How to support a grieving family.
March 21, 2010 6:34 AM   Subscribe

Sadly I lost a friend to a long battle with cancer last night, her husband and teenage children are without any extended family in the area and will rely on some of us for the next while. Two things: 1 - Can you tell me of things that friends and family have done for you in similar circumstances that really helped at the time: large, small, immediately, over days, weeks, months, whatever. We'll sort out food, the pets and cleaning the house but what else can we do? 2 - Any advice on striking the right balance between giving them their space to grieve and being there to support to them?
posted by HopStopDon'tShop to Human Relations (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
First, food. If they don't have to cook for the next week or so that would be great. Bring meals over that just need to be reheated.
posted by caddis at 6:55 AM on March 21, 2010

When my mom died of cancer, having space was much more appreciated than anything anyone could do for us. When someone else was there, I felt like I had to reassure them that I was okay and it was more difficult. When I wanted to be with people and I knew they would be there for me, then I would ask when I didn't want to be alone.

I'm sorry for your loss, too. Thank you for being an awesome friend to their family.
posted by Wuggie Norple at 7:04 AM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Practical assistance with funeral arrangements and notifiying the many people and entities that need to be notified. Ask what phone calls you can make, what paperwork you can assist with. Maybe keep a notebook of what needs to be done, and ask what tasks you can help with, and note what's been done so you are duplicating efforts. Draft an obituary. The balance between space and support is tricky--that balance will move back and forth, depending how everyone is feeling. Be there for the crying, just having someone who knows and cares is good.

Don't forget to allow yourself space to grieve, as well.

Good luck with this; it's so difficult and sad.
posted by Savannah at 7:08 AM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

HopStopDon'tShop, I'm very sorry to hear about the loss of your friend.

I lost my mom to cancer when I was 10. Every family dynamic is different, but in mine, we didn't talk about the loss of our mom. My dad did the best with trying to make sure we were supported in terms of getting our homework done, having dinner ready (this mostly rotated between Italian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern take-out), and my 3 siblings (14, 17, 19 at the time) and I were all encouraged to continue about life. It was a well-intended move to try and maintain a sense of normalcy, but I don't think this was the best idea. But losing someone to cancer is, I think, different than losing someone suddenly - your friend's husband and children are probably used to things like picking up when it comes to food, pets, and cleaning; over time, you adjust to new responsibilities around the house as the family member declines in health (at least this was the case of my family).

I think the biggest things that I would have liked, is for someone to check in with me - see how I was doing, every now and then. To check in with the kids, and not just the dad, because he may feel compelled to say everything's ok. But this was also a cultural thing for us, being from a family of immigrants - you're always trying to "maintain face."

How old are the kids? Are any of them around puberty? If you are a close family friend, it might be nice to align yourself with one of the younger ones, particularly if they're a girl. It is mortifying to have to ask for things like pads or tampons, when you can't go out/drive on your own. And having someone to turn to for getting bras, and general questions and confusion about totally normal things. It can be extremely lonely for a young teenage girl without a mom or involved older female around.

One of the best things we did as a family after our mom died, is take a vacation (road-trip!), to have fun and be goofy and relax. And to get out of town, and away from the responsibilities. We drove from DC to Orlando (I think this was the summer, maybe 6 months after our mom died), and even with some of my siblings being college-aged, we had a blast going to theme parks. My dad let us all go out as siblings alone a couple of nights, and it really was a lot of fun - we were responsible kids, but it was fantastic to be without parental supervision away from home. If you think this would interest your friend's family, maybe encourage them (over the summer, or within the next year and a half) to do something similar. To take a vacation, de-stress, and offer to watch over their house/pet(s).

As far as striking a balance between giving them their space to grieve and support, it's a tough call because every family is different. I think the best thing would be to check in with different family members every now and then, maybe make them something yummy once in a while, and feel your way about the balance. Most important, I think, is letting them know you're available if they need some help. They may not take you up on it right away, but to know that there's someone they trust who is sincere about it, would make a world of difference.

