Casseroles and Carpools: Helping a Loved One Who Is Grieving


What can I do?

People often ask me what they can do to help someone who has just suffered an enormous loss. I don’t have a clue. All I can tell you is what helped me. Everyone is different. Each situation is unique. Every person has his or her own process.

With that disclaimer in place, I know that friends and family want to help. So here’s a list of 21 off the top of my head, not in any particular order:

1. Pray for me. Start there. Prayers, well-wishes, positive vibes are all gratefully accepted. Put that healing energy out there and move it in my direction. Within a few hours of Sam’s death, I talked to a priest, a rabbi and a Christian Science practitioner. Not a joke, just a solid vote for monotheism. If prayer is not your shtick, just inhale and exhale until you are calm and centered. You can help me more from this place of spirit.

2. Ask me how I am. I will tell you I’m OK, and this is total horseshit. Ask me anyway, and just know that I care enough to lie to your face. I’m not fine, I’m not OK, I’m pretty sure I will never be OK again, but if you don’t ask me, I will think you’ve forgotten that my life as I knew it is gone. I’ve had a headache constantly for weeks, and trust me, you do not want to know about the GI distress. But when you ask me how I am, your question acknowledges that my everything has changed.

3. Bring me flowers. Don’t bring a plant. I can only be responsible for keeping myself and my sons alive. Maybe the cat. Flowers are good, because when the flowers wilt and stink, I will throw the whole thing out, along with the leftover tuna casserole I loved as a kid but my children won’t eat. If you want your crystal vase back, you will have to dig through the cat litter to find it. Best to send the flowers in a plastic Dixie cup.

4. Show up. Don’t even call, just land on my doorstep. Everyone says to call if I need anything, but I cannot think of what I need, what your name is and where I left my cell phone. I feel alone in the world. I need everything, and what I need right now is you. We will figure out the details when you get here.

5. Call first. I have never been so tired but unable to sleep and distracted but single-minded in my entire life. I know you want to see me and give me a hug in person, but my house is covered in people I barely recognize, and I just want to take a nap. I cannot follow a conversation, or string two coherent sentences together. I want everybody to go away and leave me alone.

6. Pick up the newspaper from the driveway. And now go ahead and just put it in the recycling bin. I’m not going to read it. I have no attention span, and I just cannot take any more bad news, whether it’s across an ocean or across town. If I cannot muster the energy to walk the 10 feet to where the paper landed, I will certainly not maintain the focus to read it. I won’t even look at the pictures.

7. Feed me. Or at least feed my kids. I have lost my appetite and my love of cooking, and I keep forgetting to eat. But the kids are hungry. Even if I don’t eat, the smell of dinner in my kitchen makes me feel loved and fed. I consciously think that some day I might have the wherewithal to provide dinner for somebody else, but that possibility seems very far away. Go easy on the sweets, because the kids will never touch another cucumber again, so long as cookies and lemon bars keep showing up on their doorstep. Gift certificates work. Feed the dog, too, because I keep forgetting, and the lemon bars stick to his fur.

8. Drive carpool. I cannot remember, well, pretty much anything, but especially not the kids’ scout, baseball and playdate schedules. I have no idea what day it is. I’m pretty sure I got them to school, and I’m confident they were late. And I probably should not be trusted behind the wheel with a van full of children, even if they are mine. I cannot remember where I’m going, how to get there, and what time the what’s-it-called starts.

9. Do the grocery shopping. My girlfriend calls and says, “I’m going to the grocery store. Make me a list of what you need, and I’ll do your shopping, too.” Seven minutes later she’s in my kitchen, looking at my list and frowning. The scrap of paper has three words: milk, eggs, bread. “That is not everything you need.” She opens the fridge and then the pantry and starts taking notes. She asks about allergies, favorite fruits and pasta. She says, “I’ll be back. Go take a nap.” I go to my room. An hour later, I hear her car in the driveway and the creak of my front door. She calls out, “Don’t get up! It’s just me.” I’m too tired to move. I hear her humming and putting groceries away, and then she calls from the front door, “I’m leaving now. I’ll check on you later.” I fall peacefully asleep for the first time in a week. When I wake up, I drag myself to the kitchen, where all the groceries have been put away and the shopping bags folded on the counter, along with the receipt so I can reimburse her. One of the kindest, most practical gestures I have ever received.

