How to help friends deal with daughter's death?
December 15, 2012 2:35 PM   Subscribe

How can I help my friends whose daughter was killed in yesterday's school shootings?

The daughter of our dearest friends was one of those killed in yesterday's atrocity at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Starting no later than Monday, I will be staying with them for several days or more to help in every way possible. I wish I knew what to do, not do, say, or not say. I am fortunate that this is the first time I have been confronted with this situation, though I wish I felt more prepared for how to help them through it.

If you have any advice or personal experiences that may help me help them, I would appreciate it.

I know many of you will wish to express your condolences, and I thank you in advance. However, as I feel unworthy to accept them (what is my pain and loss compared to theirs?) and wish to keep this focused on how I can help them, I'll ask you to focus on that information instead. Thank you for understanding.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (56 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Take care of the practical stuff. Make sure there's food for family members who are coming through the house. Make sure they don't run out of toilet paper, etc.
posted by colin_l at 2:44 PM on December 15, 2012 [28 favorites]

Sometimes a silent comforting presence is as helpful as anything. If you can cook, keep some food coming, run interference at the door or on the phone if they aren't able or don't want to talk to anyone. Talk if they want to, walk the dog, if they have other kids- play or color or just sit. Keep things steady. Peace to you and your friends- I can't imagine what you or they must be feeling.
posted by bookrach at 2:46 PM on December 15, 2012 [5 favorites]

Keep food around. Even if they don't eat it, just have food out and easily accessible. They may not want to eat. They certainly won't be able to think about eating. But just having the food around at all times, then they don't think about having to eat. They'll just eat if they need to.

I am so very sorry. I am so, so, sorry.
posted by zizzle at 2:47 PM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

On the food front, make stuff and freeze it so they have food after you leave.

Keep calling and being there for a long while after you leave. In situations like this, people experience an outpouring of support that dwindles as time goes by. That can be very lonely, so try to plan for periodic check-ins or visits or whatever by putting them in your calendar now.
posted by k8lin at 2:50 PM on December 15, 2012 [12 favorites]

Be the go between for them and the outside world. Field phone calls, visitors, etc.

Help with the mundane things like laundry, trash, mail.

In other words give them the space and time to just deal with the overwhelming enormity and awfulness of what has happened.
posted by Leezie at 2:50 PM on December 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

If there are other kids in the family, take them for walks and offer a listening ear. Depending on age, they might just want to play or have a space not to talk about it. Let them know that anything they're feeling is okay.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:54 PM on December 15, 2012 [9 favorites]

Keep food available -- not just big meals, easy to eat snacks. Have healthy foods -- fruit, etc, because people bring over carbs a lot. Drinks (juice, soft drinks, milk, tea, coffee -- a pod maker is very convenient for this). Make sure they have cleaning supplies and paper towels and toilet paper etc, clean up for them. (Not a deep clean. Just, mop a floor when you're in the room, etc.) Absolutely field calls, mail, visitors, reporters, flowers, etc.

If they are having family/friends visiting as part of the funeral services, feed people on disposable plates.

Organise people to help them out in the long term -- to bring meals in February and March, etc.
posted by jeather at 2:55 PM on December 15, 2012 [7 favorites]

Agree with everyone about "practical things."

But I just wanted to say, and will say here since you're anonymous, that if you're coming in from out of state and you have any questions about and/or want to talk about anything local that you don't want to burden your friends with, please feel free to MeMail me.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 2:56 PM on December 15, 2012 [5 favorites]

Along with food, keep healthy things for hydration around. Low-sugar drinks. Little to no caffiene (can exacerbate anxiety).

If they want to talk, listen. If they don't want to talk, be there. If they want to be alone, answer the phone. Look for non-verbal indications if you can.

Stick to close-answer questions. Instead of "What do you want me to do?" you can say, "Do you want me to be with you, or give you some space. If people call, do you want to be disturbed? Looks like there's some cleaning I can do, is that ok?" People who are struggling with grief have a limited amount of energy for thinking, so making suggestions gives then the ability to just say yes or no.

A lot depends on their comfort level with grief and with you, so it's hard to be more specific, but simply things like a touch on the shoulder, a hug, a timely box of kleenex, can be wonderful. I've gotten in the habit of sticking multiple of those little kleenex packs in my pocked when dealing with trauma/grief and just handing them out as needed. Lotiony kleenex can be wonderful, too - noses often get raw.

