Ideas for supporting a friend who has just lost a parent?
November 13, 2020 10:42 AM   Subscribe

Difficulty level: pandemic + being across the country. After a prolonged illness, my childhood best friend recently lost a parent (whom I was never personally very close to, but was a slightly distant fixture in my life throughout my childhood). What material things can I do for my friend that would be helpful?

If I lived nearby, and if it weren't for COVID, I would want to bring her meals, and hugs, and come over and help her with all the stupid practical stuff you need to deal with in the wake of a death, or everything you might be too tired to deal with. Cooking, cleaning, yard work, pet care, childcare, etc. But it's the middle of a pandemic and I live across the country and so it's not feasible for me to do any of that. Hiring a cleaning service or giving a self-care gift like a massage gift card also would seem ill-advised right now.

Friend lives in the SF Bay Area. Friend also eats keto and is a minimalist as far as possessions so I'm wary of sending any sort of "stuff" that she will feel stressed about disposing of. I'd like to do something nice for her (and separately, for her surviving parent). Any ideas for something suitable and concretely helpful? I offered to help with things like paperwork but obviously that's not something I can really take the initiative on without her asking for help.

Of course I am here for her to talk to, but I just want to do something more than that to support her in a tangible way.

I'm sorry if this has been asked before, I tried searching and had trouble finding something related and updated for current times.
posted by music for skeletons to Human Relations (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly, just being open to listening to them is probably the best gift you could offer them. When my father died this year, I had lots of people offer their condolences, my coworkers sent some lovely flowers and a thoughtful food treat, but... nobody seemed to want to do what I needed most which was hear stories about my father and just listen. That's what I wanted most - just to share some stories and thoughts about my dad's life and my relationship with him (or lack thereof).

Now, your friend may not be ready to talk now or may never want to talk - everybody's different. But our culture is so repressed about death and grief that it's hard to find someone who is willing (and not visibly / clearly uncomfortable) to listen. We want to do something that shows we care, but the hard work of being present and listening to someone talk about their loss and their grief is hard to come by.

People will say "I'm here if you want to talk" but it's damn rare for someone to just show up ready to listen. At least in my experience.
posted by jzb at 10:49 AM on November 13 [7 favorites]

That's great that you are looking to support your friend.

I just want to mention that being there for the long haul is really important. I don't know if you've lost someone close like that, but the US TV-style grief involves a very short, very intense period of mourning followed by being completely over it. There's a huge prioritizing of "moving on," when the reality is that you never go back to what you were after this kind of loss. There's also a weird belief that if you mention the deceased, you will "remind the person" of the death and create more grief. I would suggest not only being there to listen, but also sometimes bringing up the friends' parent - and doing this forever - so "I remember your dad made that cake, I remember your mom said this, and it always seemed so wise." And mentioning the person is a good way to signal that you are there to listen, as jzb suggests. I mean - you need to pay attention to your friend's signals too - whether your friend then wants to talk - but by saying the person's name, you give an opening to someone who may be concerned that you will feel burdened or that you buy into the US conspiracy of silence around grief.

Also, when a childhood friend's mother died recently, I sent her a letter (not a card with just a signature) with a lot of my memories of her mom and what she meant to me, and my friend told me that she carried that letter around in her purse for a while. Even if the person was a distant figure to you, perhaps you can pull up some memories or things your friend told you. There is no replacement for that kind of personal touch.

By the time I was 37, I had lost both of my parents and my brother, and now decades later, the people in my life who actually remember them are so precious to me. Memories are how we hold onto people, and shared memories can mean so much.
posted by FencingGal at 11:01 AM on November 13 [13 favorites]

I send meals via grubhub in situations like this. Keto makes this very challenging, but here are some popular entrees that fit:

caesar chicken salad
seared scallops
shrimp salad or cocktail (make sure sauce is on the side for the cocktail)
cobb salad
almond-crusted fish
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:41 AM on November 13 [2 favorites]

I'd send some very luxurious consumables - fancy coffee or tea, really lovely soaps, a nice hand lotion, etc. Something that she'll use up and something fancy enough that she wouldn't buy it for herself.

