Think Outside the Casserole Dish:
What Can You Do to Help?

It may sound strange, but one of the toughest things about being there for somebody in grief is dealing with our own feelings of helplessness. It's natural to want to "do" something comforting for them, but often times that right "something" can be hard to figure out. Here are a few recommended random acts of thoughtfulness that any grieving person will appreciate. They're not textbook examples of sympathy... but then again, this isn't a textbook. ☺

Be there now, and later

You've attended the ceremonies and gatherings immediately following your friend's loss, but they're going to need someone to talk to after the dust settles. Put a reminder on your calendar 6-8 weeks out (when the reality has set in for her), and that will prompt you to touch base for a talk or a walk. Maybe grab a bite or a beer. And bring your listening ears.

One thing you can do today to put your thoughtfulness in motion is to schedule delivery for a card maybe 6-8 weeks out, or even several throughout the year. Schedule it today, and we'll make it happen.

Pitch in with some friends

When a co-worker here got the news that her son had passed away, she grabbed her bags and headed to the airport. The last thing that entered her mind was stuff like feeding her cat, picking up her mail and cutting the grass. While offering food and flowers is always thoughtful, this was one of those times where we got together and made an errand schedule so the last thing she'd have to worry about was anything but the challenge in front of her.

And keep the support coming. In the weeks and months after a death, normal tasks of everyday life can feel overwhelming. When you're shoveling your snow or putting the screens in the window for summertime, your friend will probably need to do that, too. This might be a good time to schedule a visit and get specific ideas of what needs to be done...and then make a plan for Saturday morning to bring coffee, doughnuts and a few friends to rake the leaves and put in the storm windows.

Taking the time to share your memories in a letter can provide even more comfort because it can be read again and again.

Free up the freezer

The downside of having thoughtful friends showing they care by dropping off a sudden surge of meals is that freezers quickly fill up, and food invariably goes to waste. There are a couple of easy ways to avoid this situation. One is to band together and form a meal team - everybody sign up for a different day over the course of a month to drop off a dinner. Not only will that prevent an overflowing fridge, but it will also give the grieving person some much-needed human contact over the next 30 days. Be sure to keep portion control in mind... if the grieving person is living alone and is getting a fresh meal every day, having a lot of leftovers may not be a good idea.

Another simple thing to do would be to pick up a few restaurant gift cards. With so much to plan around a funeral or service, often people don't have the energy to do much else other than grab a quick carry-out. Don't know his favorite restaurants? Do a Google search for restaurants within a 3-mile radius of his house to help determine which places might be most convenient.

Write a letter about their loved one

One of the best ways you can comfort a grieving family is to celebrate the life of the person they've lost. Telling a story is a good way to express sympathy in person, but taking the time to share your memories in a letter can provide even more comfort because it can be read again and again. This is especially thoughtful when children are affected by the loss. Paying tribute to their parent or relative through personal experiences will help them learn things about the person that they wouldn't otherwise get the chance to know.

Don't know what to write? Simply think about the time you spent together, what you liked best and what you'll remember most. How was she your most thoughtful/fun/creative friend? What was he like at work? What was she like as a little girl? Was he a highly-skilled, or simply hilarious, bowler? Don't worry about wording your letter perfectly, just share your stories from the heart and they'll be appreciated more than you know!

Sample letter

Below is a lovely example of a letter to the young son of a co-worker who passed away years ago — that still brings him comfort as an adult.

Dear Max,

I'm writing to you today so you can begin to know your father as others knew him. I hope that you can read this now and then, someday when you are grown, read it again to see your dad a little more clearly through the eyes of the people who knew him when you were young.

Your dad was a creative and original thinker. He was a talented artist, one talented enough to make a good living doing what he loved. In a type of work where many people try and few succeed your father was not only successful, he had the respect and admiration of his peers. Your father brought ideas out of his dreams, and made them live on paper and on the computer. He was always tinkering with his drawings and designs, trying to make each one a perfect reflection of the picture in his mind. Good was never good enough for your dad when it came to expressing his ideas. He always tried to make it better.

Your dad had a passion for the pursuits in his life. I was lucky enough to work with your father, and from the first time I met him I was amazed by the energy and excitement he felt for every challenge he faced. This excitement never faded over the years I knew your dad, and he had a rare ability to bring a childlike sense of wonder to every new opportunity in his life. Your dad had passion for music, for movies, for work, for life. He was never afraid to say what was on his mind, and people listened to what he said.

Your dad was loved. He was a friend to me, and to many other people at work. He was always fun to talk to, and knew a lot about a lot of different things. He liked playing pranks at work, and your dad could really make people laugh. I remember one time we were playing ping-pong, and your dad was acting so silly he had us laughing our heads off. He was jumping around like a maniac, talking non-stop about every shot he was taking, and he was funnier than any comedian you'd ever see on TV. Your dad had many friends, and not one will forget him ever. A lot of people — hundreds and hundreds — showed up for your father's memorial service, and that is a whole lot more than show up at most. So many people came because your dad touched so many lives.

Your dad loved you. Max, I hope that someday you realize just how much your dad loved you, and how much he always will. He would come in a lot of mornings smiling and giggling to himself, and when we asked him what was so funny, it would turn out he was laughing about something you said over breakfast that day. He really and truly loved spending time with you, and every Monday he'd tell us the things you did together over the weekend. Through him we knew your hobbies, your friends, and what a great kid you are. Some people might describe your father as an artist. I would describe him as a dad who happened to be an artist. I think that being your dad was the most important thing in his life, and that you brought him so much joy each day. It was obvious to anyone who knew him how much you filled his heart with love.

