This spring has brought three deaths in my extended family and it’s gotten me thinking about how we can best interact with those who are left behind when someone crosses over. In our society there’s a lot of negative baggage around death. That often makes us feel awkward around those who are grieving.
Death is a normal, natural process, but our culture of denial has made many of us rail against it – even when it is an elder who has lived a full life and may have been ready to go. We tend to hover at the extremes – either urging those left behind to “process” and “get over” their grieving as soon as possible or treating them with kid gloves and solemnity for far too long, as if all the other parts of their life have been suspended.
When we’re not sure what to do or say, we might avoid our bereaved friend altogether, which certainly isn’t kind. So how can we best demonstrate our love and compassion for those who have been left behind by a loved one? Here are some suggestions:
1. Start with simple, loving words. Don’t try to change how they feel or justify the loss of their beloved. Leave religion – yours or theirs – out of it. A very basic, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” accompanied by a hug (if they agree to it) or handshake is perfect. Look them in the eyes. Let your compassion shine through, heart to heart.
2. Bring homemade food.
When death has visited a household, routines are disrupted. Family members might not feel like eating but there are visitors coming and going. While it might seem cliché, a delicious homemade casserole is just the thing. If no one wants to eat it right away, or there is too much food, it can be frozen for later. Bring your offering in freezable containers that you don’t need returned. Label it clearly with an ingredient list, so those with food allergies or sensitivities can make their own decision whether or not to partake. Can’t cook? Purchase a good-quality treat from a local bakery.
3. Offer your skills.
Ask if there is anything specific you might do to help. After my mother-in-law died, my husband’s eldest sister, who lived nearby and had been most involved in caring for her, asked for help clearing out their Mom’s small apartment. In particular, she felt overwhelmed by all the paperwork and unopened mail. When we got there, I offered to dive in and sort through papers which felt like a very simple task for me. An hour later, I had organized it into piles and prioritized the calls my husband could make immediately to shut off utilities and the like. This easy task brought a lot of relief to my sister-in-law who had been overwhelmed by the mere thought of this project. Something that seems simple to you can have a huge impact.
4. Follow up.
Those left behind get a lot of attention right after their loved one crosses over. Make a note on your calendar to check in with them a month, two months and six months. Invite them to go for a walk or get breakfast, listen to them, treat them as you normally would. They are probably ready for a laugh or a silly story. Grieving has its own timetable and it’s different for each person. Be there for them whether or not they want to talk about their loss.
5. Give support to the caregivers, too.
A widow, widower or bereaved child will often have ongoing support from their child, partner or best friend. Do you know someone close to a person who has suffered a loss? Ask what they might need. Often we set aside our own needs to care for someone who is intensely grieving. Take that primary support person to lunch, offer to run errands for them or send them flowers. The very fact that you notice how much they are giving can help to lift their spirits.
It doesn’t take a heroic effort to show your kindness to those who are left behind by death. Even if you feel awkward, make an effort. Show up. Try one of these tips or just ask the bereaved person what they need. Grieving can be an isolating process. Simply sharing your presence and asking what you can do will have a positive effect, even if they don’t need anything tangible right away.