How to help a grieving person

I just got done reading Deb’s latest post which couldn’t be more timely for me given my mom’s recent death. It got me thinking, maybe people would like to hear some thoughts about how they can help someone who is grieving, from someone who is grieving. This may come across as whiny or kvetchy but I don’t care too much because if you have been in this position, you will understand, and if you haven’t, you will understand someday. There’s not much use to anyone else if I can’t be honest about the process, after all.

Since my mom’s death not quite two weeks ago, friends and relatives have called or emailed to offer support. I have also received some lovely supportive messages as comments here. It is much appreciated. Many people have said something like, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help,” and that got me thinking: what might they do?

I am not a person who is comfortable asking for help. It’s not just a matter of being too proud–although yeah, I admit, that has often been a factor–but more than that I just don’t know what would be helpful. That has never been more true than now, when I cannot really think straight. It might seem that because I am still blogging here regularly, I am mentally ok; but I can assure you that I am several tacos short of a combination plate, cognitively speaking. What I write here is basically stream-of-consciousness verbal diarrhea. Whereas I am utterly incapable of writing, say, an obituary. I have great difficulty concentrating, no attention span, and zero ability to plan ahead. I am managing (poorly) by making lots of lists, eating lots of sugar, and sleeping a lot (also poorly). I feel sad and/or lonely and/or baffled in waves, and in between I feel stressed out and worried.

One of my close friends, though she lives in a different state, asked me if she could order me a pizza or some Thai food or something online. That was a freaking brilliant idea. Because I can barely feed myself. No joke, I have only been able to cook a meal for myself twice in the past couple weeks (soup, both times). Well, I did make a couple batches of pesto but I don’t consider throwing stuff into a blender, and then eating directly out of the blender, to be cooking. Open flame and I are not a good combination right now. So I’ve had a lot of meals of toast, or fast food that normally would disgust me but now it’s like, sure, whatever, who cares, I don’t know.

When I started taking care of my mom, she was already too sick to move to where I lived, so I moved in with her. Now that she is dead, I have to get everything packed and moved out ASAP, probably by the 1st of November, or else I will have to pay nearly $1000 rent (for an apartment of less than 500 square feet because California…but I digress). (How deathy is that timing, by the way?) My back is a mess, in part because I had to pick my mom up off the floor a couple weeks ago and even an emaciated person is damn hard to lift when they are limp and unconscious, so carrying heavy boxes is pretty much out of the question. But I can’t afford to hire movers either. Hmm.

But then to my surprise, my dad stepped up awesomely. This is a big deal because my parents divorced when I was four, and it was ugly, people. They didn’t speak to each other except to exchange legal threats–which were not empty threats, I might add–until my college graduation and then seeing them try to make nice with each other for my sake was chilling. But since my mom got sick they started to thaw a little, and each would even ask me how the other was doing. Still, I would never have predicted that this would bring me and my dad so much closer. He was much more upset than I thought he’d be, and literally dropped everything and drove five hours to be with me and help me get boxes and just do the annoying daily stuff that needs doing.

By contrast, my cousin asked if I needed help, and I said I needed money (my last paycheck is delayed pending receipt of the death certificate). She told me to ask my dad. I said I might need a place to stay when I move out of here, and she said I could stay at her place but only if I put my baby dog in a boarding kennel (which is so not happening). So that was, in fact, not remotely helpful.

Some people seem to think that what I need is to talk to them on the phone. That actually isn’t helpful to me. I can’t spare the time when I should be packing, and talking on the phone takes a lot of energy which I don’t have in abundance. Also–quelle surprise–it makes me sad. Besides, I have always hated talking on the phone.

Notifying people of my mom’s death has been the hardest thing to do. At first I would start crying, which was frustrating because the lady on the electric company customer service line really doesn’t want to hear some stranger blubbering at her. In my family, one does not cry in public, like, ever. Strong emotions? Lock. That. Shit. Down. Crying–or for that matter even laughing loudly–is for when you are sure you’re absolutely alone and you can lock the door and close the blinds and drink yourself into oblivion. Now, I think losing a loved one should mean you get a free pass to cry however much you want, but I admit I feel oddly awkward doing it over the phone. Even after I stopped unexpectedly bursting into tears, there are still a lot of agencies to notify, in particular if your loved one was elderly and received Social Security or Medicare/Medicaid or housing assistance. Everybody has their own paperwork that needs filling out.