When my best friend died I did most of my grieving when no one else could see it, and preferred it that way. I found piles of friends to just hug helped, too, but I couldn't cry around them easily. I found poetry very comforting, so I'll end with one of the poems that got me through that period - though it may or may not help them.

Hap, by Thomas Hardy

IF but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: "Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love's loss is my hate's profiting!"

Then would I bear, and clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased, too, that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
--Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan....
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.
posted by Deoridhe at 3:01 PM on December 15, 2012 [16 favorites]

The things I have appreciated when my own family had deaths:

-- Just be in the background doing what MUST be done, walking the dog, making sure there is food and drink available, taking care of any other needs (toilet paper, putting the paper and the mail in a pile somewhere to be dealt with later, etc).

-- Depending on what they prefer, answer the phone and take messages. The phone will likely be ringing off the hook and they will be weary of talking to people.

-- Lots of times people express their need to help by bringing food, and soon food is running over with no place to put it. You can help by putting things in the freezer, passing things along to other people if you have more than you can deal with, putting dishes that need to be returned in a central location.

-- They may want to have someone with them at all times, or they may have a need to have time alone. Just follow their cues.

Thoughts and prayers for your friends and you.
posted by SweetTeaAndABiscuit at 3:01 PM on December 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

A practical suggestion on the topic of food: if your friends do not already have a freezer chest, you may want to see if a group of friends/family/neighbors would be interested in chipping in to buy one. When my sister-in-law and her husband lost their young son a few years ago, they were so blessed with regular food deliveries from loved ones that they literally had enough for months to come, and so another group of loved ones went out and bought a large freezer.

You can also help by being the food drop-off coordinator (or finding someone else willing to do this job), via email or a webpage, so that instead of your friends being inundated with 20 casseroles and lasagnas on Monday, you can reach out to everyone who is interested to assign days/times to drop off, explaining any dietary restrictions, etc.

My heart aches for your friends. I am so sorry. Thank you for being there for them.
posted by scody at 3:12 PM on December 15, 2012 [15 favorites]

Not sure if anyone touched on this specifically yet, but it might be nice to keep a list of everything they receive and who it is from. When they start to return dishes and write thank you cards, this will be incredibly helpful.
posted by bluestocking at 3:28 PM on December 15, 2012 [30 favorites]

If you don't already know the layout of their home well, shortly after you arrive you might say, "I'm going to give myself a tour of the house so I know where everything is." Then figure out where all the useful day to day things are in the kitchen, pantry, laundry room, broom closet, etc. That way you'll be able to just take care of things that need taking care of without asking then where to find things every few minutes.

If this was not their only child, perhaps be prepared to play things like tic tack toe by having a notebook and pen at the ready.
posted by ocherdraco at 3:36 PM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Make sure there are always hot drinks, lap blankets and hugs available. Watch for your friends getting overwhelmed and not realising it- they may need you to tell them that they need to eat, stop taking condolonces, go to bed, etc. On the other hand, they may need you to stay out of the way. Keep your eyes and ears open.

Be able to turn away people for them. Be able to call people for them. Be able to clean up or watch them clean.

Bring something to keep your hands busy like knitting for when there's nothing to be done. Sometimes, when tragedy strikes, all you can do is be there.

Don't be scared of them or their grief. If they need something and you aren't able to provide it or to figure out what it is, don't be afraid to say that.

Don't be afraid of the silence or feel obligated to stay engaged in conversation. Sometimes the last thing hurting people need is the pressure of making conversation or other peoples' noise. But be willing if that's what they want.

Love them.
posted by windykites at 3:37 PM on December 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Nthing all the excellent advice here.

My own experience was that I was unprepared for the strange forms grief took among the people that visited my family, and among my family too. Friends & family may show up and start to share rage, tears, joyful memories, photographs of the lost person, or just have a need to be around keeping busy with something practical. Others deeply need some kind of action and may start to suggest political actions, lawsuits, spiritual practices.

It may bring up past tragedies for people too, which can be helpful or hard when shared.

I expected these reactions would not be welcome, but was surprised to find my loved ones just listened and accepted it all as shared grief and didn't want it to go away.

