How to help a friend dealing with the sudden death of her sister?
July 14, 2007 11:53 AM   Subscribe

My friend's sister just died. How to help?

I just talked to my friend -- she's with her family -- they're in the Home Depot buying supplies for a project they were planning to do before they found out just a couple hours ago that she had died. They don't really know how she died, but they think a chronic health problem her sister had became fatal, completely unexpectedly.

She said they were pretty shellshocked (in the Home Depot!?). They are going to be at my friend's today and going to her sister's house tomorrow.

She's a good friend of mine. She's in her mid-30s, her sister was a bit younger. Her sister lived an hour away, and they spent a lot of time together, so I'd hung out with her sister fairly often.

I asked if I should meet them back at the house or if they wanted to be by themselves, and she said she didn't know. I said, "okay, call me when you want company." That felt like a mistake as soon as I hung up, since I know how hard it is to make decisions when you're shellshocked, so I want to call them back and make the default decision "I'll be over in an hour." Or do people usually want time just to be alone with the news? I don't want to be a nuisance if they need time alone together.

I've already skimmed other AskMe's I could find about this and they say -- just be there, listen, don't try to minimize the pain ("she's in heaven now"), and make food. What else besides that? Maybe there's nothing else, and this question is more like "oh my god, what can I possibly do to ease this for them?" and the real answer is "almost nothing."

I guess I'd just like to hear from people who have lost those close to them about what they've needed in the immediate aftermath. I have only a tiny sense of what the emotional pain might be like, I don't know what logistics might be appropriate to volunteer for, etc.
posted by salvia to Human Relations (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm very sorry for your loss.

Ask them if there are phone calls you can make for them - whether to notify other people (friends), or to start calling around to funeral homes. When something like this happens it can be awfully hard for family members to deal with the bureaucratic bits and pieces of prices, times, canceling credit cards, and so on, especially if the death is unexpected and there isn't a "plan" in place - you'll likely be able to concentrate better to take notes and so on.

You may know this already, but a lot of times after a death, people stop being conscious of the fact that the family may continue to need support for months afterwards, not just a couple of weeks.

You're a good friend.
posted by rtha at 12:04 PM on July 14, 2007

I would call them back, and try to be there for them. Nobody's going to blame you for some social gaffe at a time like this. Go with what you feel is right, and that's the right answer.

If you show up and they tell you to go, or it just seems wrong, then go. Of course, you can't hold them to any weird social standard at a time like this either.

Do what you THINK is right, but don't be pushy. That's all any person can do.

Sorry to hear about this.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 12:05 PM on July 14, 2007

I'd let the family be together (that is, don't go and expect them to be social with you) but perhaps you could go and take some other things off their hands, e.g. show up with dinner in hand and help to serve it (make it something freezable in case tonight's dinner is already taken care of); then while they're eating perhaps you could start to do the dishes or something else that you see needs to be done. Just help out for a while and then go. You'll have to judge the balance between helping-without-asking-because-they-wouldn't-know-what-to-answer and overstepping the bounds, but this is something that can be very helpful.
posted by winston at 1:00 PM on July 14, 2007

I'm so sorry to hear about this.

I suggest calling back and asking if there's anything at all you can do. I like rtha's idea of offering to make phone calls for them. Ask them if they need groceries, or have other errands that need running, and offer to run the errands for them.

Other than that, I think the best you can do is to offer a shoulder to lean on, or to cry on if that's what your friend needs.

You probably have pretty good instincts, given that you feel such an inclination to help. Listen to your instincts.
posted by cerebus19 at 1:01 PM on July 14, 2007

Best answer: A year from now, all they will remember was that when they needed you, was that you were there. Not what you said. Not what you brought, but that you were there.

This does not mean that you should not say things or bring them meals etc., but it should liberate you to do whatever you feel is right.

Stop by, visit for a while. Chances are, after you have visited for a while, someone else will stop by, which may be a good time for you to take your leave.

Learn to be OK with silence. You don't have to feel each moment with conversation. Sometimes having someone to be with you while you sit and reflect is a good thing when you are grieving.

If you want to bring them something, let me make a suggestion from my childhood: instead of food, bring them (if you have it) a small fridge or a large cooler. Everyone else will bring them food, and their fridge will fill up quickly. In the small community where my grandparents lived, the funeral home would actually bring a full-size fridge to your house if a loved one died, just to help with the food.

Make sure you visit in a couple of weeks. They wre probably going on adrenaline right now. The really hard part is when everyone else goes home.

It's hard to go wrong. Just be there. Also, I say all this as a pastor who just walked in the house from visiting with the family of a husband and father of two who just died of cancer.

All the best to you.
posted by 4ster at 1:08 PM on July 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

I would go for stopping by but not staying long (unless it seems clear that you are wanted and/or you can do someting for them.) You can always call first and ask if there is something you can pick up for them on the way.

