Tips for helping the bereaved
Long before I ever heard the term “holding space“, I was paying attention to my early understanding of the concept. In fact, thirteen years ago, before blogs were popular and before social media arrived, I had my first “mini-viral” article about supporting people in grief.
I dug back into my archives to find the article I wrote after my dad died, about how you can help people who’ve lost a loved one. It’s a more practical guide than what I wrote after Mom died, but it’s still helpful. This article was published in the Winnipeg Free Press, and I heard from people years later that they’d clipped it out of the paper, made copies, and passed it around to friends and colleagues.
How can I help? Tips for helping the bereaved.
Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press
It was the longest ride of my life – those 2 hours between the time I got the phone call that Dad had been killed in a farm accident and the time my sister and I arrived at the farm. Two hours of excruciating pain, hating the truth, and wishing we could be at Mom’s side more quickly. Two hours of desperate hope that someone who loved her might be there to support Mom as she faced the darkest hours of her life.
The pain didn’t end when we reached the farmhouse, but it eased a little when we saw the roomful of people who had gathered to be at Mom’s side. Cecile, Mom’s dearest friend, met us at the door. Julie, my childhood best friend, sat supporting Mom on the couch. Others were there – Wilbert and Mernie – some of Mom and Dad’s closest friends, Michael – the pastor from their church, neighbours I didn’t recognize. They’d all heard the horrible news, dropped whatever they were doing, and rushed to the place they knew they were needed most. There was nothing they could do to bring Dad back, but they knew they had to show up.
And then, as the family started to arrive, and those in the house knew Mom had the support she needed, they quietly began to disperse, wordlessly acknowledging our need for time alone to be the splintered family we had become.
Over the next several weeks, with almost uncanny timing, neighbours, friends and relatives showed up at the yard offering what they could to help us cope. They brought food and water, they fed Dad’s animals, they cared for our children, they helped with funeral arrangements – they showed up when we needed them and disappeared when they were in the way. In the middle of my hurt, I learned lessons in community, in kindness, in acts of service, and in “paying it forward”.
These lessons will serve as reminders for me the next time a friend loses a loved one. Here’s what I learned:
- Show up – You may worry that you’ll get in the way, or that too many other people will be around and your presence won’t mean anything, but that’s rarely the case. Every person who showed up on our parents’ yard was appreciated because his or her presence bore evidence to the emotional support we so desperately needed at that time. Don’t overstay your welcome, and don’t get in the way of family moments, but show up and demonstrate that your friend is important to you. And don’t forget to keep showing up – weeks and months after the fact, when everyone else has forgotten and the bereaved feels most alone. If miles or circumstances separate you, at least make phone calls or send e-mails whenever you can.
- Find a need and fill it – It was amazing to me what needs people found to fill – needs we often didn’t know we had until they were filled. One person brought a tank of water to fill Mom’s cistern, because he knew, with a houseful of people, we would run out of water. Another person offered a camper for the family members who would be coming from a distance. Try not to ask “how can I help”, because the family has so much on their mind they probably won’t have an easy answer – just find something to do and do it.
- Think of the unusual items the family may need – Some people seemed to know just what we’d need to help organize the funeral and play host to lots of visitors. One of our most-used items was a notebook a neighbour brought – she knew we’d need to take lots of notes as we planned the funeral and made crucial decisions and she thought it would be a good idea to keep it all in one place. Another person brought paper plates, paper cups, and napkins to feed all the extra people coming to the farm.
- Remember the children – Some people were very good at knowing what our young children would need and when. The night of the viewing, friends showed up with colouring books and crafts to keep the children entertained while we mourned. Children can feel very lost, confused and overlooked when the adults closest to them are emotionally distraught most of the time. If there are children involved, offer to take them to the park or some other neutral/enjoyable place for awhile. Taking them away, even for a short period of time, gives them a break from the emotional atmosphere and gives their parents a much-needed break.
- Consider giving money – My dad died without life insurance, leaving the family with unexpected bills to pay. Funerals cost a lot of money, and most people don’t have a lot of disposable income to prepare them for something like this. Several people, most of whom had gone through a similar event, brought cheques and envelopes full of cash. My mom was touched beyond words. One of her friends sacrificed the money she’d been saving for a digital camera because she felt Mom’s needs were more significant than her own.
