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.)

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?

 

 

 

Grief after Holidays

You’ve packed lights and ornaments away, hauled your tree to the curb for recycling (or tucked it back into a box), and started (or at least outlined) your battle plan for losing holiday pounds. “The holidays” are past. Whew! It’s time for a return to the security of normal routines … unless you’re grieving.

Emptied of adornments and social obligations, the post-holiday season sometimes leaves mourners feeling more bereaved than before. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Emptied of adornments and social obligations, the post-holiday season sometimes leaves mourners feeling more bereaved than before. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

If your friends are mourning recent losses, the emptiness of bereavement may surge in the post-holiday “normalcy” of unadorned surroundings and cleared social calendars.

Have you ever unwillingly started over? Imagine waking up one morning to discover your contact lists, calendars, medical records, project files, programs, passwords, accounts, data, and personal property were all gone — vanished. Multiply that by a thousand or so, and you might glimpse the disconcerting reset death writes into the hearts and minds of the bereaved. (If a loved one’s or business partner’s death left unknown account passwords or nontransferable titles, this revision upends emotional, mental, and practical matters.)

When my husband died, our family patterns shut down without warning. The agonizing rebooting left no backup files, and those of us left behind faced unfamiliar operating systems written in a foreign language not compatible with our hardware.

In the earliest months after, I observed that others’ lives continued exactly as before. I even recognized myself as more-or-less alive, so in fragmented slivers of my shattered self I (eventually) acknowledged that life continued, sort of. I didn’t want (or need) to hear “life goes on” from those who meant to comfort me. Life for my family was forever altered — our lives did NOT “go on” as they had before.

When loved ones die, “normal” no longer exists. Please, don’t tell a mourning friend “life goes on,” because for their loved one it didn’t; for your friend, life now goes differently.

In the past year, many of you neighbors dropped off casseroles, friends attended funerals, and well-wishers sent notes of condolences to coworkers, family, or even passing acquaintances who lost loved ones. Well done. Thank you for reaching out to comfort and console your grieving friends and coworkers. (On a personal note, I’m forever grateful to those of you who have comforted me and my family by mourning alongside our trials and triumphs through the years.)

Now, whether you did or didn’t step up at soon after your friends’ loved ones died, pardon me for sounding bossy, but GET BACK TO WORK at it. (Please.) Your grieving friends may need your support more now than they did in the earliest days, weeks, and months.

For friends whose loss(es) occurred recently, the blurring fog of shock probably obscured transitions from the old calendar year to the new. As they reawaken to the disorienting world around them — life as they did not know it before — caring gestures of friendship and concern may help them reorder their surroundings. They won’t be ready to rebuild yet, but gestures of kindness (whether messages of ongoing awareness or invitations to interact) will help newly bereaved friends begin to feel the ground under their feet, even if they aren’t yet strong enough to stand upon it.

For friends approaching anniversaries of loved ones’ deaths (whether in the first year or beyond), such demonstrations of caring and commitment are just as important. People need to know their beloved departed ones aren’t forgotten. Let them know you’re aware it has been a year (or two) since their dear ones died. Make note and mention them on birthdays their loved ones won’t be present to celebrate.

Let your friends know you respect their grieving as acknowledgment that love lives on, even past death.

___

(This post is a revised version of 2015’s Grief Reboots after Holidays.)

When Should Mourners Move On?

When should the bereaved stop talking about their deceased loved ones or their grief? I’ll answer by posing more questions.

When your friends got married, did you tell them to stop speaking of their husband or wife a few weeks or months after the wedding? Do you tell coworkers to remove family pictures from their workplaces or stop mentioning their kids once they’ve left babyhood, elementary school, or the nest? When lifelong friends announce their move to another state, do you vow to never communicate with — or about — them again?

writing and grief books, a covered family photo, and pens (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

writing and grief books, a covered family photo, and pens (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Of course not. To do so would be insensitive at best, rude at worst.

Marriage, childbirth, relocation — these are tremendous life changes, life-altering conditions. Once entered into, life for the participants becomes different than it was before, with birthdays, anniversaries, and physical reminders inextricable ongoing reminders. People expect and understand their conversations and preoccupations will center around those changes. After all, once a parent, always a parent …

So why force such expectations on mourners?

The death of a dear one marks another monumental shift in a person’s life and outlook. When a beloved one’s life ends, surviving loved ones’ lives are forever altered, with bereaved birthdays, agonizing anniversaries, and physical reminders both present and absent all around them.

Yet people outside the immediate, inner circle of loss may soon grow tired of the grief their friends express (whether in words, attitudes, or behaviors). Worse, they sometimes tell the grieving to “get over it” or “move on.”

But love and loss are inextricably entwined — so what mourners hear from such comments is “stop loving the one who died … and stop talking about it.”