Then, set some reminders for yourself to continue to call, send cards, maybe send flowers, etc at intervals that are beyond the time when everyone is focused on her. One of the harder parts of a death is that initially there's the shock and frenzy of dealing with all of the logistics along with a large number of people checking in and sending meals and supporting the survivor. But, after 4-6 weeks, that really drops off A LOT and people return to their daily lives and the person mourning can feel incredibly lonely and forgotten. That's when all of your reminders to send cards and little things kick in. You can set reminders on your phone to email/text/call and check in and be there for her. Losing a parent can take many, many months to recover from and you sticking around and being in contact at a much higher frequency can help a lot. This is especially the case during COVID times when we're isolated and also during the upcoming holidays, which are always hard after a loss.
posted by quince at 12:43 PM on November 13 [5 favorites]

i also just had a long time/childhood friend lose a parent this week, and while i am close enough to do my own delivery, i'm including the following in the care package i'll be dropping off tonight:
* consumables: soup, beer, herbal tea
* books for the kids. specifically a couple of books for kids on grief/losing loved ones. (parents can read first and decide if they like them)
* activity books for the kids. thinking this is an option to give the kids something while parents are busy?
* nice face wipes, purse-sized. because crying, and wanting to wipe your face after.
* nice hand cream. because crying is dehydrating.

as for the long haul stuff, yes of course repeat check ins. if your friend has a partner, or other very close person nearby, reach out and see if they know of something your friend could use/needs. if you have photos of their parent from your childhood together, think about finding these for a later date (assuming death is very recent).

hope some of this helps. any show of caring that centres your friend is a good thing to do. poor love in, and stand at the ready.
posted by tamarack at 2:14 PM on November 13 [1 favorite]

I'm a minimalist who lost a parent in March. I did not want people to send me stuff at all, and was stressed out by plants and flowers and cards and other well-intentioned things.

What was good was a kind email and a gift card for takeout, and offering to pay my childcare and house cleaning people for me for a couple of extra hours. I would second meal delivery services, but add that when people are stressed they often want things that feel familiar - so a credit for meal delivery service is great if it is something the person already subscribes to, but a credit for local takeout might be even better so they can get their favourite meal delivered. Sometimes grief disrupts our ability to eat or cook as self-care, and having a no-effort option at the ready can help.

Us minimalists are likely to be acts of service or words of affirmation people. You probably can't come up with a gift that will actually relieve distress, so the goal of anything you send should just be to say "I love you, I'm thinking of you, I'm here for you." What it actually is might not matter that much.
posted by unstrungharp at 2:14 PM on November 13 [4 favorites]

I agree with jzb. Take the time to call or Zoom your friend and ask them to tell you stories about their parent. My dad died when I was 24 and all the "I'm here when you need me," and "let me know what I can do," wasn't helpful. Sentiments like that felt like a way to brush off my grief, which, of course, is totally understandable. Attitudes about death are so weird and it feels like people want to avoid pain and emotional intimacy. If that's your level of engagement it is what it is.

But I had a BFF who spent time with me every single day in the year that my dad was sick and when he died and I was on the other side of the state I only wanted to talk to her and called her late at night and she just listened and sympathized as I cried. She never said, "oh when MY loved one died I did...." which to me also seems avoidant.

It's been 26 years since my dad died and up until couple years ago I would always invite a friend out for drinks on March 8th and make them listen to my memories of him, from the trauma of holding his hand while he died and so many fabulous things I love about him.

Even if talking to your friend about her parent's death makes you uncomfortable, the best thing you can do, IMHO, is stay in touch and listen. You can always ask stuff as simple as "what was your parents' favorite joke?" "what did they like to do for their birthday?" Chances are your friend will want to talk about their parent.
posted by bendy at 4:04 PM on November 13 [1 favorite]

Be there and call.

If you're looking for some material good to send - paper plates, cups, and plastic cutlery. Other people may be bringing food, and this way your friend can just eat it without having to drag themselves to wash dishes. I am similarly remote from my friend and I sent her a big Amazon shipment of paper cups and plates and paper napkins when her father died, and she really appreciated it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:39 PM on November 13

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