When Someone You Care About Experiences the Death of a Loved One—10 Things to Do

This was printed 12 years ago, but I believe it is still relevant today.  Photo by Fred Rosenberg

When Someone You Care About Experiences the Death of a Loved One—10 Things to Do

Your friend has just had a death in the family and you’re not sure what to do or say. You have the feeling that they probably want to be left alone and have private time. You worry that if you mention anything about the death, it might provoke more pain.

These are very common responses, motivated out of sincere care and concern for the bereaved. But they are also deeply ingrained cultural habits unconcsciously borne of fear and discomfort with death. Even when we feel strongly that we should stay away from the bereaved, avoidance is never helpful and can sometimes be hurtful to the ones who are grieving.

Here are ten tips for being helpful when someone you care about loses a loved one:

1.     Attend the visitation and funeral. Don’t wait for an invitation. Check out the online obituary listed with the newspaper or funeral home for times and locations. Even if you never met the person who died, showing up expresses your support and care for the grieving person, in one of the strongest ways possible. And by the way, it’s really okay to ask for a half day off work to go to a funeral.

2.     Bring baking or home-made meals. When someone dies, family members gather, and people still need to eat even though no one feels much like cooking. Food is grounding, nourishing, loving.

3.     Send flowers. A funeral full of flowers is a visual and beautiful demonstration to the family that their loved one was significant and will be missed.

4.     Send a card. Write down your favourite memory of the person who died: how they helped you, inspired you, made you laugh. The bereaved may not have heard your story and it will be a treasure to them to revisit and help them mourn. If you didn’t know the deceased well, or at all, then write about what your grieving friend means to you. You can bring a card to the funeral, or send it in the mail, or contribute to comments on an online obituary.

5.     Intentionally make contact. Bereaved people often remark how friends and acquaintances will cross the street or duck into stores to avoid them. Do the opposite of this—go out of your way to approach, make contact and bring up the death.

6.     Just say I’m sorry. The bereaved don’t need poetic words of comfort, so don’t let a shortage of the “right things to say” stop you. “I’m so sorry” is enough.

7.     Listen, and welcome tears. Advice and cheering up is not required, but good questions can help. What is this experience like for you? How does today feel? What’s the hardest part right now? And when the tears flow, remember that crying is tremendously healing.

8.     Say the loved one’s name. The deceased may be gone, but their memory lives on. They will always be mother, son, sister, or husband, to those left behind. It is bittersweet music to the heart of the bereaved to hear the name spoken out loud.

9.     Remember the anniversary. Write down the date of the death on your calendar and send a card or email on the anniversary.

10.  Decide to stay for the long haul. Expect that it will take longer than you think for your friend to mourn. Make a decision that you are going to be the one to hang in as a compassionate friend without any expectation of “closure”.

(First printed in the Nelson Express Community Newspaper, July 19, 2006. I was working as a funeral celebrant and volunteering with Nelson Hospice, facilitating a grief support group at the time.)