How to Help after a Death

The death of a loved one shocks those left behind. Whether the loss is anticipated after long illness or utterly unexpected, the bereaved are seldom emotionally prepared. Even those who knew death was coming (and already made final arrangements) have no idea of the overwhelming tasks to be done after a loved one’s passing. Many can’t be delegated, but friends, neighbors, and coworkers can — and should — offer help where possible.

Within minutes or hours, new mourners must answer overwhelming questions and make difficult decisions:

  • Will organs (or the body) be donated for transplants and/or study?
  • What were the circumstances of the death? The day(s) leading up to it? (If death wasn’t expected, police and/or the medical examiner’s office may demand ones far-reaching, deeply personal answers.)
  • Who will move the person’s remains — and to where?
  • Who should make such decisions? (Does anyone know if there’s a will and/or an appointed executor?)

The deceased might have expressed clear, final wishes before his or her death. Those left behind must deal with implementing — or ignoring — such requests.

Within hours or days, survivors must create or enact plans: 

(photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

  • Will the loved one’s body be buried or cremated? Where? When?
  • Will there be a private or public memorial service before the body’s disposal? After?
  • If so, will there be an open-casket viewing?
  • Will survivors hold a formal service in a church, synagogue, or mortuary? Or will they gather informally inside a private home (whether that of the deceased or of survivors or friends)? Or will they meet at a park, restaurant, beach, roadside …?
  • Who will arrange — and pay for — all this?
  • Who needs to be notified for personal reasons? How can they be reached? Who will tell them, and how much (or how little) will be shared about the circumstances of the death?
  • Who needs to be notified for financial and/or legal reasons (partners, employers, employees, suppliers, customers …)?

Please note: These decisions belong to those closest to the deceased (those in the innermost rings of grief ). The role of everyone else is not to second-guess but to support. If you disagree with the way or the timing or the manner of their choices, I’m sorry, but it’s not your place to say so. (The adage “least said, soonest mended” fits.)

Within hours or days, loved ones must also address legal matters: 

  • custody and care of surviving dependents (children, disabled adults, elderly relatives, pets)
  • payments of debts (mortgages, car payments, credit cards, medical bills yet to arrive …)
  • payment of and transferal of ongoing accounts including rent, utilities, health insurance for survivors …
  • notification of life insurance companies, if applicable
  • notification of banks or credit unions
  • notification of federal agencies (e.g., the U.S. Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service)
  • notification of credit bureaus (to prevent scumbags from accessing the deceased person’s credit, etc.)

And who knows where such information is? If bills were paid electronically, does the family know how to access the accounts? Will linked accounts for auto-pay bills contain enough to meet immediate, ongoing needs?

Meanwhile, while the loved one’s life has ended, survivors’ lives must go on. But don’t say that. I repeat — DO NOT say “life goes on” to the survivors. Instead, help them. You can:

  • Pick up and drop off
    • meals and snacks
    • groceries
    • prescriptions
    • kids in carpool
    • relatives flying in and out
    • dry cleaning
    • paper goods (tissues, toilet paper, paper towels, disposable plates …)
    • gift cards and/or cash
    • notes of love and awareness
  • Pitch in
    • wash clothes* and bedding* (PLEASE see note at bottom!)
    • do dishes*
    • bathe pets
    • clean the car
    • take the trash out
    • clean and shine the family’s shoes*
    • rake, water, or weed the yard
    • sweep the front porch or wash the windows
    • read to, play with, and offer to babysit children
    • listen
    • house-sit during publicly advertised services
  • Make a list — a notebook with pockets and dividers might be helpful
    • local funeral homes, services, prices (It will be easier for you to make such calls and create a comparison list than for your friends while they’re newly grieving.)
    • contact information (phone, website, and physical addresses) for tending to
      • motor vehicle title(s)
      • house deed/rental agreement(s)
      • bank and credit card accounts
      • utilities (electricity, water, gas, phone, internet …)
      • subscriptions (newspaper, magazines, movie services …)
      • insurance companies (auto, health, life …)
      • credit bureaus (to prevent identity theft)

Please note: Only the closest, most trusted individuals — if any — should help in any way that involves actual account numbers. Keep an eye out for anyone who may take advantage of mourners’ vulnerable, distracted states of mind.

    • due dates and amounts of recurrent bills to be paid (monthly, quarterly, annually)
    • local grief support services and resources for now or for later (Check with area hospices and faith-based groups for starting points.)
    • names, contact information, and offers of people who say, “Let me know if I can help with …”

Please note: If you offer, follow up. Don’t wait for the grieving person to call you, because most can’t muster the energy no matter how badly they need to.

    • the kindnesses done by friends, family, neighbors, coworkers …
    • things remembered about the deceased — stories, anecdotes, personality quirks …
  • Return to the top of this list and repeat.

