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.)

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.

Why My Grieving Friend “Still” Cries–A Walkthrough

Do you worry that a grieving friend or loved one still cries?*

It’s true that time will help, but it takes longer than you expect. Your friend’s 2013 loss is “still” very recent. That she still cries is normal. She’s still stepping through the year of “firsts.” Every season, every holiday, every public (and private) anniversary, birthday, or commemoration has to be re-framed without her loved one’s presence. Some of it may be on a conscious level, but much of it is a visceral adjustment.

Until August I walked with a cane for 10 years after a misstep — a very costly misstep.** (Stay with me, please. You’ll see how this relates to grief by the end.) When I first injured my ankle, it hurt all the time. All. The. Time. When it didn’t keep me from sleeping, pain invaded my dreams and awoke me from them. It wrought tears I didn’t realize I was crying, and it happened as often when at rest as when I tried using it.

I did all the right things — ice (at first, then heat), anti-inflammatory medicine, elevation, and rest. When days brought no improvement, I sought professional treatment. X-rays ruled out fractures and physicians confirmed the appropriateness of what I’d already been doing. I hobbled around in a pressurized walking boot for nearly nine months, but when my ankle emerged from its plastic-and-Velcro womb, I’d delivered only atrophied muscles, tired tendons, and limp ligaments. Months of intensive physical therapies followed, and TEN spinal nerve blocks later … I still needed medication 24/7 to manage the pain.

I can’t remember how many prescriptions doctors had me try before finding one that let me go about my day-to-day mom duties. Some were ineffective or made me so loopy I could scarcely walk down the driveway, much less drive from it. One worked fairly well (for a few weeks) before painting my leg with a red, itchy please-scratch-with-sandpaper rash. Another worked perfectly — I felt almost zero pain and I could drive safely — until the day my hands began shaking and my hair abandoned scalp by every brush- and finger-stroke.

It was between the second and third years after my missed step when I found medicine that relieved enough pain for me to function without involuntary tears — as long as I walked only upon 100 percent flat surfaces and carried nothing as heavy as a full milk jug. Stepping across grass, sidewalks, parking lots, dirt and/or sand, ramps, the slope of my bathtub, and thick carpeting still overrode my damaged ankle badly enough to alter my life every hour of the day — even with the more effective medicine — and the pain still invaded my dreams by nightmares and awakenings.

In the eighth year I tried acupuncture. Friends had recommended it earlier, and I’m not sure why it took so long for me to try it considering all the other methods and approaches I’d embraced. I wasn’t ready until I was ready. After the first treatment I cut the dosage of pain medicine in half. After the third treatment I stopped using it altogether.

That doesn’t mean I no longer felt pain in my ankle — far from it — but I became better able to handle it. Even so, I still had to tread lightly and carefully using my cane over all but the smoothest indoor surfaces — until this 10th year’s miracle allowed me to step freely again.

My grief as a widow has been similar, though the emotional pain was/is/was far worse than the physical. I consulted with experts (other mourners) and sought treatment (with a grief counselor) and I still face many sleep-interrupted nights due to grief. At three and a half years into my healing, I’m still figuring out how to balance my “dosage” of day-to-day living with my adapted way of walking on the uneven surfaces of widowhood.

At less than (or more than) a year since your friend’s loss, she is still adjusting the Velcro straps on her walking boot with every hobbled step she takes. Time will help her toward healing, but she must also maneuver through the emotions and realities along her altered footpath. She’s got a long road ahead as she learns to walk with a new gait. Offer her your arm — and your ear — in patient support, but “still” your tongue about how long it’s taking her.

___

A couple of important notes on this post:

*I adapted this post from my answer to a friend’s query on behalf of a loved one.

**The miracle of how I got rid of my cane is a separate story, one for which I am truly grateful!

Don’t Bury the Living with the Dead

One aspect of grief that blindsides many mourners is the sensation of being forgotten after the earliest phase of their loss — as if they died, too. Immediately after a death, an amazing outpouring of loving support comes from family, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances. It is wonderful, but it fades away. As time passes the bereaved are still making tremendous, painful adjustments while their friends’ unchanged lives shift back into “normal.” Grieving survivors often feel as if no one cares for them anymore.

