What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do


Some dear friends have died recently, and in thinking about what I could do for grieving family members and friends, I went and looked up a piece I wrote a few weeks after my husband died.

I have updated it a little.

When someone dies, people say, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” to the bereaved survivors. There might be a lot of things that need doing, but the grieving person is in a world of shock characterized by numbness and amnesia.

People said that to me after my husband died, and never having an answer for it other than, “Thank you,” in a rare moment of rational thought I wrote down some things that might help.
Clean one square yard of the house. (I asked for one square yard because I wanted to ask for something that was doable.)

Wash one window of the house. (Ditto.)

Drop by and do a sink full of dishes, or a load of laundry. Extra points for putting dishes and laundry away. If you put stuff in the wrong place, it will provide months of little surprises for the bereaved person.

Help weed the flower bed (make sure you are pulling weeds) and plant the rhododendron (or other plant) that has been given.

Bring chocolate (or something else if they don’t like chocolate).

Recommend funny movies/TV shows to watch or stream, or good books. An hour or two of respite can be good.

Send a little money. There are expenses when someone dies. Many people don’t have the cash on hand to cover all the expenses that go with a death, especially if the death came at the end of an illness that lasted years and went through all their financial resources. Even if that is not the case, many people are living from one paycheck or Social Security check to the next. Money helps. It allows a person to feel a little more secure when his or her world is at its most insecure.

So. When someone you know has suffered the loss of someone they love, you can say, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” Then, even if the person hasn’t got an answer for you, SHOW UP and do a little house cleaning or window washing or yard cleaning, lend them some great movies or TV shows or make a list of great things to rent or see or books to read, make a cup of tea or coffee, fix a sandwich, take the dog for a walk, give their kids a ride to rehearsal or the game and back, bring a meal that can be eaten now or frozen for later, write a check and send it to the account that’s been set up at the bank to benefit the family or be the person who sets up that account, or give cash or a check directly to the family. Don’t wait to be asked.

Send a card. I was amazed at what a difference condolence cards made. They meant a lot.
I am not an authority on grief. I’m only reporting on the experience I had when my husband died. Show up, help, send a card, bring chocolate, and a little money never hurts.
Those are some things you can do.

If you are the bereaved and someone says to you, “God never gives you more than you can handle,” or the ever popular, “She/he’s in a better place,” I feel it is my Christian duty to tell you now that you have my personal permission to think, “Bull pucky,” or words to that effect.

You probably won’t want to say it out loud because you are a polite person, unless you really feel the need, or you are the sort of person from whom people expect that sort of thing. It’s good to acknowledge to yourself when someone lays a cliché on you that you don’t have to swallow it, and you will feel better for that. You’ll be able to smile and say, “Thank you.”
Most people you must cut some slack – they are in shock, too, and are simply bumbling around with good intentions. Some people, though, feel they have discharged their duty by delivering their cliché and will leave you to your grieving. Let them go.

After about six weeks to two months, the fuss dies down and the bereaved are left alone to adjust to the new normal, while everyone else is caught up in their old normal life. That’s the way it is. That’s a good time to check in – send another card, or drop by, or call.
Those who mourn are climbing an emotional Mt. Everest. Give them a little grace now and then.