- Bring food – One thing that really impressed our family was the variety of food people thought to bring – casseroles, fruit baskets, meat platters, desserts, treats for the kids, crackers, cheese platters, chocolates, etc. If you bring casseroles, use disposable containers that don’t have to be returned. Think about bringing healthy snackfood for people to munch on when they’re too busy or too distraught to eat a decent meal. Consider showing up at a mealtime with everything ready to be served (eg. sandwich fixings at lunch time, a hot meal for supper complete with a salad and loaf of bread). It’s a huge relief not to have to worry about what you’ll feed the family when your mind is far from food. One of my friends called a week or two after the funeral and said not to fix supper – she was having it catered.
- Talk about the deceased, and LISTEN – After Dad died, I clung to every memory of him, every picture he was in, and every story I heard. I wanted to soak it all up and remember it forever. Tell the family what you remember of the person – share stores of kind things the deceased did for you in his or her lifetime, or a special time you had together. Listen to their stories and acknowledge their need to work through their grief.
- If nothing else, send a card – You may think that cards are overlooked and unimportant, but quite the opposite is true. If it’s the least you can do, it’s still better than doing nothing. My Mom got hundreds of cards, and now, weeks later, she still pours over them, getting comfort from the fact that so many people are thinking of her and praying for her. Try to say something personal in the card – perhaps a favourite memory of the person who died, or a quote or scripture verse that helped you through a similar time. My mom was moved to tears by a letter my cousin wrote about his favourite memory of my Dad.
- Consider the roles/needs that are no longer being filled by the deceased – If the deceased ran a business, or had some duties that were unique to him or her, try to find ways to fill those needs so the family’s burdens will be eased. One of Dad’s friends showed up faithfully to feed the farm animals. Another friend came to help organize an auction sale when he heard that Mom wouldn’t stay on the farm. Perhaps the family has business associates or board members that need to be notified. Perhaps you were involved in an area of the person’s life that gives you unique information (eg. a business partner, a colleague on a committee, etc.) – figure out how your information or skills could be used at this time. Try not to pester the family with too many questions – just do what needs to be done and let the family know they don’t have to worry about it.
- If you have unique information about the death or surrounding circumstances, share it – One of my Mom’s greatest comforts was the knowledge that Dad was not alone when he died. A nurse and her husband (a pastor) saw the accident and were the first on the scene. They worked to save Dad’s life, and they prayed with him until the ambulance arrived. When Mom arrived on the scene, they prayed with her too. These people were strangers to us, but a few days after the accident, they stopped on the farm to meet Mom and share details of Dad’s final minutes – including his last words. This information and their compassion have become very meaningful to the whole family and we are forever grateful to them for taking the time to visit us.
- Personalize floral arrangements or memorial gifts – My Dad’s sisters put a lot of thought into the bouquet they brought for the funeral. Because they knew Dad had great respect for the earth and for his animals, and preferred natural things to commercial ones, they chose flowers that represented him. The focal point was a farm hat, and the pièce de resistance was a branch where 7 plastic sheep perched – representing his love for sheep and his 7 grandchildren. Their floral arrangement, and another one made almost entirely of wildflowers for on top of the coffin, will always stand out in our memory.
- Pray – Within hours of dad’s passing, prayer chains spread out through friends, relatives, churches, and extended contacts – spanning the globe. My mom is convinced much of her strength was derived from these prayers. If you are a person of faith, offer prayers and support for the family and friends. Let them know of their place in your prayers – the knowledge that people are praying for you can be as powerful as the prayers themselves.
- Cry – One of the most significant things you can do is also the simplest – let them know you hurt too and that their loss is shared. Don’t feel that you have to be stoic around your friends all of the time – if the tears well up in your eyes, let them overflow. Crying with a friend can be one of the greatest demonstrations of compassion and support.
There is no perfect way to help a friend in the middle of grief, and often you will second guess your choice of words or actions. There is also no antidote for grief – it’s something the bereaved family will have to grapple with day after day. However, the effort you make to support your friends will go a long way toward helping them cope in their darkest hours.