Sadly I think it will also be a good idea to have a plan in place in case media shows up at their door or phones, to know whether they want to talk to anyone at all, and to protect them in any public places (i.e. memorials) if they wish to avoid interviews.
posted by chapps at 3:38 PM on December 15, 2012 [12 favorites]

Also, some people have trouble eating when sad. Make meal replacement drinks and gummy vitamins available if that's the case.
posted by windykites at 3:44 PM on December 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

Friend's sister was murdered in a way that got a couple of days of national minor press. I was with the family a lot, saw the mistakes they made in dealing with the mess.
Was she an adult or child?
State/city probably has a victims compensation services, there is likely funds immediately available to help pay for funeral etc. Don't waive any rights to further compensation.
Try to get them to let you look over anything they need to sign.
Be very cautious of any lawyer who approaches them. Be even more cautious of any family member who pushes a lawyer onto them.
Research the local TV reporters. Establish contact with one or two. It may be useful in the future if they need a platform.
Keep notepads/pens around. If you record conversations, in Conn you need all parties consent.
Register the domain name for the child, dot org and com, and put up a simple website with a guestbook . The newspaper online obituary may also put up a guestbook. Reading messages from old friends was a comfort.
posted by anon4now at 3:55 PM on December 15, 2012 [17 favorites]

I've heard from the media reports that each of the families has been assigned a state trooper, in part to protect their privacy from the media. While this seems like it makes a ton of sense to me, your friends may find it difficult to interact with this person if they need to. If the trooper will let you, it seems serving as a liaison might be a great help.
posted by Apropos of Something at 3:59 PM on December 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I. Plan to run interference if someone gets out of hand.
You can only hope that people will behave skillfully, but people aren't always as good around grief as they'd like to be. If you even get an inkling that anyone is turning the conversation or interaction to 'about them/their thoughts, in a way that unnecessarily agitates the family, etc', be prepared to usher them out the door and gently tell them they can come back later if it even looks like your friends can't handle it.

II. Speaking of other people, be generous in understanding how you might clash with other people/family/friends who also are in the role of supporting the family.
I think that when people aren't familiar with a particular situation - like a crisis - their own styles of handling even the smallest tasks - food, media, buying toilet paper, etc. come out. I wish it wasn't true, but conflict doesn't really go away just because several of you are in service to the needs of the family. Just see it for what is is, and try to be mindful if cousin/friend Susan insists that putting out Ann's pasta is a bad idea because 'carbs are agitating', or whatever.

III. Make sure you have breaks.
It seems like often carers would think - what is my distress compared to theirs? - but right now you still need to take care of you first, so you can take care of them. Go for a walk, watch a comedy on netflix, call your friends who maybe aren't connected to this tragedy, have someone send you a pick me up email every day, run if you usually run, go to your religious institution if you usually do. It's clear you know you get you're about to go and play a very emotionally/physically/mentally intense role. So I think you have to pace yourself with grief (because it can't be controlled). At least one break, every day, and try to get sleep.

IV. Paper and pens everywhere
Anon4now mentioned it above, and they are totally right. Don't assume you have the capacity for memory around anything right now.

Sending many good thoughts your way, all the way from California, as you plan and go fulfill this difficult (but important) task.

Good luck.
posted by anitanita at 4:02 PM on December 15, 2012 [5 favorites]

I lost a family member this summer in a way that resulted in a lot of phone calls from friends and acquaintances and strangers and the media. Immediately after the news got out, I appointed myself the answerer of the phones. No one else in the house was to answer the house phone or any cell phone belonging to an immediate family member. I answered all of the phones, no exceptions. I dealt with both the strangers (by giving out limited information that we had agreed ahead of time the family was comfortable releasing, including a list of charities to which people could donate in the decedent's name) and the non-strangers (for whom I took messages and delivered the messages to their intended recipients at convenient times). Eventually, I drafted a public statement from the family, chose a few photos to release to the press, and helped plan the public aspects of the memorial.

A lot of people who called said, "But I'm so-and-so, and I'm very close to [family member], and he'd want to talk to me, and how dare you not put me through right now!" I did not let them phase me. My job was to be the person who dealt with the phone so that a person whose life had just been shattered didn't have to make decisions on the spot about how to deal with other people's feelings. Similarly, my relatives told me several times that I could take a break and let people answer their own phones. But every time that happened, it resulted in a lot of heartache, so I went back to answering the phones.

