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,

  • 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.)

Putting the Widowed in a Box

I went for a checkup yesterday. I hadn’t been to that provider since the year my husband died, so I had to fill out a new medical history. How difficult filling out such forms used to be (and sometimes “still” is)! If you own or manage a business that requires personal information of its clients, make sure your paperwork and/or website includes “widowed” as a category.

At least this form offered me the option of "Other" where I could write in my own category: widowed.

At least this form offered me the option of “Other” where I could write in my own category: widowed.

I can’t count the number of times I sobbed through inadequate, limited options during the first year and a half after his death. (I do remember specific waiting rooms where people were leery enough of the crying woman to move to the other side of the room, sending not-so-furtive glances my way.)

When I was newly widowed,  EVERYTHING reminded me of my loss. It was hard enough coping with grief on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis. I hated having to acknowledge my husband’s death in clinical black and white on the many forms I had to fill out — and there were a LOT of forms. It was excruciating to complete paperwork that ignored the existence of my life-altered status.

  • I was not “single.” (I’d been married for 24 years and hadn’t done anything that changed or negated that. Neither had my husband — except for his dying.)
  • I was not “divorced.” (See above.)
  • I was not “married.” (Even though both of the above still applied, my spouse was no longer there — he was NEVER coming home.)
  • I was “widowed.” (Still am.)

Too often, company  (and government) forms offer no appropriate box for widows and widowers to check under “marital status.” On paper I write in my own category, even when there isn’t an option (or enough space) to do so. But online forms can incite scream-inducing, option-lacking frustration.

(And yes, during that first year or so, I sat at my computer and screamed at such websites — and at whatever offices or organizations had sent me to them — even though I had never been a person who screamed. But I’d never been widowed before, either.)

It has been nearly five years since my husband died. Socially, I’ve come to see myself as single again — most days, anyway.  But legally, “widowed” still feels like a better fit.

I still check the “Mrs.” box (rather than the ones for Ms. or Miss).* Online, that often opens a dialog box for my husband’s contact information. (Good luck trying to reach him, I think.) If I leave blank his current address and phone number, or type “deceased” (or, when I’m in a snarky mood, if I enter the word “cemetery”), such sites red-line my responses with please submit a valid phone number and street address. (Sometimes that makes me want to scream again.)

I don’t appreciate paperwork forcing me back to the start, forcing me to redefine myself according to its guidelines.

As a widow, I’ve had to do enough starting over — and redefining — for myself.


*If you don’t know what a widow prefers to be called (Mrs., Ms. or Miss), ask her. She won’t bite, and she’ll appreciate that you respect her enough to want to heed her preference.

Live or Survive (the Song by TREN) and the Great Grief Dilemma

I heard “Live or Survive” by TREN this morning, and within seconds — before listening to the whole song again and again — I knew I’d share it here. Although this isn’t a song about grief,  its music nevertheless speaks to me (or should I say sings?) of the great grief dilemma I’ve faced with the death of each loved one. 

*Here’s the song:

Now, I realize TREN didn’t write this song to speak about grief. Their intention is stated on their Facebook page:

“Live or Survive” was written with a mission to play at the end credits of the last Hunger Games movie, by TREN (Taylor Miranda, Richard Williams, Eliza Smith, and Nate Young). The idea is that there comes a time when we must either fight for a chance at really “living life” or give in to circumstance and simply “survive.” (Twitter: @tren_music)

I’m a fan of the Hunger Games franchise. A big fan. (I won’t admit how many times I’ve read the books by Suzanne Collins and seen the movies.) I hope the producers jump at the chance to include this song. It captures the contradictions Katniss faces within herself as much as with her battle against The Capitol.

But that’s not why I feel impelled to share it here, where I write about how to help grieving friends, family, and coworkers.

What I heard was a reflection of daily battles with bereavement. “Live or Survive” captures the multifaceted impossibilities of what I call the great grief dilemma for the newly-bereaved: my life is over, but I’m still here to live it.

