How To Show Up and Stay Strong Supporting a Grieving Family
The jarring word caught my attention as I grabbed it with my finger before it sailed off the screen on my phone. For sleep’s sake, I don’t usually scroll through my social apps in bed, but some nights I need the company of smiling faces, and so I spend my eye-drooping time swiping through other people’s lives.
Under the bold headline was a picture of a teenage boy who looked to be about 14 or 15, the same age as my youngest. I checked to see who had posted the notice, hoping it was a public service announcement and not someone I knew.
But it was a friend, a dear friend. She shared a follow-up photo shortly after of her son and the missing boy, big grins on their faces, elbows resting on each other’s shoulders, pudgy preteen cheeks covered in red sauce with messy bowls of bowtie pasta overflowing on the table in front of them. The caption read, “We love you Tim…forever and always.” Tim had been found. He was not alive.
My friend was now grieving her friend’s child while parenting her own son through his grief. In the days to follow, she would be marshaling a community to support that broken family, something I knew a bit about; not the organizing of an army of volunteers, but the receiving of community support. I’d had that same shocked line of friends and neighbors at my front door just three years earlier after my husband of 22 years, the organizer of the neighborhood fun, the champion of the community’s causes, died by suicide. My three teenage children and I were blindsided, as was everyone around us. They all wanted to know what they could do to make us better.
The problem was that I was in shock. In an impressive self-preservation move, my brain had erased all “nonessentials” from its normally reliable to-do list. So those things I could previously do without even thinking about — brush my teeth, take a shower, wash clothes — completely left my mind. I had to set a daily alarm on my phone to remember to pull something out of the fridge and heat it up for dinner. Even then I sometimes forgot.
In the days after Geoff died, there were countless people coming to the house, bringing hugs, food, stories, laughter and tears. I felt such comfort being surrounded by that love. A house full of people ready to do anything that I asked of them, but I had no idea what to ask. My thoughts were consumed with making sure my children were still alive. I kept leaving friends to peek into my son’s or my daughters’ rooms to see that they were breathing. When friends would ask, “What can I do?” I felt deep in my heart the kindness and concern being shared, but all I could think was, “Don’t let my children die.” But I knew that didn’t make sense, so I just shrugged and gushed gratitude and told them I would let them know if I thought of anything.
But I never did. I felt like such a burden already, I could not ask for anything more. I could not ask them to think of the things that needed to be done and do them. That was too much. It was all too much.
“Do you know the five stages of grief?” my husband’s best friend asked me the day after I’d had to share the news. Finally, someone with practical advice.
“No,” I’m sure I sighed.
“I don’t either, but we should Google it,” he smiled. Turns out a joke was what I needed.
I don’t have some secret formula to end the sadness or fix the emptiness of grief. Something that can be said or done that would make all the difference. No one does. Every grieving family is different, so there is no to-do list of sure-fire tasks to fix their pain. Somehow, my people saved my life and the lives of my three teenage children with their care.
When I saw that my friend was on the front lines of another such emotional rescue mission, I had to reach out to share with her all that I had learned about surviving those grueling days, so that she would be better equipped to help her friends. Here is what I told her.
Put Your Oxygen Mask on First
Take care of yourself. It’s more than just the family who has lost a loved one that suffers, the entire community deals with the shock of grief. To be strong for your friend, you must get enough sleep, enough to eat, counseling and time with your family. It can be hard to do normal things when a friend’s life is no longer normal, but I know in my case it was reassuring to me to know that my friends were okay.
Take care of your family. My friends and their kids were traumatized, too. I hated the thought that our family had in any way hurt their family. It made me feel better to see them getting help and becoming okay.
Meet Immediate Needs
Offer to collect items or update reservations for the family. There were tiny pieces of Geoff’s life that needed to be dealt with but were so hard for me to even process. Because Geoff died at his office, his car was still there, so a neighbor retrieved it and kept it at her house until I was ready to collect it. Geoff died one week before Thanksgiving, just a few days before we would travel to see my family. My sister canceled his seat on that flight.
Keep the family fed. The first weekend after Geoff died there were non-stop friends coming by to offer condolences and help. The mom brigade brought finger food so that everyone could eat. Those snacks were our breakfast, lunch, and dinner those first few days.
Assist with the obituary. Two of Geoff’s childhood friends wrote the obituary and submitted it to the local newspaper. I’m a writer, and yet the thought of trying to capture all that was Geoff in a meaningful way when I could barely brush my teeth seemed insurmountable.
Help with the details at the memorial service. We held Geoff’s at a church, so staff and members did the legwork and Geoff’s employer covered the cost. My sister-in-law collected photos from family and friends, which were displayed on a big screen. My sister stood next to me when an impromptu receiving line formed in front of me and kindly kept it moving.
Accommodate out-of-towners. My neighbors housed my immediate family, which kept them closer than if they’d been at a hotel. Another friend collected air mattresses from local families so my daughters’ visiting camp friends could all sleep together with her. A neighbor hosted a potluck dinner for out-of-town guests the night before the service, so the kids and I could go see everyone, but we were able to leave on our own time.
Consider seasonal chores. Friends asked if they could decorate my house for Christmas while we were away for Thanksgiving. It was easier coming home to a festive house.
Take care of pets. A neighbor and her daughter would stop by the house every time they walked their dog to ask if our dog Beau would like to join them. Beau needed the attention, too.
Organize a meal delivery brigade. One mom used Sign-up Genius to organize months of regular meal deliveries. I found receiving meals three times a week was the right schedule because almost everyone brought two days worth of food. She posted our food allergies on the site and also asked people to list ingredients on their food, to be extra safe. She asked everyone to deliver the food at 4 p.m. each day which was helpful because I could plan my day around it. Friends who were too far away to deliver meals, sent Grubhub/Doordash gift cards.
Stay Connected in the Weeks After
Send regular invitations for lunches or walks. Several mom friends texted to take walks with me on a regular basis. Sometimes we talked about Geoff, sometimes we didn’t. They gave me space to grieve. Not try to fix it for me, just let me be sad for as long as I needed. For me that was so helpful because I had all this extra pain to unload, but no longer had my person here to unload with.
Offer help cleaning out the room/closet. My friends offered to help me remove Geoff’s stuff from our closet when I was ready. I waited until just before the one-year anniversary, then my mom came to help. I made the decisions on what to keep and what to donate, and she took away each box as I filled it. I found notes and pictures in his pockets. That was a particularly triggering exercise, so it was nice to have physical and emotional support through it.
Follow Up Months After
Plan for the long haul. I am four years out and still have moments of shutting down. There are a handful of people who still text me at every important milestone just to let me know they are thinking of Geoff and of us. Make a note for yourself now to reach out on the person’s birthday, anniversary, day that they died, any religious holiday, start of school, graduation, Father’s/Mother’s Day or any other milestone that will now be extra difficult for that family. A simple “I’m thinking of you” makes all the difference to someone who is in pain.
Finally, continue to anticipate what the family might need done and ask permission to do it. Push them to let you help. Sometimes people don’t want to burden others with their sadness, but helping is a way for the community to process their grief, as well. But if they aren’t comfortable, that’s okay, too. Every family is different; what feels like support to one may feel like intrusion to another. Asking is the best way to know.
And I will finish where I started: Take care of yourself. Talk to your family about their feelings and experience. Let them know it is okay to be sad. Or mad. Or happy. Let them know you need some extra time to care for your friend, but you are there for them, too. The most important thing we can do is be there for one another. And the way we do that is to teach each other how.