Your friends may not want this exact thing. (Or they might want it, but not know they want it, which was the situation in my family, and so I became the keeper of the phones simply by answering them while everyone else sort of wandered around.) And it may be that you have a different skill set than I do and can be of more use in some other way. But I offer it as an example of the sort of unobtrusive, practical thing that can be helpful in times of crisis, and especially in times of crisis that involve the media. I wish peace for you and the child's family.
posted by decathecting at 4:13 PM on December 15, 2012 [26 favorites]

Lotsa Helping Hands is a website which makes it very simple to organize people to bring meals -- I've used it several times both as an organizer and a donor.

Also, keep track of their bills for them -- the very last thing they are thinking of now is utilities.
posted by apparently at 4:23 PM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

In addition to meals, clean -- clean up after meals, clean the bathrooms before you leave, do the laundry, etc. Pretend it's your house and keep it clean for them.
posted by mudpuppie at 4:27 PM on December 15, 2012 [7 favorites]

Your friends are also likely to have an increased need for business/formal clothing in the next several weeks -- funeral, possible meetings with lawyers and media, etc. Keep up with dry cleaning, shoe shining, hosiery. If they don't have appropriate things to wear for these occasions, offer to do some shopping for them.
posted by apparently at 4:35 PM on December 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

On the subject of writing things down: bring two notebooks (make sure they are distinct). One is for the family - use it to take phone all messages, log who comes to the door (everyone - friends, neighbors, police, press, deliveries, magazine salespeople etc) and what they brought/left/asked/offered, keep a running list of the phone numbers they'll be needing frequently, log gifts and cards that come in the mail if you're managing their mail. Also log any hangup/abusive calls that come, though do it in a personal shorthand. The family will be able to refer to this notebook now and later.

The other notebook is your private brain-keeper. The grocery/shopping list (fold off pages to make a section for this, so you can cross things off - and these are the kinds of things you can delegate to people who ask what they can do. What can you do? You can pick us up some toilet paper or go buy dress socks or stop by a family member's place of work to pick up their phone charger, etc), how the dishwasher works, what time and how much to feed the cat. Make note of the agreed-upon strategies for dealing with press, etc. Keep this notebook on you at all times. Grief and stress and lack of sleep are hell on the brain; you're not going to be able to hold details in your head, and neither are they. If you have a smartphone or even a dumb phone that can do reminders, use it to schedule everything schedulable - like getting people into the shower in advance of leaving the house, making time-sensitive phone calls, feeding the cat.

While you're buying notebooks, pick up a few pads of post-its, a supply of pens and markers, a pack of manila folders, and a roll of blue painter's tape. Use the tape to label dishes (or anything else) that will need to be returned. Use the post-its to give shopping lists to people offering to help, write down cooking instructions for gifted food, and other things that you need to give out. Use some of the manila folders for the various paperwork, bills, and information that will be coming in, and you can use another to write a sign that says "The family is resting, please return after X:00" (you can use a post-it to change the time) to tape to the door. Even under completely normal circumstances, the doorbell and phone can be a real sanity-tester, especially when many visitors will be showing up wanting to be comforted rather than to comfort. You just have to shut them down sometimes so people can try to rest, or take a shower and have a cup of coffee in peace.

If necessary, especially if you can't turn off the doorbell, recruit friends and neighbors to sit in a chair in front of the door if you have to. All night if you have to. Let them turn people away and accept deliveries (logging everything) during quiet hours.

And this is horrible, but make it your responsibility to ensure the house is never empty. Unfortunately, burglars (or even more unsavory types in a case like this) will take advantage of publicly-known events like funerals and break in when the house is likely to be empty. If you must leave the house empty or with only one person there, ask neighbors/friends if they will park in the driveway/street and turn on a television (the more non-news talking the better, so QVC, Animal Planet, or a sports channel) loud enough to be heard from the doors/windows.

As far as what to say or not to say, you can rarely go wrong with "I am sorry. This is horrible. I love you." But you're about to be exposed to an onslaught of what happens when incredibly totally well-meaning stressed and anxious people try to say the right thing when "right" is utterly subjective. You are going to hear visitors say some unforgivable things with the best of intentions. These things are not going to go unnoticed by the family. You may need to be the one murmuring "remember, they mean well" or "people are horribly stupid under duress". It might even be worth a brief conversation up front to agree on how to deal with this before you're in the moment. You may also need to be the one who says, "Mr. Smith, I think we need some rest, if you don't mind. Thanks so much for coming, here's your coat," on the way to the door, when he just won't stop going on about really how very lucky their child is to have gone to heaven to sit at the feet of Jesus. (Personal experience at a funeral...ugh.)

