend's home when you don't know what to say or do, bring along a small gift of food -- perhaps a basket of fruit or plate of cookies. Then you have something to offer that will get you inside the door so you can assess the situation. If there are already many relatives around and your friend seems busy with everyone else who is in the room you can simply say "I just wanted to drop this off and let you know I'm thinking about you" and leave fairly quickly. But if your friend is all alone and seems relieved to see you, plan to stay for awhile because your presence may be needed.
You don't have to worry too much about what to say, because your grieving friend will primarily need you to listen. Some people who are grieving need to tell their story over and over again, while others may be unable to talk about what has happened. In either case, just sit with your friend and show that you are willing to listen.
You can say something like "I'm so sorry for your loss," but be sensitive to the situation and pay attention to your friend's emotions. One of my patients told me that when her mother finally died after a long difficult struggle with dementia she felt relieved and joyful that her suffering had finally ended. When friends told her how sorry they were she felt guilty and embarrassed to tell them about her real feelings.
TIP: You will usually be safe asking questions like "How are you doing?" and "Is there anything I can do to help?" But again, your willingness to listen is the most important gift you can offer.
3. Bring food.
I already mentioned bringing along a small offering of food on your first visit, but food is so important that it deserves a separate listing. People who are grieving find it nearly impossible to plan a meal, go grocery shopping or cook. Often they have little appetite so they are not motivated to seek out healthy food. But nourishment is very important during this difficult process so you can make a big difference for your friend by bringing in healthy meals that can be consumed in small quantities and stored for several days.
Dishes like casseroles and soups or stews are always appreciated and can be reheated multiple times. Also consider healthy snacks like fruit, veggie trays, trail mix, nuts, or yogurt. If there are children in the family bring along some child-friendly snacks like string cheese,
TIP: Be sure to coordinate with others who are bringing in food so that you don't bring duplicate meals. The website www.mealtrain.com is a helpful tool for organizing food donations. And be sure to use disposable containers that can be put in the freezer and won't need to be returned to you.
4. Volunteer your time.
Offer to help with tasks such as housecleaning, shopping, laundry, childcare, pet care, transportation or housing for visitors. Your friend may not think to ask you for help even when it is needed, so when you offer, be sure to suggest a few things you are willing to do, especially if you notice there is a need.
TIP: Coordinate multiple volunteers using the www.lotsahelpinghands.com website where you can create a calendar of tasks and everyone can sign up online.
5. Send a letter.
If you cannot be physically present to help your friend, consider sending a special handwritten letter. You might tell a story about a special memory of the deceased loved one and how that person changed your life. This will become a keepsake your friend can cherish and re-read over time.
6. Stay connected.
Remember that the full grief process can take 1 or 2 years or even more so don't expect your friend to return to "normal." Be mindful of holidays, special anniversaries and birthdays, which can be particularly painful for the grieving. Offer some extra TLC on those days and consider calling or sending a card or note.
TIP: Surprise your friend with a gift certificate for a restaurant, spa, salon, concert, or movie theatre that can be used as an "emergency" pick-me-up on a difficult day.
Finally, don't hesitate to reach out to your friends and loved ones when they need you. By taking part in the grief process of others, you provide yourself with an opportunity to "practice" for your own times of grief that will surely come to you in this life. You will find it becomes easier to help others who are suffering and to tolerate your own suffering when you have formed bonds of compassion and support with those around you by offering your help.
It is a unique opportunity to open your heart and share the grief of another. You will be a better person for summoning your courage and walking into a painful situation with open arms and the question "How can I help?"
About the Author:
(Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician and the author of the award-winning book "What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying." She is a frequent keynote speaker and radio show guest whose profound teachings have helped many find their way through the difficult times of life. Learn more about her work at www.karenwyattmd.com.)