7 Ways to Help Someone Who is Grieving.

Via Ann Nichols
on Sep 21, 2013
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Sad Girl in Window

We don’t deal with grief very well.

We tend, as a culture, to be uncomfortable with anything that isn’t efficient, productive and easily distilled into an elevator speech. As an Irish friend once said, “you Americans think you’re supposed to be happy all the time.”

I learned a lot about grief from Buddhist practice, enough that I became open to the needs of someone in pain, overcoming my own awkwardness and performance anxiety. I learned that it was not about me at all, but about helping the grieving person to function, to process, to ride out the storm of death, divorce, or serious illness.

Last year I lived through an epic darkness in which my mother died and my father’s cancer took his ability to speak and swallow. I had, then, my first major experience as the “grieving party.” It was a hard time, but it also completed my education in how to offer real help to someone who is suffering a loss.

Everybody meant well, and every word and gesture came from a place of caring, but the truth is that people did some stuff ranging from merely unhelpful to destructive and disturbing.

I offer you what I learned, in the hope that it will help you be the best possible support for those in need, and to avoid the inevitable awkwardness that comes with facing the raw and jagged pain of someone you care about.

1. When my mother was dying, and after she died, it meant the world to me when someone just came and sat with me.

The best “sitter” was my friend Penny. She was warm, and managed to be “normal” in a way that was not at all callous. She asked how we were doing, told us something about her day, and then followed our lead. She expected nothing from us. She talked if we wanted to talk, or sat in silence and offered her loving presence. She let us weep without visible discomfort, and knew when it was time to leave without being asked. She was a blessing.

2. Take initiative.

Lots of people said “call me if you need anything,” but I could not have given them directives if my life had depended on it. For months I was in an alternate universe, trying to get through each day. I was overwhelmed with logistics, funeral details, making phone calls, dealing with financial arrangements, and trying to run two households and keep my job.

I didn’t want to impose, I didn’t want to think about logistics. I mostly wanted to lie on my back and stare at the ceiling.

The people who really helped were those who just…did stuff. After the first burst of casseroles passed, close friends told me that they’d bring dinner every Monday.

And they did, for months: dad’s neighbours gave me a schedule of times when they could sit with him so I could go to work or spend time at my own house; another friend insisted that I call her when I was ready to clear out my mother’s drawers and closets so that she could help and then drive unwanted items to Goodwill.

I didn’t have to think about any of those offers of help. I just had to say “yes” and “thank you.” And I did.

3. Try to not say those things that people say when they don’t know what to say.

After mom died, we were told that “it was just her time,” that she was “with God now,” that “at least she wasn’t suffering any more” and that we should be comforted by the thought of her in heaven.

None of this was helpful. Some of it actually hurt. My mother was Jewish, and did not believe in heaven. My father is an atheist who does not believe in heaven or God. I’m a pretty tolerant Buddhist, and I’m generally not bothered by religious references, but hearing the “it’s all for the best” stuff was like being slapped.

Even if you know someone was suffering and is probably better off dead, you are not ready to hear about how it’s really fine that she’s gone. Because even if you may, someday, be able to wrap your mind around the truth that  death was the kindest thing, it’s not, and may never be fine with you.

The best things people said were “I’m so sorry for your loss” if they didn’t know mom well, and something about loving her and missing her if they did. With a hug, it was even better.

4. Pack food gifts in practical ways.

I will confess that I still have the dishes in which people sent food after mom died. I will also admit that, at one point, we were throwing away perfectly good food because it couldn’t be easily frozen and we could not eat five dinners in one night (I could barely eat one). We were incredibly grateful to the people who sent food so I didn’t have to think about it, but it was much easier if it appeared in disposable packaging and could be frozen for later use.

I didn’t have it in me to decant a pot of soup into plastic bags, put them in the freezer, wash the pot and return it to the generous provider. I just didn’t.

5. Keep checking in.

My lifelines, besides my immediate family, were people who showed up and kept showing up for months. They texted to check in. They called just to say “how are you today,” or tell me a funny story. One sent me a beautiful card every week or so. Most people will move on with their own busy lives, and/or feel that they are unable to offer more than they’ve given. I don’t judge that. I do know, though, I felt a solid little lifeboat of love built by the folks who gave in ways that took only minutes but meant the world to me.