Best of luck to you; thank you for being an awesome friend!
posted by raztaj at 7:10 AM on March 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

Seconding the suggestion of food. My grandmother lived with us for the last few weeks of her life, and died shortly before the holidays. I was in my early teens, as was my younger sister. One of my mother's friends went to Boston Market and bought us a gigantic Thanksgiving-style dinner, brought it to the house, gave us all hugs and then left. Not having to worry about food, being able to clean up really easily, and not having to put on a show of "being okay" for the friend were all very much appreciated.

I was young enough that a lot of the fallout was hidden from me. But it's been something like 15 years since then, and I still remember what a huge relief it to have something as relatively trivial as a meal taken care of.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 7:22 AM on March 21, 2010

Don't try to fill the quiet spaces with too many words. When my dad died, one of his friends unexpectedly sat and held my hand for about an hour, a very quiet hour at that - about week after he died. That was nearly twenty years ago and I have never forgotten that small gesture. I too will just take someone's hand quietly for a period of time, and somehow that small physical contact can be very meaningful and comforting. Good luck, and I am so very sorry to hear about your loss.
posted by msali at 7:25 AM on March 21, 2010 [6 favorites]

Are the funeral arrangements still to be done? There are an awful lot of decisions to be made in that regard and things to do. My sister, father and I struggled with all this at the funeral home, as we were still in shock from my mother's death, and having someone else help with some of it would have been so nice. You will not want to take over, of course, but you could offer to take care of some things, be there to take notes for what they want, help with things like death announcements, flowers or charities info. and decisions, help with making the phone calls to notify some of the closer relatives and friends ... I as eldest daughter had to do a lot of that and was so very grateful when my cousin took over some of the phone calls, my aunt and uncle arranged for some flowers, etc.. We had a fairly small funeral, but there were a tremendous amount of things to do.

Later, when it is time, and when they decide it is time, having help sorting out your friend's things would be nice as well ... what to donate, what to keep for the kids, etc.. It was very painful even a couple of months later for me to have to do things like go through my mother's purse and toss her used up lipstick and the comb with her hair still in the teeth. (You get the idea.) Even a year later, there were some things we just decided to put off dealing with, and just packed them away. As others have said, you will to try to be supportive and available, and offer help if they want it, but also give them space. Sometimes you want to be alone in grief, and sometimes it helps to have a shoulder to cry on. This can vary day by day and even hour by hour.

Also, if it was a long cancer death, they are probably not only sad but also relieved that her suffering is over. That happened with me, but I then also felt terribly guilty about it at the same time. That is normal but something to be mindful of, as it can bring out odd behavior in those left behind sometimes.

Finally, grieving takes a long time. It gets better of course but it was tremendously angering to me when people thought I should be "all better" and moving on after a month or two. Well, I am doing just fine, but I still get sad now and then and that is ok. I am so grateful for my husband and the close friends that are understanding about that. It is nice to have people who I can let my hair down with and say things to like, Mom would have loved this, and I miss her and wish she was here. They just acknowledge how I feel without trying to jolly me out of it, and that is so helpful.

Keep in mind that "firsts" will be hard - the first of various birthdays without her, the first Christmas or significant holiday without her, etc.. People checked in with us on if we needed any help with these days.

Finally, it is coming up on the first anniversary of my mother's death. My good friend sent a brief email to check in, which was really sweet of her.
posted by gudrun at 7:37 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

A day or two after my dad's funeral, my best friend took me to the mall. We had a great time, and it's one of my clearest memories of that week.

Grief is different for everybody, but even when you've just lost someone, there can be hours or days where you feel normal or even kind of good. Going to dinner or a movie might be welcome (then again, it might not).