In fact, do discuss this with them up front, and agree with everyone in the family (grandparents, etc) on a safeword or gesture for "I've had it, make this stop." Make up an imaginary high-maintenance cat named Flopsy, so that any of the family can suddenly turn to you and say, "Oh gosh, have you fed Flopsy?" or even "Excuse me a moment, I have to give Flopsy her medicine," and GTFO. Then you will know that it is time for you to shut down whatever's going on.

Like decathecting said, be the bad guy. Do not give a shit about what the neighbors think of you. You do what you think is right, and what you've agreed on with the family about what is right, and be the villain when you have to. These people have just heard the worst news of their lives; unless the requester arrived in a firetruck with hoses at the ready, there is nothing anybody has to say to them that can't wait.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:40 PM on December 15, 2012 [53 favorites]

(On the fireman note - recruit one of the "what can I do?" people to change the batteries in their smoke and carbon monoxide detectors if they don't have an in-house system. Grief brain is bad, really bad, and all it takes is a guest setting down a tupperware container on a burner someone left on. This is another great reason to never leave the house empty. If you are out with them on an errand and they suddenly panic - did I turn the iron off??? Did I lock the door??? - all you have to do is whip out your cell phone and have confirmation in 30 seconds.)
posted by Lyn Never at 4:46 PM on December 15, 2012 [5 favorites]

On a minor practical note, it might be good to have plenty of disposable tupperware around for portioning and freezing food that people bring.

Do the laundry if you can. All the household things which, if not done, result in stress.

Answering the phones is probably an excellent idea. There will be reporters, bloggers, long lost whatevers calling. Even if the calls are sympathetic, which they may not be, it would be an enormous stressor for the parents to have to hear it all over and over again.

God I'm so sorry. You're a good friend.
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:48 PM on December 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Along with all the other advice suggested here: A friend of mine used for setting up meals after a late term miscarriage. The site seemed to work very well.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 4:48 PM on December 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Get someone to go to the funeral home with them. People need an outsider at the funeral home. It's an emotional time and the temptation to overspend (and regret it later) is strong.
posted by Addlepated at 5:02 PM on December 15, 2012 [7 favorites]

If there are surviving siblings, ask them how they are. Make sure you don't tell them they have to be strong for their parents. People tend to minimize a sibling's grief, and their parents are understandably distracted from their needs.

Also make sure to take time for yourself when there's a quiet moment. You're very admirable for walking into this. Don't neglect your own needs while you tend to theirs.
posted by headspace at 5:07 PM on December 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

You said, what is my pain and loss compared to theirs, but you should still be prepared that your own emotions, your own grief will be very heavy at times. You are carrying a heavy burden, too. Recognize that and give yourself space for it and enough down time that you can keep doing the great service that you will be doing.

It would be good if you had support of someone outside the house, someone you could talk to regularly, a lifeline to the outside world.
posted by alms at 5:08 PM on December 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Nthing never leaving the house empty. Recruit someone to be there at all times. Great advice above, use close friends and family. Once the inside is clean and meals and bills are taken care of, let people do outside maintainence. Clean gutters, rake leaves, organize garage, etc. people close to the family will want to help and these things have to be done. Think outside the box to let close folks do their part. My thoughts are with you and your friends. I can't begin to imagine.
posted by pearlybob at 5:08 PM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

One last one and then I'm done: Everyone and their cousin is going to ask "What can I do?" Get out the family notebook and say, "I don't know, what do you do?" You'll be astonished at the resources you can gather: the neighbor who's a CPA, the former coworker whose wife is a mental health professional, the boss's daughter who works at a cell phone store. Write it all down with phone/email/address.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:17 PM on December 15, 2012 [12 favorites]

Someone will need to help set up the funeral, deciding on an officiant, readings, music, etc. The family will need to make many of the decisions, but you can help with the implementation.

Make sure they drink enough water--crying is really dehydrating.

Long-term, if there is a court case--go to court with them, and support them then too.