I’ve networked with thousands of widows and widowers since my husband’s death, so I’m drawing this example from my experience with this population of mourners (though the principal of post-funeral isolation applies to other losses as well). Bereaved spouses often find themselves no longer asked to join other couples they regularly socialized with before losing their partners. I’ve heard widows say they felt as if married friends didn’t trust them around their husbands anymore. (“As if I had any interest in someone else’s hubby while grieving and wanting my own!”) I’ve heard widowers say they felt as if they no longer mattered to anyone without their late wives. (“I guess the people I thought were ‘our’ friends were really just ‘hers.'”) I’ve heard widows and widowers from their 20s to their 80s say they “lost” not only their spouses but their friends, too. (“After my husband [or wife] died, it’s like I died to our friends, too.”)

Even if you’re afraid of saying “the wrong thing” to a friend who is “still” grieving, saying something — saying anything — is better than saying nothing at all. After my mother’s death I made the mistake of assuming that Dad would hurt more if I mentioned her to him than if I let him “forget” the pain of her loss. I held debates with myself on significant dates every year. I was hurting that she wasn’t with us, but what if he’d forgotten it was her birthday or their anniversary? Would my saying something about it make him remember and feel worse? It was ridiculous (and hypocritical) for me to think so, because I found such consolation in having others speak of her!

Between the bereaved and those not directly involved in that loss, a greater gulf can separate good intentions from the ability to offer meaningful, long-term consolation. Communication is better than assumption. In the weeks and months following the loss, ask the bereaved what support would most benefit them. Listen, then ask again a few weeks later, too, because they may not know themselves, and if they do the answers will often change.

It wasn’t until I began recovering from the initial shock of my husband’s death that I realized an inkling of my foolish assumption. I wanted people to remember his birthday as much as I’d wanted (and still want!) them to remember Mom’s. I didn’t feel like celebrating my wedding anniversary — our 25th was the first I faced without him — but I needed to have it acknowledged.

Whether your friend’s loss is recent or not, jot down some dates in your calendar now: the deceased’s birth and death dates, your friend’s birthday (and anniversary, if applicable). If you don’t know the dates, ask. Make reminders to acknowledge the dates when they approach. During the first year, let your friends know you’re thinking about them as “that” day of each month approaches. You don’t have to say why (unless they ask), but it will boost their spirits during tough times.

 

Don’t Say “Happy New Year” after a Death

Do I wish my grieving friends “Happy New Year?” There are more helpful things to say, depending on how long it has been since their loved ones died.

If your friend’s loss is recent (and by “recent” I mean within a year or even up to 15 months), then no. “Happy New Year” is probably not the right thing to say in the first year (or two), even though you do wish your friend to be happy. Grief is not a happy feeling, but when it is new and raw it is the feeling your friend needs acknowledged. More thoughtful responses will be better received. Some things I appreciated hearing as a “new” widow of three months:

  • “I wish you well in the year ahead.”
  • “I know it is difficult starting this new year without him. I miss him, too.”
  • “Would you like to talk about how you two usually celebrated New Year’s Eve together?”
  • “We’d love to have you welcome in the new year among friends. Would you like to join us?”
  • “I’m sorry he isn’t here to begin this year with you.”
  • “You’re in my thoughts this New Year’s Eve. I know it isn’t the same.”

If the loss is more recent, the bereaved may not want to be included in “party” atmospheres — they are hurting too much to celebrate — but it is essential to invite them! Whether they accept your invitations or not, it is better for grieving souls to turn down a dozen invitations to social gatherings than not to receive them at all. Even if they repeatedly refuse your invitations, KEEP ASKING.

As the world celebrates moving forward from one year’s date to the next, those mourning the loss of loved ones who died in the “old” year face the devastating reality that their dear ones will never “touch” the new year. Even those who have already spent nearly a year adjusting to their changed lives will face a new 365-day period of acknowledging their lack. For weeks, maybe months, every time a widowed spouse pens the year onto a check or a parent-bereft child painstakingly pencils the date on a school assignment, a grieving soul feels the “betrayal” of hand and tool writing a time their loved ones will not experience with them.