Some other thoughts:
In my community, a friend is usually asked/volunteer to coordinate all the people who want to help (especially about bringing food). Volunteer to be that person - then when someone else says "how can I help" the family can just say "call or email salvia". The family may need dinners and/or food for people coming to house to pay condolences.

If you going to just stop by with food, consider cracker, cheese, fruit or vegtable platter - things people can eat when they aren't really hungry.

If people are going to be going back to the house after the funeral, volunteer to get there early and set up.

Later on, ask if they need help cleaning out her sister's place. That can be a very tough job to tackle alone.
posted by metahawk at 2:15 PM on July 14, 2007

Just remember that everyone reacts to death differently, and there is no proper reaction. Whatever your friends' behavior is, give them as much slack as they require. Do not hold any action or statement against them.
posted by about_time at 2:41 PM on July 14, 2007

Everyone will bring food. Bring paper plates, disposable cutlery, napkins, beverages.

Be their receptionist. Write down who brought what, and write thank you cards for the family. Help them receive company- answer the door, let them be free to do whatever it is they need to do. Call and make hotel arrangements for the people who will be coming in town. Screen phone calls for them. Be discreet and stay in the background, but always ready to help.

Blessings to you for helping your friend.
posted by kamikazegopher at 3:46 PM on July 14, 2007

Give them a few minute's notice letting them know you're coming over with some groceries. Food that can be prepared quickly and easily is good. Once you get there, spend some time listening; there's not much that you need to say. Your presence during a time like this says a lot.
posted by ikkyu2 at 3:48 PM on July 14, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. I've solved the "how soon do I go over there?" question. And some of these past questions have amazing testimonials that have helped me start to understand what the magnitude of this potentially could be like for her. I've never had anyone close to me die so would appreciate any insight that will help me better "get" what she's going through, be more understanding, more useful, anything. (Plus there's a lot of comments in those threads like "people don't know what to do around death so they act really weird," and ... yeah, want to be as understanding and un-weird as possible.) I guess I'll just try to show up ready to listen and wait to see where they're at and how to help.
posted by salvia at 5:05 PM on July 14, 2007

Response by poster: Yeah, in case I'm not asking this question very clearly, check out this comment from one of the other threads about death --

In the coming weeks and months, you are going to develop an uncanny ability to know whether or not a person has lost someone close, based on how they relate to you in this difficult time. People who have not experienced anything like what you're going through are going to not know what to say. They will feel awkward and you may feel some of that awkwardness. That's okay.
I recently lost someone close to me, on October 27, and I learned that there is this big sad club that is composed of many, many people on this earth -- people who have lost someone close to them. We know what you're going through. We are sorry that you have to go through this. Reach out to us and we'll do what we can to help you. It's a big club.

I'm NOT in that club and DO feel awkward, but I really want to be there for my friend, and would like to be able to "get" it as much as it's possible to get it without actually having gone through it. That's what I'm trying to figure out here....
posted by salvia at 6:10 PM on July 14, 2007

Best answer: One thing I appreciated when my mother died was a woman that I didn't know that well, would ask me how I was doing with a caring, sort of sad expression that made me feel like she actually wanted to know how I was doing.

I think the difference is that people who have been through it can often relate to the grief because they experienced it. On the other hand everyone's experience is so different that what I think really counts much more is whether you can tolerate or even support hearing about your friend's feelings. It's not usually polite conversation, she will be looking for clues as to how much you want to hear, how much you can handle. If you can offer openings to talk and then follow her lead if she wants to chit-chat or actually talk about her feelings.

And if you are can't really handle talking about some of the more difficult feelings, you can still be there in other ways. it is the expression of genuine caring that your friend will remember and treasure when she thinks back to this time.

Finally, remember this death is a loss for you too. Not the same as losing a sister but still give yourself space to honor what she meant to you and the issues that her death may have stirred up in you about future losses that you will face.
posted by metahawk at 6:50 PM on July 14, 2007

Best answer: You are getting excellent advice here. All I can add is this comment I made in another thread, and this:

Last night, I was reading Traveling Mercies, and I came across a wonderful essay by Anne Lamott on the death of her closest friend Pammy. As I read it, I thought, I might have a chance to share this with someone someday as a way to give them some measure of comfort. I hope that is what it does for you.

Here is what I found the most moving:

"Then in early November of that year, the big eraser came down and got Pammy, and it also got the lover, with whom I parted mutually. The grief was huge, monolithic.

All those years a lot of us fell for the great palace lie that grief should be gotten over as quickly as possible, and as privately. But what I've discovered since is that the lifelong fear of grief keeps us in a barren, isolated place, and that grieving alone heals grief. The passage of time will lessen the acuteness, but time alone will not heal it. We are a city in grief, we are a world in grief, and it is at once intolerable and a great opportunity. I'm pretty sure that it is only by experiencing it, that ocean of sadness, in a naked and immediate way, that we come to be healed, which is to say, come to experience life with a real sense of presence and spaciousness and peace."

The whole essay can be found here.