If there are difficult extended family members, be ready to pull them away with some task or other (especially if they are narcissists who make everything about them!).
posted by min at 5:19 PM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

You said, what is my pain and loss compared to theirs, but you should still be prepared that your own emotions, your own grief will be very heavy at times. You are carrying a heavy burden, too. Recognize that and give yourself space for it and enough down time that you can keep doing the great service that you will be doing.

It would be good if you had support of someone outside the house, someone you could talk to regularly, a lifeline to the outside world.

Seconding this. A friend did what you are doing for some friends of hers who lost a baby, and she found her own involvement in the grief almost too much to manage at times. Be prepared to acknowledge your own emotions and have a few avenues of support for yourself as well.
posted by briank at 5:25 PM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do they have other young children? Help with distracting activities, crafts, movies, games, etc. Shield any other kids from details and the relentless loop of information about the event.
posted by quince at 5:44 PM on December 15, 2012

Secondary PTSD is very real, as is caregiver stress; please definitely take care of yourself. Your grief is totally legitimate BTW - don't go down the "my pain is nothing compared to yours" road. It's not healthy for you and does them no good.

Nthing the cleaning and tracking stuff and making sure food is easy to get. You'll probably want to get milk/coffee/tea/beer/soda if they drink it, and paper towels, on the first day. Definitely do disposable plates, plastic containers, etc., if they'll allow it.

Try to get hold of their existing calendars and cancel any appointments they may have made for the child - notify the dentist's office and the pediatrician and whoever else might be sending mail or calling to get that name and address and phone number off their lists.

You might want to prepare thank-you cards for them to sign - you can get a box of 100 that say something like "thank you so much for your kindness to us in this difficult time," and address the envelopes for them, and then that particular social grace is resolved. Get some pre-printed address stickers if you do this; your wrist will thank you.

If you can manage it, have the treating hospital (if any,) the local prosecutor, the coroner, etc., direct all bills, information, etc., to an attorney or at least a friend (at a different address) who can make sure things are stable before the envelope is in their hands. My dad and I are still somewhat traumatized about the blood thinner bill that came in the mail a few weeks after my grandmother's death - the blood thinner that caused her fatal heart attack, mind you - and it's been over 20 years.

Ask them if they want you to help them get set up with long-term counseling services, support networks, etc. I know that the Bridgeport Diocese is doing a ton of stuff right now, and I've heard of a few other groups, too, but longer term, the emotional support needs are going to be shifting towards United Way type agencies, in all likelihood. One in particular is the Connecticut-based Survivors of Homicide; there are a number of helpful organizations listed at Bereaved Parents of the USA (including some for siblings of a deceased child.) I don't know what the Connecticut Office of Victims Services will be doing, but you'll want to know who they are and may want to contact them to see what has to be done (here's their page about compensation.) The OVS main number for people to call to find out what their rights are is 800-822-8428; they answer the phones on weekdays from 9am to 4:30pm.

They may be contacted by insurance and/or lawyers, either people who actually represent one or more parties (including potentially the school district) or people who are hoping to represent them. Try to focus on just getting their contact information and whoever it is they represent right now. It's hell trying to sort that crap out later. It's really a good idea if the parents don't sign anything without a trusted attorney present.

There are a few pamphlets you might want to read, if you have time: Sudden Death of a Child, When A Child Dies By Homicide, For the Newly Bereaved. The last one is actually directed at parents.

If you have time to read a little bit about how sadness, fear, and anger work, that might be helpful.

If you are staying through the holidays, you may want to help them figure out what to do with the gifts they've already bought for the child, the child's stocking, etc. It's OK if they don't want to deal with that stuff right now; practical alternatives include packing stuff up for them, maybe taking photos of all of it first. See if they "need" to do things like finish mailing gifts to extended family, participating in a cookie exchange, etc.

They may be in a mood to angrily or aggressively dispose of stuff, clear out a bedroom, etc. I think it's wise to photograph stuff before any kind of disposal takes place, and to gently suggest that things be stored rather than given away or sold. Almost everyone I know who's gotten rid of stuff too soon has been very upset about it later.

Also, have on hand some of the phone numbers of crisis lines that the family and you can call if you need to. You do not have to be suicidal to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.

There is a non-zero chance that someone will have a serious crisis requiring medical attention (panic attacks are actually kind of common in grief situations, but sometimes things get really bad - and it's not usually Day 1 that it happens; a person had a mild heart attack at my grandmother's wake a week after she died and people were screaming CALL NINE ELEVEN and well, suffice to say I really remember that well.)