If your friend’s loss struck longer ago (and by “longer ago” I mean at least a year or more), then “Happy New Year” may be a welcome greeting. If your friend is moving forward,  taking steps geared toward the future, finding joy and fulfillment in life again, then by all means say “Happy New Year!” But be sensitive to how your friend is really feeling. Some who mourn lost loved ones may “look” like they’re “doing better” through the holidays — at least in public — but even those who’ve “gotten used to” their losses find holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries to be difficult times.

Avoid Blaming or Shaming Someone Who Has Lost a Loved One

This post topic may seem obvious. After all, who would be so cruel as to dump blame or shame onto someone who is grieving? Unfortunately, it happens. Whether by deliberate intent or unwitting ignorance, it piles deeper distress upon those already experiencing the worst moments of their lives.Shame smiley blackground

Intentional blame is easiest to recognize and, sadly, is most often inflicted by another loved one. (Generosity requires I attribute such meanness to being overwrought by grief.) Intentional shaming and blaming  is accusatory and attempts to “punish” the bereaved or the deceased. It can be based in logic or completely without foundation.

“If you’d fed her the right way, she’d have never gotten sick.”
“If he’d been behind the wheel then he’d still be here; we should be burying you instead.”
“She’d have never gotten sick if you hadn’t taken that job.”
“He was healthy as a horse until he met you.”
“She’d still be with us if she hadn’t been such a lousy housekeeper.”

Unwitting or accidental blame is harder to recognize and, for the most part, is ascribed by well-meaning  but thoughtless friends, coworkers, and family.  It usually takes the shape of questions meant to better inform the would-be comforter. It can also be stated in misguided attempts to show “understanding.”

“Why didn’t you take him to the doctor at the first sign of trouble?” (Implies: if you had taken him then, he’d be fine now.)
“How come you sent her to that store that night?” (Implies: if you hadn’t sent her, she’d be fine.)
“Don’t you know CPR? So why’d he die?” (Implies: knowing CPR would have meant he’d survive.)
“If it had been my little one, I’d have found another doctor.” (Implies: mourner “should” have known more/better/different treatment was needed.)
“I’m glad I made my teenager take a defensive driving class.” (Implies: if you’d made yours take the class they’d still be okay.)

Questions and statements such as these only make the bereaved feel worse.  By stopping to think of the hidden implications of questions and comments you make to someone whose loved one has died, you can guard against unintentionally inflicting deeper pain.

(For anyone who has already willingly assaulted survivors with accusations, please reconsider. Apologies can mend some wounds, including your own.)

LISTEN without Judgment

To “listen without judgment” requires two actions on behalf of grieving friends, coworkers, relatives, or even strangers.

  1. L-I-S-T-E-N.
  2. Be quiet. (I would have said, “Shut up!” but thought that seemed too impolite.)

When you learn that someone you know has lost a loved one, among the most helpful things you can do is to “be there” for them. In many social settings silence is an awkward intruder, but when comforting the bereaved it can be a welcome participant.

In my post about grieving children, I mentioned the importance of asking kids if they’d like to talk about their deceased loved ones or about their feelings.  The same principle applies to adults mourning significant losses as well.

I was blessed with some friends who did this beautifully.

One day a few months after my husband died, a friend invited me to lunch. I remember sitting at the table with tears streaming down my face as I vented about my pain and loneliness, expressed my anxiety over my daughters’ grief, and confided regarding the physical toll mourning had taken on my body. Our poor waitress (and a few fellow diners) appeared alarmed by my waterworks, but when I apologized my friend shook her head and assured me she didn’t care what they thought.

The few words she spoke during that meal were supportive, encouraging phrases that allowed me to share my honest feelings. She validated my experience by reminding me that my grief was all about me. She said things like:

  • “That sounds really hard.”
  • “I’m so sorry.”
  • “I appreciate you sharing this with me.”
  • “What are your feelings about that?”

Because she encouraged me to share my true feelings and never expressed how she thought I “should” feel, I was able to relay and process sometimes conflicting thoughts and emotions that would have festered inside me otherwise. Her willingness to listen nurtured my healing.