6. Don’t talk about positive or negative emotions.

I got lots of advice, particularly when my father was at his sickest, and I was his live-in caregiver for three months. The advice was often about dad’s attitude, and the fact that he would probably recover faster if he was more “positive.” (Not an easy trick if you’re naturally dour, you have cancer, you can’t eat solid food and your wife of 51 years has just died).

This was really, really not helpful. We were grieving a number of losses all at once. We laughed sometimes, we cried a lot,and we talked about mom, and we took each day as it came. I felt guilty and like I had failed every time someone suggested that I should also be “jollying him up” in some totally unnatural way.

I know that it wouldn’t have helped him to be told him directly that he might, in some way, be causing or worsening his cancer with his “negativity.”

7. Practice acceptance.

It was truly a gift when someone was sensitive enough to follow my lead as I grieved, and to accept my timeline and choices. I was like Sybil for a while, a different person every day. Sometimes I really wanted to talk about my mom, and sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I really needed to be diverted by dinner out or a “Gilmore Girls” marathon. Sometimes I didn’t. I felt guilty, though, if I offended anybody.

It was really hard for me to summon the energy to tell someone that I just couldn’t look at old pictures of my mom on that particular afternoon, because I would break into a million pieces.

I felt awful when someone pressured me to come over for dinner and I just couldn’t drag myself out of the house.

I was sad, I was tired, and on top of all of that I was being rude to people who wanted to help me. What I loved was an easy out, something like “I’d love to show you these pictures I found from your mother’s retirement party, but not until you’re ready. Let me know.” Or “We’re making extra enchiladas and we’d love it if you joined us, but if today’s not good we’ll ask again soon.”

And when I was ready, I looked, I ate and I was grateful.


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Ed: Renée Picard


About Ann Nichols

Ann Nichols has been everything from a cellist to a lawyer, and is currently a Buddhist who gets paid to cook at a Protestant church. She lives in a 100-year old house in Michigan with her husband, her son and an improbable number of animals. You can hang out with her by joining the Facebook group “Metta-Morphosis.”


21 Responses to “7 Ways to Help Someone Who is Grieving.”

  1. Thank you for this. I lost my husband almost a week ago. He died in my arms and today would've been his birthday. I've so many emotions and pray often.

  2. fluxustulip says:

    Thank you so much, Ann. Very thoughtful and truthful article. #6 is especially true from my experience. Making things even more difficult for someone already in a difficult place.

  3. Kaffirlily says:

    Another wonderful article, Ann. And oh, what a horrid year you have had. Everything you say here resonates with me, and I agree with fluxustulip that no. 6 is especially true. My mother was never going to get better, whether she was positive or negative about it. As it happens, she was accepting of her lot, and managed to be "positive" quite a lot of the time, but not with any hope of reward for a "good attitude".
    Thank you again.

  4. This is excellent Ann!! I'm a retired hospice nurse and I was shocked to hear some of the things well meaning people would say to some of my patients' families!! They (we) all need to educate one another, listen to what those who are grieving say worked for them and what did not work for them!!
    Thank you so much for sharing this!!
    Bless you!!
    Becki Hawkins

  5. Linda says:

    Anyone who has lost someone close can identify with your writing. You said it all so well, so clearly and it so needed to be said. Thank you. More people need to be aware of the meaning of grief and how to relate to those experiencing it. It does not leave and appropriate kind words and actions help the transition to a different life. It takes time to get through the fog… I am sorry for your loss Ann. Sending a hug.

  6. imagineannie says:

    Pat, I'm so terribly sorry. I hope that the prayers are comforting, and that you are surrounded by people who love you and support you. I'm adding you to my own prayers, and promising you that you are not alone in your pain.

  7. imagineannie says:

    Thanks so much for reading – and yes, trying to juggle emotional chaos and the suggestion that it would go away if you just "turned your frown upside down" is kind of awful.

  8. imagineannie says:

    Thanks for coming back, Kaffirlily! It has, as years go, been spectacularly horrid. I guess it's good that I can write as an outlet because otherwise I would still be balled up in a cormer. Or I would have eaten everything in sight. Or both.

    My dad is also pretty accepting, but he's also a realist and has never been "cheery" about anything in his life. I think it would be somewhat bizarre, even if it were possible, for people to undergo complete personality transformations simply because they had a terminal illness…I think I may want to end my own life being entirely myself.