Anyway, if a mental health emergency happens, call the Danbury Hospital Crisis Line at 203-739-7007. The regional hotline is 1-888-447-3339.

Call 911 for shortness of breath/panic attack symptoms, though. It's basically impossible for you to tell the difference between panic attacks and heart attacks from the outside.
posted by SMPA at 6:17 PM on December 15, 2012 [32 favorites]

You are a saint. As has been said, get some additional help lined up so you don't become overwhelmed.

At least one other person mentioned it - bills. When I was in the hospital, I worried about bills. Not because I didn't have money to pay them, but because I was half out of it and fearful I'd forget something. There will be the routine bills, plus the funeral and, depending on exactly how it happened, probably medical bills.
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:28 PM on December 15, 2012

They may be in a mood to angrily or aggressively dispose of stuff, clear out a bedroom, etc. I think it's wise to photograph stuff before any kind of disposal takes place, and to gently suggest that things be stored rather than given away or sold. Almost everyone I know who's gotten rid of stuff too soon has been very upset about it later.

In such a scenario, what they want is the stuff GONE, off their radar, not to be dealt with again. So maybe don't suggest they store it -- just tell them YOU will store it. Gone. Unless they want it in 20 years.
posted by kestrel251 at 6:31 PM on December 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

Thank you for all you are doing.

Another way to be helpful is marking dates on your calendar: the child's birthdate, date of death, date of funeral. In coming years, attention will fade and people will begin to say things to them like "Aren't you over it?" Please be the one to rally friends to pick up the phone or drop a card in the mail 2, 5, or 7 years out -- they won't have forgotten and will be touched beyond measure that others haven't either.
posted by mozhet at 7:01 PM on December 15, 2012 [10 favorites]

You're awesome for helping, and I think you're doing it selflessly, which is a kindness of the first order.

That said, it's unfortunate but true that, in their grief, they may never acknowledge your gift of time and effort with any gratitude. Far less likely, they might point their grief outward and start in on your faults or what not. Being around people who are grieving and whose world is upended-- you never know what'll happen. My advice is to not take it personally, no matter how hard they try. You are doing them good, you're doing yourself good, and when the hardest part is over, you've done good that may never be appreciated. The parents might split up over this-- it's been known to shatter families. Whatever you do, do it for them, don't do it for thanks. Maybe this goes without saying for you, but it doesn't for everyone, so I'm saying it.
posted by Sunburnt at 7:24 PM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's almost Christmas. if there are other children, be sure to go Christmas shopping, wrap presents, and cook some family favorites for Christmas day.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:05 PM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can't add any more to the good advice but thank you and take care of yourself too.
posted by dawkins_7 at 9:20 PM on December 15, 2012

Bear in mind that too many questions will be wearing. Since these are your good friends, you can probably just go ahead and do what you see needs doing-laundry, runs to the store, stuff like that. And just follow their cues.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:24 PM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just sat straight up in bed with the thought that Fred Phelps and his clan of nightmares are probably going to be doing their thing. Please do what you can to keep them as far from your friend as you can, along with whatever other brand of crazy comes out of the woodwork, and I pray for all your sakes it won't be many.
posted by Addlepated at 10:31 PM on December 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

There were a few mentions above about handling the phones. I think it would be worth it to ask if they would like you (or someone else) to handle their email and facebook accounts for a while as well. I imagine it would be so difficult to find an inbox stuffed with "OMG HOW ARE YOU WE ARE SO SORRY!!!!" etc etc. Well, not finding the messages so much as feeling some obligation to respond gracefully when all you can think is "how the f#ck do you think I am"...

Good on you for doing this, you are a good friend and a good person. I have seen so many posts this week of the Mr. Rogers quote "Look for the helpers"... you are a helper.
posted by vignettist at 11:32 PM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

A lot of good answers here.

Just a reminder to keep situational awareness of things that may be crowded - malls, grocery stores, etc - with a lot of children. It may hurt.

Ask them to authorize you to deal with the school - pick up what needs picking up so they don't have to go there again.