As much as grieving friends need your support in the hours, days, and weeks immediately after a death, mourners also need loving, practical support in the long, lonely months (and years) that follow.

*Before washing any items worn or used by the person who died, PLEASE ask to make sure that will be welcome. If in doubt, don’t. (Many survivors take comfort from holding and smelling items which remind them of their loved one.)

St. Patrick and the Green Grief Monster

Balancing bronchitis and work projects took priority over writing a new blog post for this St. Patrick’s Day, so I’m reposting last year’s today. (I’ll have another entry up in a few days.)

What to Say When Someone Dies

Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day (or not) isn’t the same when you’re grieving. Nothing is. The day itself commemorates the death of Ireland’s patron saint — originally it was a religious observation. But in recent years its solemnity appears all but forgotten as popular culture makes it into a day for people to celebrate their Irish heritage (whether real or adapted for the day).

In my family, with Irish ancestors on both my side and my late husband’s side, our St. Patrick’s Days were all about the green. When our kids were little, I’d add green food coloring into milk, pancakes, cookie dough — whatever I could think of — just to infuse the day with a bit more color.

Green milk and other green-dyed foods were a staple of our St. Patrick's Days. Green milk and other green-dyed foods were a staple of our St. Patrick’s Days. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

We wore green, of course, because nobody wanted to get pinched.

I made corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes for dinner. A few times I…

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Confused by Grief

If your friends grieve lost loved ones, they may show confusion. Some writers have compared the memory loss of bereavement to symptoms of dementia. (In the months after my husband’s death, I got lost within my own neighborhood more times than I counted.) Why does deep sorrow cause such confusion?

Grief tips things sideways and turns them upside down. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

When a loved one dies, survivors’ lives tilt, tumble, spin. Familiar routes bewilder, and expectations swirl away. Long-term plans shift, dreams evaporate, and unforeseen obstacles loom. Is it any wonder mourners might act muddled?

Don’t blame the bereaved for being baffled. Rather, summon your empathy and extend compassion toward their confusion.

Before you berate a disheveled, bereaved widow for getting her children to school late or forgetting to bring cupcakes to the XYZ fundraiser at work, stop. Instead, acknowledge what she has done right: She got herself (and children) out of bed and took the children to school before showing up at work. (That may sound simple, but in the middle of mourning, it’s not.)

Next, consider the upheaval in her life: Suddenly, she’s a single parent, and she’s exhausted not only from caring for her children’s needs but from grieving, which drains a person in every way. Her deceased partner’s income no longer contributes to the family budget (maybe the cost of cupcakes is too much now), and she may be facing massive funeral, medical, and legal expenses you can’t begin to imagine (unless you’ve had to do the same). But her loss is about far more than finances, although that alone is often significant. She’s also lost her surest source of physical and emotional support. Friends and even family may stand near her, but she’s alone while crying through the night’s insomnia. In the morning, she can’t stand the emptiness in her swollen eyes, so she avoids the mirror while running a hand over her head to smack down the worst of her toss-and-turn hair.

If, after walking a metaphorical mile in her mourning slippers, you still feel judgmental toward that widowed mom, you’re the one who’s confused.

Before you condemn a grieving colleague for collapsing in the middle of a conference call or pleading for a personal day, stop. Instead, remember that people matter more than products, and acknowledge that beneath his position, he’s a person. Whether he and his partner have lost a child or whether he’s just learned his parent’s condition is terminal, his grief will continue beyond the funeral or that phone call.

Grief triggers — dates, events, songs, situations — don’t fit into an after-hours locker to release when convenient. They can’t be scheduled for the off season. They seldom give advance notice, and they can take you down — overwhelm you fully — before you can so much as say, “Shouldn’t you be over that by now?” (Note: Never, ever, ever say that — not even to yourself if you’re mourning. It won’t help. Trust me on this.)

The Grief Monster attacks without advance notice, sending its triggers when and where and how it will.

Imagine working with efficiency, expecting the promotion and raise you’ve always dreamed of. And then, a slight twinge in your gut warns that something you ate disagreed with you. The next moment, you’re running for the bathroom. Besides gastrointestinal distress of every kind, you’re sweating from a fever, shaking with chills, and erupting in boils across exposed skin. Several bones and organs must be trading places.

Meanwhile a supervisor followed you into the restroom, not to dial 911 but to demand, “How soon will you return to your desk? What time will you be in tomorrow? And why haven’t you finished today’s work yet? I expected better of you.”

That’s (a little) like working through grief.

Grieving wreaks havoc with concentration. Given time, understanding, and compassion, mourners’ confusion will clear. They will learn to function again, and will learn — eventually — how to move forward with altered lives.

Meanwhile, ask yourself this: Will you support your friends and coworkers through the rough, confusing process of mourning? Or do you remain too confused by grief to show you care?