How To Say & Do The Right Thing During Grief

It surprised me, I admit, the number of people who responded to the last post about Things NOT to Say When Someone Dies, because there were an overwhelming number of people who felt the same way. I’m normally harder to offend, but when you’re in pain it’s easier to have your skin pricked because of how tender you are. I have, as the lone commenter on the actual post mentioned, given a lot of grace to those reaching out — however awkwardly. But if it is helpful to others to consider what it’s like to be on the receiving end of thoughtless comments then I’m glad I’m exploring this particular topic. Today, I’ll be reflecting on the things that were said which I truly appreciated and also some acts of kindness from friends that ended up being extremely helpful and surprising to me when I started grieving the loss of my nephew.

I am coming over to do _______________. Because I spent much of the summer in the ICU with Kyle and my sister, I wasn’t home to get things done. My friend John came over to mow the lawn, Jessica brought me a bag of healthy snacks (and wine! with a bottle opener!) while I was in the hospital, and Isabel sent me some fun and light books to read. Each of them, as well as many other friends, all said the same thing to me previously: Call me if you need anything. The problem for me was that I didn’t know how to answer that. I’m not very good at calling people up and saying, “Hey, you know what I need? Groceries.” John’s wife, Deb, called me one day to ask specifically if I had groceries in the house after being away for a week. She picked me up, drove me to the store, grabbed a shopping cart for me and we walked down the aisles together. Even though I was in zombie mode, it helped me to do that.

healthy snacks

When people are grieving, be specific about what you can do. If you can babysit children, make meals, or sit with them while they cry, then do that. When Jessica dropped off food I desperately needed vegetables because I wasn’t making healthy choices. This helped my body feel better which meant I could sleep better. I didn’t have it in me to be meticulous about my needs. Help grieving friends fill in the blanks by making precise suggestions.

 Say very little or nothing at all. The most tender moments of grief are precipitated by significant instances where your mind is clouded by strong memories. That explains why hearing platitudes or careless words while deep in thought are so hurtful. For instance, I was recalling a memory of Kyle where we listened to music and talked about our similarly diverse tastes in artists crossing many genres. It’s because a song came on and it was so visceral for me that I was there again and instantly started crying. Not long after that, someone came into my office and used the line about God needing angels and I thought, What crap because it didn’t acknowledge my memory or pain at all. What did help were my friends who sat with me as I cried and said nothing. They simply held my hand or stroked my hair. I am so grateful for how my friends indulged me my stories and pictures that I wanted to keep looking at even through tears.

Pictures. One of the things that helps grieving family members is helping them organize photos of their deceased loved one. It physically and emotionally exhausted me to search through social media for photographs of Kyle, but a friend asked if she could help me do that and saved them all in one place for me. Another friend came over and sorted through boxes of pictures, took them to scan and make copies of, and then sent them off to my sister. That was enormously helpful because I could take a break when necessary, but also enjoyed the cathartic release of going through them.

A few other things that have been helpful to me:

Acknowledge that 1st difficult year of birthdays and anniversaries and holidays and send a text or handwritten note.

Put your own memories into words about the deceased. My friend Becky reminded me that one time while walking down the street in Chicago she ran into Kyle and he couldn’t remember her name but shouted, “You’re Aunt Kelly’s friend! We went to your pool when we were little in the summer!” and that made me smile.

Get tissues and toilet paper and paper products or just go wash their dishes. Either way, they’ll have less hassle.

It doesn’t personally bother me that people say they’re praying, but it helps just as much to say that you are thinking about people while they’re grieving. However you happen to know people and their faith should be a consideration.

Call to see if it’s okay to come over to cook or clean. I wept through doing laundry with a friend who asked if she could help when I saw her at Target while I was buying laundry machine cleaner. She followed me home and sat on my bed folding towels with me. There was a lot of silence masked by the task of doing something.

Finally, there’s the issue of time. It’s never too late to do something, even if 6 months have passed. I can tell you that after 2 weeks I find myself still telling people I run into that Kyle died and then the cycle feels like it’s starting again. All I care to hear right now is I’m so sorry and it gives me the space to either continue talking about him or to change the subject.

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