And keep them safe from the media.
posted by corb at 11:50 PM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

A couple of things that have been of great comfort to me in very bad times are holding my hand (gentle, unobtrusive massage) and v. trusted loved ones letting me lay my head in their lap while they pet my hair. I get to cry or drift into sleep or whatever I need to do while being held safe and without having to make direct, exhausting eye contact. And it keeps me in my body. This may or may not be true for your friend/family, feel that out gently.
posted by mcbeth at 1:12 AM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you get asked to clear things: We were asked this week to pick up the personal effects of a child who died in hospital, and to also find a place to donate the baby items for the family. My husband was surprised at the speed - it was the same day the baby died - but different families, different ways of grieving. I ended up giving most of the things to a shelter and what the shelter couldn't take, I disposed of what's broken and am selling the remaining baby things online and will donate the money to a children's charity in the child's name. I set aside anything that looked handmade and the clothes the baby died in, just in case they change their mind later.
posted by viggorlijah at 1:13 AM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Be aware that they might want to do particular things themselves personally. And then enable them to do so.

Also dealing with other people's reactions and grief is wearing at time. Definitely run soothing interference if at all necessary.
posted by plonkee at 4:25 AM on December 16, 2012

In addition to lots of tissues and toilet paper, moist wipes are a good thing to have for wiping the face after breaking down. Cold washcloths are soothing for eyes.

Comfort food is good, but so are raw vegetables - for the crunch. They are also healthier, and after so many, many casseroles and baked goods, albeit lovingly made, fresh raw stuff often hits the spot. Be prepared to freeze food; there will be more than you can possibly imagine.

Bless you and them!
posted by jgirl at 5:59 AM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Touching is good. Depending on them, and their preferences, and how close you all are, being around people who will randomly hug you, touch your arm, hold your hand, rub your back, etc, can be more comforting than words.

Lots of good ideas here. My heart goes out to you and your friends.
posted by bunderful at 9:16 AM on December 16, 2012

Re: Facebook - consider setting up a memorial page. Particularly since the names of all the victims are out, odds are that the parents and family members with shared surnames are going to start getting random messages (from people they don't know) as well as all their friends and friends-of-friends. Having a page (run by a friend) keeps those messages popping up constantly on your news feed.

(People still post on memorial pages I follow 3+ years after a death - this is a long-term kind of solution, commonly used by parents of children with serious diseases and other situations where there's a lot of media coverage.)

Claim the Twitter handle of the child's full name, too, and the "LastNameFamily" Twitter account. There are a lot of people with extremely poor judgment & tact out there, unfortunately.
posted by SMPA at 9:29 AM on December 16, 2012

They might want some things removed from their house for a while (Christmas presents are an example that comes to mind). Think of a safe place to keep things that they do not want to see (don't throw them away, because they might want them later). They might, conversely, want certain things in their house to stay EXACTLY AS THEY ARE -- for example if their child left a coat on the closet floor they might want it to stay there; if their child slept on a pillow they might not want it washed. You should definitely help them keep up with housework, but be careful and thoughtful as you keep house for them. Ask them, gently, before you move or clean things.

Also, if you are capable, be prepared to help them deal with this grief for a year or more. Remember to think of them on special dates. Every holiday, every birthday, etc. may be a terrible reminder of who is absent from the table to them for some time to come.
posted by BlueJae at 10:18 AM on December 16, 2012

Something to think about for after you leave them: is an easy way to organize friends and family members to ensure there's always food in the house.
posted by roger ackroyd at 11:34 AM on December 16, 2012

Anon, I was thinking of you and your friends last night and thought of something else: back up their digital photos of their child. Even if they already have a back up system in place, make it triply redundant--if it was me, I would load them to Dropbox, and Flickr, and on a DVD and put it in a safe deposit box. Maybe reach out to their family and friends and get copies of their photos, as well. The parents may not want to see these photos now, but they will in the future. I have dear family friends who lost their child when he was in high school, and the remaining photos they have of him are their dearest possessions, bar none.

I would do this soon--with so much going on and so many people in and out, someone using their computer, even to do something helpful, could be catastrophic.
posted by min at 5:01 AM on December 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

I don't read Ask Mefi that often, so just ran across this.I hope you are doing as well as can be expected, Anon. I'd echo the people who've advised doing what you can to deal with bills and practical decisions that have to be made. Both large and small decisions can be so overwhelming.
And of course, continuing to be an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on in the months/years to come.
The family of Christina Taylor Green, killed in the Tucson shootings, started a foundation in her honor. Maybe your friends will want to do something like that at some point.
posted by NorthernLite at 10:46 AM on December 21, 2012

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