From the Trenches: How to Help a Grieving Family

Helping handsMost of my readers know that my mom passed away in January after a very brief illness. The cancer came out of nowhere, and it spread so quickly it seemed to be consuming her from the inside out.

It was a horrifying couple of months.

I wouldn't have gotten through it without my husband and my friends. My mom said the same; she was surrounded by the people she loved. In her final days I was having to shoo her friends out of her room so she could rest. So many people came in and out to laugh with her, bring her treats, and pray while holding her hand.

The love did not stop when Mom died. Our friends bathed my brother and me in their care.

The lessons I took from this were unexpected. I once read a book that listed all of the things you should never say to a grieving person. Most of them seemed like common sense to me: don't compare their suffering to yours, don't tell them that they'd get well if they only tried this doctor or that treatment; don't roll off platitudes about how God knows best, etc. Check, check, check.

But here's one that stopped me in my tracks. The author, a rabbi, contended that we should never say, “Now, just call me if you need anything at all!” I had uttered this exact statement many times myself to people who had lost a loved one. I thought it was a loving and sincere thing to say, and I certainly meant it as such.

But the book pointed out that people who are grieving often are just not capable of picking up the phone to ask for help. It’s not a matter of pride so much as one of basic emotional presence; they can’t call you to ask for what they need simply because they can’t identify it themselves. A mawing grief overwhelms them.

I accepted that as true, but I don’t think I really understood it until now.

After my mother’s death I received dozens of beautiful condolence cards from people, and I appreciated them all. I appreciated even more what people did when I was largely incapable of making decisions—or, for that matter, of making myself a sandwich.

Or even deciding that it might be time, at 4 p.m., to finally eat a sandwich. You see what I mean.

People who stepped in and simply did things, even (or especially) without asking, were fantastically helpful. Several weeks after the funeral, for example, members of my mom’s church brought my brother all of the leftovers from their weekly potluck. He had good homemade Lutheran hot dishes for days. During Mom’s illness, people brought us lasagna, sandwiches, Christmas cookies; the day after her death, a dear friend of the family helped me clean out my mother’s room at the nursing home; that same woman and her family handled all of the logistics of our family’s funeral luncheon.

One final thought. I didn’t much like the first installment of the film version of The Hobbit, which I saw with my family while my mom was still sick. But one line resonated in my mind as absolutely, perfectly true:

Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? I don't know. Perhaps because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.

When I have been afraid, my friends have given me courage.