Disclaimer: My father just passed away. He was an awesome, awesome man. Although this was expected, it still is very hard. So that means that I am writing this in the middle of intense grief, and am prone to burst into tears at any minute. It also means that my perspective on things are quite likely to be skewed right now. Please keep that in mind while reading this.
People, friends, want to do something for the family. So what do they do?
They bring food. They may or may not have asked about food allergies first.
They say things like “He is in a much better place now.” Well, that might be true – but we want him or her HERE. With us.
“He isn’t in any more pain.” No he isn’t. But we are in immense pain.
“He died at home? That must have been so hard.” Harder than you can imagine, unless you have gone through it yourself. But we wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“If you need anything, just let me know.” We are too numb to know what we need, and by the time we start thinking again, we don’t remember who said that.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” Again, we are too numb to know what needs to be done, and by the time we think of it, we don’t remember who offered.
What do we really need?
Yes, food is really great. Sometimes we have no appetite for it. I’ve taken a pair of pants out of my get-rid-of pile because I’ve lost enough weight over the last month that they fit again. But we know we need to eat in order to keep up our strength in order to do the things that we must. Having people bring meals truly is wonderful – it means that much less that we have to worry about. Even with no appetite, we will eat if something is brought to us. And the food will come – for a couple of days, maybe, and then stop, usually long before we are ready to think about preparing food again.
We need hugs. We need people willing to sit with us and just let us cry, maybe even cry with us. We need emotional support, not just now, while it is fresh, but for many months to come.
What we don’t tell you?
Unless you have been there, we can’t possibly explain how broken we feel inside. We will try to stay strong, to smile bravely through our tears – and save our collapse until we are all alone, or with the family members who are feeling the same way we are.
We will say thank you for the food, and you might not realize how very very much we mean that, because we are still numb, still fighting not to cry – but fixing food for our family is one thing we don’t have to worry about now, and that is so important. But in our grief, we won’t be able to express how important that is.
On the other hand, sometimes we will say thank you for the food, and inside we wonder where the support was when our loved one was still alive and could have seen it.
We don’t, and probably won’t, tell you how this is affecting us financially. But often, even for families that appear fairly well off, money is a real immediate need. Unless you are family, or a very close friend, we won’t tell you that we are worried about money. We won’t tell you that we haven’t worked a steady job in a long time in order to be available for assistance for our loved one. We won’t tell you that we have taken the last few days, or weeks, or even months, off so we could spend what time was left with the person we love – but those days of not working will mean that we won’t have quite enough money for the electric or phone bill this month. We won’t tell you that we are worried about the medical bills that have piled up. We won’t tell you if we are confused by the whole social security issues – how many older women today know that things will change when their husband dies, but they don’t know in what way? We won’t tell you that our husband, or father, or mother was a great provider when he or she was alive, but had no or little life insurance to cover expenses after they died. We won’t tell you that we aren’t sure if we will be able to pay the mortgage of the house that our loved one had hoped to have paid off before they died. We won’t tell you that we are worried about how long it will take to cut through any red tape in order to use any insurance that might be in place to cover the bills, the expenses. We won’t tell you that the credit cards are maxed out, that we have been trying to figure out which bills can be postponed, which bills must be paid now, and which bills are no longer important.
So – How can you help when someone dies?
If it was an expected thing, a known illness – be there during the illness, with meals, hugs, listening ears and respite care.
Continue bringing food after the person dies. And for a little while after the funeral. Don’t just make it a couple of days – food can be comforting, and sometimes we need that feeling that someone is still there who cares.
If you don’t know what to say, simply say “I’m so sorry this happened.”
Offer to help with something specific. “I know you will be having a lot of relatives come in. I would like to help you by mopping your floors. When is the best time for me to come over?” “I am putting my name and my phone number on your refrigerator with a note to call me when you start to go through his clothes if you don’t want to do it alone.”
Clip out the obituary notice for out of town relatives who might like to have one.
Listen to the stories about that person – It is so bittersweet, but it helps to talk about them. I find myself talking about dad to relative strangers. While it might feel uncomfortable to the listener, it can be very important to the person who is grieving – even weeks and months after the death.
Pay a bill. Or part of one. You can do it anonymously, or you can do it openly. Bring a check made out to a utility company, or a pre-paid debit card, or a gift card. There are always extra expenses involved in a death, and even a gift of $10 or $20 can help make a difference, especially if the family is poorer or have already been dealing with financial issues like lay-offs or no-pay work leave.
If you ask how they are doing, really mean it – don’t just ask socially. And let the person know that it is more than a social statement – that you are really interested.
Continue bringing meals after the funeral, and take them out to eat once in a while – maybe not everyday, maybe not even every week. But often enough so that they know someone is thinking of them. Especially if the person is older and all alone.
Send a card on those special days – anniversaries, the deceased’s birthday. Or call. All you have to say is “I know today is probably extra hard. I just wanted you to know that I’m thinking of you.”
Survivors frequently want to share stories of their loved one. Often people are uncomfortable with that. Listen anyway. Ask questions. Ask them to share a favorite memory.
Learn about the stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, anger, and acceptance – and remember that we can go through them, and then back to one that we went through previously. Some of us will go through the stages in different orders from others, and some will reach full acceptance earlier than others.
Please don’t say “You have grieved long enough – don’t you think you should be over this now?” We will never get “over” it. We can come to acceptance, we will eventually move on with our lives, but the death of a loved one will leave a lasting effect.
I invite anyone who has been through the grieving process to comment with tips and suggestions to help those who are newly facing this.