Before you feel tempted to chime in on another’s grief, ask yourself why you feel compelled to comment:

  • Are you truly worried for your friend, sorry to see them living in a place of such sorrow, and hoping to comfort and lift them from it? If so, that’s admirable, but offering them a nonjudgmental, listening ear will enable them to better process their grieving.
  • Or are you tired of hearing about their sadness because it makes you uncomfortable, opening up fears of what it will be like when you face a similar loss? If so, let yourself dwell a little deeper in those fears. I guarantee you won’t be able to image how hard grieving will be, but if you really, really think about it, you might develop just enough empathy to realize how much understanding your grieving friend needs.

How long will it take to “get over” grief? Well, how long does it take to “get over” love?

It has now been nearly 21 years since my mother died — 21 years, and I still miss her! And yes, I still cry sometimes, wishing I could have her love and advice here with me again — not just the memory of it.

It’s been six years since my husband died. I don’t cry every day anymore — though I did for a long, long time (over a year) — but certain dates (anniversaries, birthdays, holidays), songs, or conversations still trigger tears. Perhaps they always will.

I’d just as soon skip September if I could only figure out how. Green Day sings it best: “Wake Me Up When September Ends” (from their album American Idiot).

That doesn’t mean my life hasn’t moved forward in good, positive ways — it has! — but it illustrates that grief is a complicated process, one lasting long after the funeral.

 

Speak the Names of the Dead

what to say when someone dies

Speak the Names of the Dead (word cloud created on WordItOut.com)

People often mistakenly worry they’ll “make” grieving survivors feel sad by mentioning or alluding to their friends’ deceased loved ones. They’re afraid speaking up will remind them of the loss. There are two reasons this isn’t so:

  • You can’t “remind” a person of something they cannot (and should not and don’t want to) forget. Grief is rooted in love, and that love doesn’t die with the deceased. For the one grieving, no matter the relationship — bereaved parent, sibling, child, grandparent, best friend, spouse, aunt, uncle, niece, cousin, in-law, or other loving mourner — the loss is never forgotten. With time — more time than you can possibly imagine unless you’ve mourned a similar loss — the sadness will thin from a suffocating deluge to a gentle mist that moistens but no longer threatens drowning. It may at times seem imperceptible, but it never evaporates completely.
  • Most people who mourn loved ones fear that others will forget them. They may feel they have to hold tighter to the memories of their dear dead ones — because if they don’t, who will remember? Hearing others speak their dear ones’ names acknowledges they aren’t — and won’t be — forgotten. It frees them to mourn without fear of losing their memories.

Yes, your friends’ eyes may glisten (or pour) when you speak their loved ones’ names, but that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes grief fills a mourner full to bursting — and tears act as a pressure release valve.

It’s been nearly five years since my husband’s death and nearly twenty years since my mom’s. My life is rich and full (sometimes too full) and I’ve learned to live with the grief I still — yes, still — feel for them. (Thank heaven I’m way past the awful days, er, months when I blurted out variations of “My husband died” to everyone I encountered.)

But there are days when grief gets ugly again, not just for me, but for everyone who has lost someone dear. It sneaks up behind us and whispers cruel doubts about whether anyone else still cares they’re gone, about our ability to keep on keeping on, about the disloyalty of moving forward in our lives without them.

Those are some of the days when we most need to hear others speak their names. Tell us stories of what they did — good or bad.* If you knew them, tell us you miss them, too (no matter how long it’s been). If you didn’t know them, tell us you remember (and understand) that missing them goes on . . . long after they have.

___

*I realized after writing this that part of my thinking (and post title) draws on echoes of Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. Its title character cautions survivors that he will speak the truth — the full truth — about the dead they wish memorialized.

Grief Reboots after Holidays

(Please forgive the shouting capitals that follow.)

The tinsel and lights are down, the trees await recycling, and the yearly battle (or pretense) to lose holiday pounds has begun. Around the globe, people brush hands together in satisfaction (and relief) that “the holidays” are past while life slips back into normal routines. Except … In the post-holiday “normalcy” of decorations coming down and social calendars clearing, the emptiness of bereavement surges.

Have you ever unwillingly started over? Imagine access to NONE of your personal or professional contacts or calendars, property, medical records and appointments, project files, programs, passwords, accounts, or data? Multiply that by at least a thousand and you may begin to imagine the rewriting that occurs in the hearts and minds of the bereaved. (In many cases, when a loved one’s or business partner’s death left unknown account passwords or non-transferable titles, this rewriting is not only in emotional and mental processes but also in practical matters.)