My mom’s hospice nurse said that many people need to remain “task-oriented” to get through their bereavement. I don’t see how that’s even possible, but as Deb points out in her post, that is certainly what the typical American job demands, and indeed what many of the people around us demand. Most of the people who know me or knew my mom genuinely do want to help, but most live out of state and there’s not much they can do from afar; of those who are local, I think most probably have no idea how to help. Thinking back to when I knew bereaved people but had not yet lost a loved one myself, I don’t think I quite knew how either. So in case you too feel a little clueless in these situations, here are my suggestions (and I also recommend this other article by Deb):

The bereaved person will probably not be able to think straight and will be overwhelmed with bureaucratic paperwork. Do not expect them to be able to tell you how to help. Especially if they have never lost someone close to them before, they are probably fumbling along figuring it out as they go. They are not likely to know what they need until they’ve already figured out how to get by without it because it wasn’t there when they needed it. Self-care is also likely to be very low on their list of priorities. Consider dropping off or ordering them some food that actually has some nutritive value, or maybe washing the dishes for them. Simple food is fine; otherwise they are likely to not eat at all. Or to eat at McDonald’s, which is even worse.

For that matter, maybe you could help drive the bereaved to places they need to go. I am running on autopilot these days and am freaked out by how not-fully-focused I am when I have to drive. I mean you don’t have to chauffeur the person everywhere they need to go, but on longer or more distressing trips (e.g., to the funeral home) it would be great.

Another helpful thing would be to take over some of the notification duties, especially if there are a lot of people or agencies to notify. There are people I still haven’t been able to bring myself to tell. It would be super nice if someone could take some of that off my hands.

If the bereaved has to move out of the home, offering to make some runs to the library or Salvation Army or whatever to drop off donations would be swell. Or even, if you are physically up to it, helping with the move.

Do not ask the bereaved person to help you with your own stuff, or to chitchat on the phone or whatever. If nothing else, they should feel free to drop off the radar for a while. I’m not saying you should completely ignore the person, but talking about one’s bereavement isn’t nearly as therapeutic as you might think. And it should be done on their terms.

I think it’s nice for the bereaved to hear that their loved one was important to others too.  If you knew the deceased, and can honestly say something nice about what they meant to you, tell the bereaved. It creates a little sense of bonding or community at a time when the bereaved is probably pretty lonely.

And now here are some more examples of people helping brilliantly:

My friends got together and sent me a beautiful bouquet. Some people think sending flowers is cliché, but I actually found it really touching. It’s also something my mom would have loved; I don’t know if my friends realize that, but whatever, it makes it special to me. There is something nice about having that tangible symbol that is surprisingly comforting. Plus, it smells a lot better in here now.

A couple of my friends have offered me and my dog a place in their homes, rent-free, indefinitely, as well as substantial loans, and in one case even a temporary job prospect in the future. That is some top-notch helping right there.

A good friend of my mom’s regularly messages me on Facebook or by email to say she loves me and loved my mom and feels blessed to have had us in her life. She doesn’t ask me to call her, or go out and be fun, but conversely it’s clear that she is available if I want to do those things. This gives me many good feels. She also sent a fruit and cheese basket, which is cool because there’s food in it.

For the grieving person, I would pass on a bit of advice my mom had to give me many times. She said, People need to help. Let them. The wisdom in that is finally beginning to sink in. If you do know you need something, of course, whether it be alone time or groceries or (as in my case) wine, just say it loud and proud. Granted, a lot of people suck spectacularly at helping, when they even bother. Some people will get weird and uncomfortable, which is to be expected because our whole culture is weird and uncomfortable around death and grief. That is not your problem. But you may be surprised who steps up if you give them the chance, and moreover, you deserve all that care and attention and more right now. So let them help.


4 thoughts on “How to help a grieving person

    1. Yay, thank you for asking! I *think* I’ve done all the notifications now except the ones that have to be done in person at some government office. But I’m still thrilled that you offered. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No, it didn’t, fear not! But it was something I could volunteer on. If you have any others to do, lay ’em on me : )


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