Consider these lyrics by TREN (in italics) — paired with grief-related thoughts I’m expressing in the present tense (to reflect new, raw grief):

  • “I hear the call, but will I listen?” — I hear the doctor’s words of diagnosis. Of pronouncement. I know their meaning, but I do not, cannot know what they mean, much less accept them.
  • “Flames pave the sky in the distance.” — My world tumbles upside-down. There’s air beneath my feet, and smoke obscures my eyes. Everything is altered.
  • “I know my place, but should I stay?” — I’m a wife, but my husband is dead. I’m my mother’s daughter, but Mom is gone. Who am I? (My friends — dear friends — who have lost beloved children are, and will always be, the parents of those precious departed souls, but these bereaved parents will forever straddle pain whenever someone asks the number of their children.)
  • “Something in my soul craves resistance.” — Denial doesn’t allow me to accept that my loved one is never coming back. Unfinished business or issues will never be resolved. It’s too much to take, so I won’t think about it. My brain is overloaded and my heart won’t let me.
  • “One by one, they drop and fall, hiding beneath already broken walls. Watch them burn to the ground.” — My plans, hopes, dreams, and expectations for the future have died with my husband. Hourly at first, then over days, weeks, and months, loss peels layer after layer from my being.
  • “Ashes of freedom never to be found. Traitor to the truth inside.” — Tethered by 24/7 caretaking, the death of my dear one delivers physical relief with a terrible, terrible cost. Survivor’s guilt means that (even if I believe it) I don’t want to hear how wonderful it is he’s no longer suffering or how glad anyone is that she’s in “a better place.”
  • “Can you stand tall against the tide?” — Grief assaults me in waves that knock me to my knees. Mourning often submerges me. Standing requires strength I don’t have.
  • “Will you put your hands in the sky?” — How can I go on? I give up. I can’t do this on my own.
  • “Or curl them into fists and fight?” — I snap at everyone around me, stuck in fight-or-flight battle mode. Uncharitable words I’ve never uttered chip at my defenses until I’m even fighting myself just to keep a civil tongue.
  • “Live or survive. Live or survive.” — If one more person tells me “life goes on,” I’ll scream. Loudly. Because it doesn’t. His didn’t. And yet … and yet … I can’t deny I’m still here. But I’m not living. Not really. Barely.
  • “Gotta pick a side.” — I have to decide. Will I ever do more than go through the motions? Will I ever want to live for myself?
  • “Can you hear them calling?” — Too many calls. Not enough calls. Don’t demand I do things now. I’m not ready. Don’t ignore me, either. I need to be called. I need to know I still matter, even though the one who mattered to me is gone.
  • “Can’t waste time.” — I can’t even tell time, let alone track it. Once-simple, 30-minute tasks take hours. Seasons surprise me. Yet funerary and other business matters demand timely attention my mind can’t pay.
  • “Revolution falling.” — My worldview’s shifting with my upside-down universe. Except for the innermost core of my being (a knowledge that God loves me and will somehow carry me through this), I take nothing else for granted but unpredictable change.
  • “I will not stand by.” — I can’t stand seeing others mourning — it hurts too much! — but I won’t stand apart (or depart) from them either. If I can help ease another’s loneliness, isolation, sorrow, insecurity, or confusion in their grief, I have to try. I have to. (Hence, this site.)
  • “Courage at the core. Go before the fear sets in.” — It requires unspeakable, exhausting courage to manage routine business matters. I count my breathing before asking for help and stave off the panic until I hang up. It takes days to muster the will to make a single phone call, and once I psyche myself up to it I must act. Fast.
  • “Stronger than before.” — Hour by hour. The only way to survive this. (If one more person says “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” I may remind them that didn’t work so well for my husband. Loudly.)
  • “Never let your faith give.” — My trust in God’s plan for my life takes a back seat to my trust in his love for me. (Back seat? On second thought, trust in “the plan” rides on a rickety trailer pulled far behind the vehicle of love where I’m seat-belted in place. It’s still there, but not easy to reach. For a time.)
  • “Live for something more.” — It’s not possible to live when your other half is severed. Only half a being remains. So when I do learn to live again, it will have to be for something more.

It’s been 56 months since my husband died and nearly 20 years since Mom’s passing. am living again, and life is good, thanks to time and work and practice, but I’ll never “get over” loving the ones I’ve lost. No one does. Rather, we learn to live in spite of our bereavement. Sometimes, though, events (anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, or nothing identifiable) will reactivate waves of grief. When they strike again, I’ll remember I have options:

“Will you put your hands into the sky?
Or curl them into fists and fight?
Live or survive.”


*If you enjoyed TREN’s music as much as I did, please like and share it using #liveorsurvive and #tren. When Mockingjay — Part 2 is released, I’d love to hear “Live or Survive” on the soundtrack!