For those whose loved ones have died, “normal” no longer exists. (So please, please, please, NEVER tell a mourning friend that “life goes on.” Never ever. It is NOT comforting! Ever.) It’s true that in the earliest months after my husband’s death, I observed that (A) other people’s lives “went on” exactly as they had before, and (B) I was more-or-less alive, so in some fragmented slivers of my soul I (eventually) saw for myself that life continued. I didn’t want (or need) to hear “life goes on,” because life for my family and me was FOREVER ALTERED. Our lives did NOT “go on.” They shut down without warning in an agonizing rebooting that left no backup files and required each of us to learn unfamiliar operating systems in a foreign language not compatible with our hardware.

I’d like to thank you if you were among the neighbors who dropped off casseroles, the friends who attended funerals, or the well-wishers who sent notes of condolences to coworkers, family, or even acquaintances who lost loved ones in the past year. Well done. (And on a personal note, I’m forever grateful to those of you who have comforted me and my family by mourning alongside us in both trials and triumphs through the years!) Thank you all for “being there” at the beginnings of friends’ grief journeys.

Now, whether you did or didn’t step up at that time, pardon me for sounding bossy, but GET BACK TO WORK at it. (Please.) Your grieving friends probably need your support more now than they did in the earliest days, weeks, and months after the deaths.

For those whose loss(es) occurred recently, the blurring fog of shock obscured traditional transitions from the old year to the new. As they reawaken to the disorienting world around them — life as they did NOT know it before — caring gestures of friendship and concern may help them reorder their surroundings. They won’t be ready to rebuild yet, but gestures of kindness (whether messages of ongoing awareness or invitations to interact) will help newly bereaved friends begin to feel the ground under their feet, even if they aren’t yet strong enough to stand upon it.

For those approaching anniversaries of loved ones’ deaths (whether in the first year or beyond), such demonstrations of caring and commitment are just as important. People need to know their beloved departed aren’t forgotten. Let them know that you know it has been a year (or two) since their dear ones died. Let them know that you are thinking of them on the birthdays their loved ones will not be present to celebrate.

Let your friends know you respect their grieving as acknowledgment that love lives on, even past death.

New Year, New Grief

You might assume the New Year’s arrival will bring healing relief to friends whose loved ones died during the last year. You might think, “Now that it’s a new year, not the year of their loss, things will be better, right?”

Not necessarily.

For some mourners, replacing their calendar from the year of a significant loss might feel like it offers a “fresh start.” For many of the recently bereaved, though, the New Year marks another level of removal from beloved ones, another severing of increasingly tenuous connections to them and/or their memories. In previous years their loved ones lived; in all the years to come, they won’t. Once that calendar changes, shared years are forever left behind.

New Year’s Eve (just like other holidays) can trigger renewed feelings of loss in those who have already begun the long, long, long process of learning to live while grieving loved ones. From traditions like setting New Year’s resolutions (a.k.a. “goals”), to swapping “Who were you with when the ball dropped?” stories, to serving special New Year’s Day foods (like black-eyed peas), the day — and day after — can be full of painful reminders of grief.

The end of one year and the beginning of another can be difficult for those mourning with anticipated grief, too. If your friends are facing a terminal illness or condition for themselves or their loved one, the imminence of knowing the coming year might — or will — be their last together can be overwhelming.

How can you help your grieving friends through the New Year?

  • Acknowledge that you know this holiday, like others, marks a difficult time of year.  Whether the loss is recently raw or it has been years, with the ending/beginning nature of this worldwide change from one year to the next, New Year’s Eve and Day have the potential to reopen grief’s partly- or not-yet-healed wounds.
  • Invite your grieving friends to join you in your celebration or commemoration of the event. Let them know you’d like them to be with you for your sake (“I’d like your company”) as well as for their sakes (“I’d like y’all to join me so you won’t have to be alone or plan anything yourselves”). If they decline at once, let them know the invitation remains open in case circumstances change or they change their minds.
  • Repeat the invitation, but don’t push. Offer your grieving friends the choice, but respect that they will know best for themselves whether solitude or socializing will help. For some of my widowed friends, going to friends’ homes to ring in the New Year lifted their spirits better than staying home. For me, some years I’ve needed to stay home watching chick flicks with my daughters and other years I’ve preferred to go out dancing with friends.
  • Offer an oasis. Sometimes the bereaved can happily engage with others one moment and feel hit by tsunami-sized waves of grief the next. Let your grieving guest(s) know ahead of time where they can go if they need a few moments to themselves. (Sometimes a private cry is priceless for channeling emotions.)

If your mourning friends choose not to join you, you can still offer an oasis of listening, awareness, and concern. When “life moves on” for the rest of the world on January 1st (and by the way, do NOT ever tell mourners “life moves on”), let your friends know that you know that this year will be different and that you will still be there for them.

___

For more on this topic, see Don’t Say “Happy New Year” after a Death.