  9. imagineannie says:

    Thanks for reading, Becki. Although it really didn't fit into this particular piece, I work as the Hospitality Coordinator at a church, and I plan and run lots of funeral receptions. I have seen many things happen, long before I had my own experiences, that taught me what helped and what hurt. It also taught me that people just don't talk about this stuff, and so nobody knows what to do, and so…they do dumb stuff with the best intentions.

    Oh, and HUGE love for hospice programs. It made such a difficult time as easy as it could possibly be.

  10. imagineannie says:

    Thanks, Linda. This is a rough time, coming up on the year anniversary, and sometimes I think I'm just "faking it until I make it." Thinking that maybe I helped make all of this easier for anyone else in the world helps a lot. Plus, my mom would approve. 🙂

  11. swati jr* says:

    Thank you for this post. It's rare to find something so thoughtfully written about how to help those who are grieving. And grief is something that, unless you have directly gone through it, you can not fathom nor truly relate to. I am still in an "alternate universe" almost 11 months after my mom's sudden death last year and have not had nearly the types of kindness you express in your article. Your community and support network sounds like a group of angels. I've had little to none of that sense of understanding, outreach or compassionate connection. Just one friend who has continued to show up on the darkest of days through phone calls or texts. I know the meaning of this and how special those who can stand in the fire with you are. These are the teachings of Buddhism I believe. Learning to dance in the charnel grounds.

  12. imagineannie says:

    Swati jr, I wish you had what I am lucky enough to have. To be honest, a lot of my support comes from living again in the town where I grew up, where people loved my whole family and are reaching out because my parents always helped everyone they could. It's the gift that keeps on giving, I guess. 🙂

    I'm standing in the fire with you.

  13. 1writeplace says:

    Wonderful article! I have written about this on my blog and FB and my closest friends and family tell me that they just didn't know and how bad they feel that they said the "wrong" things. I think a big help (it helps me too) is just to pause and think what you are about to say; could it help or hurt? I'm going to pass this on and keep sharing until everyone is enlightened :>)

  14. Pgwalters says:

    Ann, you are right…it does help that you can write!!

    I have been a widow for over 33yrs…I was just 31, with 3 young kids when my husband died in a small

    plane accident. No real prep for that! Everyone wants to help. The problem is we Americans run away from death…it’s a part of life! No one escapes it, so why do we fear it/can’t change it any way!

    I heard all those things too. The one the hurt most was people telling my children God needed their dad! Cruel! The people who I remember to this day, are the ones who saw a need & filled it! No wring

  15. ggarciaordonez says:

    This is so beautiful and so very true, Ann! There is so much we can learn about how to grieve and how to walk together with others through their grieving! We might not necesarily find the answers in religion or spirituality but in beautiful testimonies of genuine caring people like you. Thanks for this. Sending you love from south Spain. xxxx

  16. Thank you for writing and sharing this. I lost my daughter to suicide almost 6 years ago and found all that you've said to be true. I still grieve. it's different, a little gentler, filled with more good memories than the horror of her ending. I miss her and always will. The first couple of years were very very lonely ones, between being uncomfortable with death and having that death be by suicide, people in my life clammed up, stayed away. One good friend stuck around – so grateful for her.

  17. Poppy says:

    As I was reading this, the first couple of lines really stuck out for me. No, as a culture, we don't handle grief well, and that oversight makes us unaware of the small griefs that happen all of the time – the job you've outgrown, the friendships that have shifted, situations that are no longer. One of these years, when I manage to make some time to focus on writing, I want to write what you have written about those small griefs.

  18. carla says:

    thanks for a really helpful and kind article. i work as a volunteer, being with trauma victims during the first couple of hours before their own support is available. so many of these suggestions are put to practice. the hardest but most appreciated sometimes, is being silent and just sitting with someone.

  19. Molly says:

    After my father died unexpectedly and I was walking around in disoriented shock, a close friend asked me "What helps?" Everyone grieves differently and no one, not even our closest friends, can read our minds. Her question was such an honest and heartfelt way to cut through the fog of my grief.

  20. Justine says:

    Short but sincere – excellent article! And, also, a lot of wisdom in the comments. Just having someone be there with you and hugs are invaluable. Sometimes silence (no spoken words) and a reassuring presence of someone who cares is perfect for the grieving individual. Thank you for sharing this information. One more thing …. Those seeking to comfort grieving people also need to become more comfortable with the griever's tears.

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