10. Don’t cry. I’m constantly on the verge of tears, and I just want to hold it together.

11. Cry with me. Broken hearts sitting together means everything. I just got back from the cemetery, and I chose a single plot. It’s got a lovely view, and I hope never to see that &%$#@ garden again. Until Friday, anyway, when we hold the funeral, and I will need you to cry with me then, too.

12. Laugh with me. Because I love to laugh at the irreverent and inappropriate.

13. Send cards. I love the handwritten note.

14. Write the obituary. I cannot remember my husband’s obituary, but I remember which friend wrote it. The fact that he was the subject of an obituary takes my breath away, and I already told you I cannot focus for more than a few words. As soon as I see the dates with the dash in the middle, I’m done. Life is all about the dash, but the only thing I can see right now is that date at the end. I could find a copy around here somewhere, but the most significant part of that obituary, as far as I am concerned, is that my faithful, intelligent, thoughtful friend wrote it for me. For him, I mean. A photo slideshow would be nice, too.

15. Walk with me. Remind me to inhale and exhale, because I keep holding my breath. One of my most healing places is in the class with the yoga teacher who speaks of our power and beauty. Also with the meditation instructor who encourages exhaling out bitterness, anger and any other toxic trash you don’t need in your body and inhaling whatever you need to bring balance — peace, love, prosperity, joy.

16. Organize my mailEspecially the bills. Don’t pay my bills for me, but if you could collect them together, and remind me when they are due, that would really help. I have the money, but I don’t have the time to think about writing a check or clicking the bill pay. And it’s dark enough around here without the electric company cutting off the lights.

17. Offer to do laundry or dishes. But know that I might not want you to. This has nothing to do with your housekeeping prowess. Know that while I love the scent of fresh, clean sheets, the ones on the bed still smell like my husband. So don’t wash them quite yet. Maybe start with the kids’ laundry because I don’t know how that pile got so big and stinky so fast. I don’t know how the children themselves got so big and stinky so fast either, but that’s another issue.

18. Bring pinot noir and dark chocolate. As if you need me to say that out loud.

19. Bring gifts. Little things — candles, bath salts, pajamas. Tangible reminders of warmth and light.

20. Protect me. But don’t seclude me. I don’t need to know about some of the harrowing things going on in the world, but I do want to offer my heart (what’s left of it) to a friend who also received terrible news. I’d rather hear it from you than through the rumor mill.

21. Don’t tell me you know exactly how I feel. You don’t. Really. It’s OK — I don’t know how you feel either. So we have that in common. Be gentle. We are all trying to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense, like putting a puzzle together with pieces missing and no edges. I don’t want to hear that he’s in a better place, I do not want to hear that whole hoo ha about life not dishing out any more than you can handle, and I couldn’t care less about God’s plan. I hate the plan and the God who planned it.

Actually, I don’t believe that God plans these tragedies, but His response is always the same — He gives us each other. Getting through these storms alone is about as futile as my dog stopping to shake off the water while we are walking in the pouring rain. It’s not going to do any good until we step out of the deluge and into the shelter. Shelter which often takes the form of familiar shoulders, a loving presence to hold the weight of the loss together.

Community doesn’t have to be a chapel overflowing, standing room only, although there are times when that helps, too. Life sends friends and family who bring casseroles and drive carpool and serve communion. Friends who send text messages and make phone calls. Love brings together family who email photographs and tell stories and cook and make more phone calls. Community and communion. At the end of the day, that’s all we have. And that’s everything.

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Thinkstock image by Chris Clinton

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