The space-vs-support issue can be pretty delicate; whether I wanted to be alone or with someone changed almost hourly. Knowing that I had friends willing to listen or swing by whenever helped. It might be helpful to be there just to help with the food or watch TV or something, rather than dropping in and immediately offering your shoulder to cry on.

You are sure to be a big help to the family, whatever you do. Thank you for being there, and best of luck to all of you.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:40 AM on March 21, 2010

One thing that a lot of people assume is that grieving takes place right away and that it ends at some point immediately following the loss.

The truth is--at least for some people-- that the grieving process can take a long time and may not even hit in full force until many, many months later.

Being attuned to this and trying to lend your support at those later times could be a welcome reprieve from a culture that likes people to get over their grieving quickly.

An, as others have said, make sure you take care of yourself too.
posted by DavidandConquer at 7:49 AM on March 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

First off, I'm so sorry for your loss. It is wonderful that you are able to help out.

I agree with everyone suggesting food, but I would also recommend some...caution? Sensitivity? After my mother died, we got lots of casseroles and things that could be easily reheated. This was very nice, and I know my father appreciated not having to cook, but someone still had to go to the store for milk, produce, etc., we all got pretty sick of casseroles pretty quickly, and the kids missed cooking. So, yes, bring them food, by all means comfort food, but also call sometime and mention that you're at the grocery store and ask if you could pick up some things for them while you're there.

This leads to my second suggestion, which is to try making it easier for them to ask for help. We would never, ever have asked someone to go to the store for us, but it was easy to say yes when a friend called up one Sunday morning from a bakery asking if we'd like some bagels.

Raztaj also makes a REALLY great point about puberty. Nothing was ever more awkward than asking my dad to take me bra shopping, and I never did work up the courage to ask him for tampons. I would never have asked (and therefore might never have known) where to get birth control if a family friend hadn't just happened to stop by Planned Parenthood to pick hers up while she was driving me to a volleyball game. Puberty things aside, we kids were uneasy asking our dad for much of anything, especially in the first months - we were worried about him, and might have overheard one too many conversations at the funeral about how hard it was going to be on him raising us alone, so we were a lot more comfortable taking up offers from family friends to go buy school supplies, to practice driving, even to look at colleges when the time came. Depends, obvs, on the family dynamic, but this kind of thing can be a great practical and emotional help. (Disclaimer: don't know how that impacted my dad.)

Also seconding Raztaj about the road trip/goofiness. We were sort of afraid to be silly for awhile after my mom died, and it took the sight of a trusted family friend singing a Weird Al song at the top of his lungs for us to be convinced that it was ok to laugh again, even though we were grieving. I really can't exaggerate the importance of this.
posted by phisbe at 7:54 AM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm sorry for your loss, and I'm sure your friend's family will be glad for your support.

When my fiancé died, I was given a great suggestion, which I followed. I got a scrapbook, printed off lots of photos of him, put them in the scrapbook and then at the funeral, I invited people to write their memories of him in the book. It's one of my most treasured possessions.

If you have pictures of your friend, or if you can ask her husband for some going back over the years, you could put this together for him.
posted by essexjan at 8:19 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Food is nice but disposable dishware helps too. A bag of paper plates, plastic cups, napkins, and plastic forks seems like an odd gift but when my dad died it was one of the most useful things my mom was given. People are dropping by during this time and being able to eat and clear up quickly between visits was very helpful. Also inviting them out for small things, even errands can be nice. When someone dies the family usually takes time off work, school, whatever and it leads to alot of sitting around feeling lost. My condolences as well.
posted by stubborn at 8:28 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'll say what I always say to these types of questions. An Aunt once said, when someone dies, don't be the one that crosses the street when the people who suffered the loss are coming the other way.

People tend to avoid grief, and those suffering it, it becomes a very lonely place.