Again, you're in my prayers. I wish you all the best.
posted by 4ster at 7:04 PM on July 14, 2007

Best answer: My brother Scott died quite unexpectedly in April, 2004. He lived in DC. My father and brother came up from Florida, and I came down from NY. It was a terrible situation. But something we were very thankful for was the fact that so many of his friends and co-workers took the time to be with us. Sometime it was just someone relating a story. Another time, someone might have just said what a nice guy Scott was. There were also several people who went the extra mile - helping out with paperwork, dealing with hotels, etc. Even if it was just sitting with us at lunch chatting about nothing. And it wasn't just Scott's friends - many of our relatives & friends also were there. A few people didn't know what to say, but that wasn't important - just that they were there is what mattered. When we needed to talk, they were there.

Don't feel bad. Be there for your friend and her family. As others have said, volunteer to do things. It will be appreciated. If you feel like talking, talk. In this situation, with the shock your friend is feeling, she might not be the one to want to initiate conversations. And I like the idea of your simply showing up with food (with a little heads-up, of course). The worst that can happen is it goes in the fridge, and you just hang around - talking, or even not talking. Also, don't feel bad relating stories about your friend's sister. It sounds odd, but my father and brother and I loved hearing from all of Scott's friends - even funny, silly, stupid stories. It just made us love Scott even more. It's hard to describe. It was comforting, not at all weird.

This response is a little more rambling than I thought it would be. Sorry. Anyway... hang in there. Be strong. My heart goes out to you.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 7:28 PM on July 14, 2007

want to be as understanding and un-weird as possible.) I guess I'll just try to show up ready to listen and wait to see where they're at and how to help.
posted by salvia at 5:05 PM on July 14 [+] [!]

That's right on. And whoever said upthread the thing about the Big Sad Club - yeah, welcome to it, although being an auxiliary member is a little different.

They might be numb and robotic, they might be operatic, they might be somewhere in between or both; if you're ready with kleenex/a whisky/a glass of water/a plate of chocolate/a notebook's worth of information and phone numbers, you'll be helpful and remembered with gratitude. Also if you're just there, ready and willing to go for a walk, or to a stupid movie, or therapeutic shopping, or whathaveyou. Sometimes, for the family of someone who's died, it can be hard to come to terms with the fact that the world carries on in its completely oblivious way - that realization freaked me out sometimes, and it was good to have someone there to say, yeah, this sucks. If you don't know what they're going through, don't say "I know how hard this is" - because you don't, and they know it. But having someone who's willing and able to say "This is awful, I'm so sorry," is a fine and comforting thing.
posted by rtha at 9:12 PM on July 14, 2007

Best answer: I lost someone close to me recently (< 2 months ago) and while his family dealt with the logistical aspects, what i really needed was someone stable and solid to hang i mean, physically hang because at times it s>felt feels like I am falling into an abyss. I need someone just to hold me, sometimes for hours, and let me cry and not say anything. Not try to cheer me up, not try to "get my mind off it." Not try to make sure I'm eating enough or that my laundry is done. I don't need a mom. I need a source of stability, to physically be there. Sometimes reaching over and firmly grasping a person's hand says far, far more than any platitudes.

Also be prepared for the fact that your friend may seem "fine" for awhile and then suddenly lapse into uncontrollable crying for no apparent reason. Be concerned but not overly worried, because this is normal. One of my pet peeves is someone who constantly asks, "Are you OK?" or "What's wrong?" No, I'm NOT okay, but I am not going to jump off a bridge either. And I may not be able to tell you what specifically is wrong at that moment. Perhaps a song on the radio triggered memories of that person. Lately, for me, anytime I've been really happy (I just got engaged), it's also mixed with extreme sadness that my relative is not here to share in my happiness.

Bleh, I'm rambling. Just hold her hand and give her a hug. Bring kleenex.
posted by desjardins at 7:01 PM on July 15, 2007

the formatting got borked after I hit submit but I think you get the gist of it.
posted by desjardins at 7:03 PM on July 15, 2007

Response by poster: I'm so sorry to hear about everyone's losses -- desjardins & ObscureReferenceMan's brother Scott & metahawk's mother & rtha, your mother. God, I guess most people here have lost someone close.

I felt a little funny posting this question, but looking back at these answers two days later, it's clear that they helped immensely. Knowing it didn't exactly matter what I did or said, and ... having a teeny tiny view from the other side of the situation. The rambling helped, and so did the many helpful concrete suggestions and details. I read that essay, 4ster -- it was amazing. People get all touched by Metafilter sometimes, and for me, this is one of them. Thanks to all of you so much.
posted by salvia at 11:18 PM on July 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I feel weird commenting all over my own thread, but looking back months later, I realize how much some of these comments have stuck with me and either gave me solace at the time or guided me in random moments across the months ("ask... how I was doing with a caring, sort of sad expression that made me feel like she actually wanted to know...") I marked as "best" the ones that most stuck in my brain for my particular situation, but these are all great comments. Thanks, all of you.
posted by salvia at 1:39 AM on September 1, 2007

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