I second the comments that encourage you to look down the road. There will be a lot of support initially, but it quickly fades, leaving folks very alone. Be the one that checks in later, offers support and love 6 months, a year, two years down the road.
posted by HuronBob at 9:49 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ask them. Ask if they want company, or would like a chance to be alone. Tell them you're happy to do annoying chores like picking up dry cleaning, or helping get the house ready for the after funeral family gathering; whatever. Then put it in your calendar to call them weekly, then monthly for a while, to talk about their loved one or help in any way. Send a card on the anniversary. I have a friend I call on the anniversary of a loss, and she's appreciative of the fact that I remember, and of the opportunity to talk about it.
posted by theora55 at 10:00 AM on March 21, 2010

My beloved mother-in-law passed away in January. Mr. Adams and I spent a month with FIL (who lives alone in a very rural area) helping him out as best we could. Lots of people stopped by with food, which was appreciated; there were a few casseroles but the food that went the fastest was the sweet treats - banana pudding, apple sauce bread, brownies. Not the healthiest diet, obviously, but coffee and a sweet seemed to bolster Mr. Adams and his dad when their spirits were really dragging. Another thing you might consider is helping with the thank you notes; we set up a database with the names and addresses of all the folks who brought food, who acted as pallbearers and who sent tributes. You could purchase the postage stamps for them and mail the notes as they're completed. And definitely keep checking in two weeks and a month later, etc. The rabbit punch of death really hits hard after all the activity slows down and all the mourners leave.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:18 AM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Yes, ask them what sort of support they want. After my mother died of cancer I'd have found it extremely intrusive and indeed patronising to have people coming over to help us with chores etc. As somebody else said cancer causes the sufferer's health to decline and them to being less able to do things and by the time my mother died we had got all the day to day stuff down to a fine art. And in many ways having to leave the house to go to the shops or walk the dog or whatever it may have been was a good thing. What would have been much more important and appreciated was someone remembering some months or years down the line that we may still be grieving or needing support and that didn't really happen!
posted by koahiatamadl at 10:20 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry for your loss. I agree with those who are suggesting that you help out with funeral arrangements. Keep in mind that when people are grieving, they can often become push overs, and some funeral home directors know this. Another thing that hasn't been mentioned is that sometimes, when someone dies, family members show up and start wanting their stuff, which is often OK, but it can easily get out of hand. This can be really difficult to deal with for grieving family. See if you can act as an advocate for the family. Stick up for them if someone is trying to take advantage of their emotional state to get their hands on something that belonged to your friend.
posted by lexicakes at 11:23 AM on March 21, 2010

A family member of mine has written a document called Supporting a family after a death based on his (our) experiences and those of his friends. It's really good but too long to post here. If anyone would like a copy (word doc or pdf) drop me a me-mail and I will send it.
posted by Kerasia at 2:16 PM on March 21, 2010

I'm so sorry you've lost a friend. One thing, if you're around and you see something that needs to be done, just do it without asking, like, just grab that laundry basket and get to it. I remember feeling completely overwhelmed and unable to know what I wanted or needed, and really appreciated friends who just stepped in and took over with practical things. Oh, and depending on the family's feelings about it, just answering the phone for a few days and taking messages is so helpful too. The ringing phone was a constant reminder of my unbelievable loss.
posted by thinkpiece at 2:44 PM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Lots of good suggestions here. Also, you might consider offering to help with thank you notes for the undoubtedly numerous flowers, cards, food, etc. that will be coming their way. I still feel guilty for not responding to all the beautiful notes and gestures of kindness sent to me when my Mom passed away. It was just too overwhelming at the time.
posted by ourroute at 4:47 PM on March 21, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you all for your wise, and very personal, words of advice. They have already been very helpful. My heart goes out to all of you.
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 7:50 AM on March 22, 2010

I'm sorry for your loss. I can't really remember who was at my Dad's funeral. What I do remember is that a friend made me a plate of food and stood there while I ate it. I probably would not have eaten otherwise, and now I know to do this for others. Thanks, Randy.
posted by MichelleinMD at 9:02 AM on March 22, 2010

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