Everything your dad was and did in his life, he poured into you. Someday you will be a man, and you might not realize it yet but you will be a lot like your father when you grow up. I remember you coming in to the office on snow days, and how you would draw at his desk, and how the two of you would talk about your drawings. In some ways it was like a father talking to a son. In other ways, it was like two grown-ups sitting around talking about ideas. Every place he took you, he took you for a reason. A lot of dads don't take their kids to museums or the other places you went with your father, but your dad did. You might not think of it now, but someday you will see that he was busy making you into the man you will become. It might seem funny to say so, but I can already see a lot of your dad in you. I like what I see.

Max, your dad was a special man. I was lucky to have him as a friend, but you were even luckier to have him as a father. I know that he will always love you, and that he will always be proud of you.

Take care,

Send pictures

You probably have some great pictures of your friend and your husband that you meant to email, post or send, but you never quite got around to it. This is a good time to dig through your archives and share your "take" on old memories. If you find a favorite, it's worth the extra effort to put it in a frame and send it. This will bring a welcome smile among the sympathy cards — or thoughtful reminder when the cards have stopped coming.

Rather than sending flowers to the funeral, one idea is to send a "grieving" basket, filled with stuff for the whole family, to the home.

Start a new routine

The loss of a loved one usually means changing old habits and filling empty hours. This is a good time, if you can manage it, to schedule a weekly "date" with your friend to visit, have lunch or watch a favorite show. Not only will you be giving her some much-needed consistency during a rocky time, but you'll also give her something to look forward to.

Having a set date on the calendar also takes "let me know what I can do" to the next level. Someone who's grieving may not have the energy or motivation to call you when she needs something, but if she knows you're coming over Tuesday, she'll feel less overwhelmed by a project that needs an extra set of hands.

If you don't live close by, but still want to keep in touch more consistently, put a reminder on your calendar or in your phone to call on a certain day each week. You can never care too much.

Take care of the kids

Most expressions of sympathy — like calls, cards, flowers and donations — that are meant for the whole family are often only appreciated by the adults. So rather than sending flowers to the funeral, one idea is to send a "grieving" basket, filled with stuff for the whole family, to the home. There are plenty of services online that can help you customize a basket, or you can fill one yourself with things like sympathy or prayer books, a journal for memories, a special Christmas ornament, stuffed animals and individually wrapped candy and snacks.

Another great idea is to send the specific gift cards to the kids. When a young father died suddenly, one neighbor sent his children gift cards to a local toy store, and then repeated the generosity on Christmas. Not only did the kids feel special, but this was also a creative way to help with finances, which are typically tight after a tragedy.

Or, you can simply offer to babysit. During the days, weeks, and even months after someone dies, there are a lot of details to handle. Adding these to an already busy schedule, while still dealing with feelings of grief, can be very stressful for the whole family. You'll give everyone a much-needed break by taking the kids on a fun outing or scheduling a play date with yours.

Remember important days

Especially during the first year after someone dies, there seems to be a new reminder every month of how different life will be without them. Holidays like Christmas and Easter will be an especially difficult time, but Father's Day, Mother's Day, Valentine's Day and the anniversary of the death will probably trigger tears, too. This is when phone calls, cards and plans to get together will mean a lot.

During the holiday season, you might want to check in a little more often and offer to go shopping, help decorate, or go with your friend to a party or event so she doesn't have to go alone — or feel tempted to skip it. Ask her what plans she has for the holiday and invite her to share your family's traditions if she's struggling to carry on with her own.

Don't be afraid you'll make any of these days "worse" by bringing up their loss. They'll be thinking of their loved one whether you mention them or not, and it will mean a lot to know that you're thinking of them, too.

Even if you're more of a "flower person," it's important to honor the family's wishes and pay tribute to their loved one in the way that means the most to them.

Even if you don't know the actual anniversary of the death, simply sending a card that you're thinking of your friend "during this time" will let her know you remembered.

Offer to visit the gravesite with him

This can be very comforting for a grieving person — and they don't always want to go alone. Offering this shows you're not afraid of sharing the difficult parts of the grieving process and may make them feel more comfortable to share their feelings. Once you're there, you don't have to worry about doing or saying the right thing. Your quiet presence will speak volumes.

Or, visit the grave on your own — and leave something behind. A family who lost their son said that visiting the site and seeing that others had been there was an amazing sign of support and remembrance.

Help their legacy live on

You've probably already noticed that it's becoming more common for families to ask for charitable donations instead of flowers. Even if you're more of a "flower person," it's important to honor the family's wishes and pay tribute to their loved one in the way that means the most to them. Like so many things about the grieving process, it's not about what we want, right?

But how will they know you donated? The organization usually sends a note to let them know you made a contribution — which will be a welcome surprise in their mailbox in the weeks or months after the loss.

Don't feel like that's enough? If you're part of a group that can do something more, then by all means do it! Many families have been touched by thoughtful and creative tributes such as a local theater company dedicating a performance to their mother, teddy bears distributed to hospitals in honor of their daughter, a high school scholarship in the name of a beloved father and coach, a tree planted on a college campus to remember a classmate, or a memorial website for people from all over the country (or world) to share pictures, comments and support.

Watch for warning signs

Grief is a process. It will go on for a while and everyone will deal with it differently. It's common to feel depressed, confused, disconnected from others, or even a little crazy. But if your friend's symptoms don't gradually start to fade — or if they get worse with time - this may be a sign that normal grief has evolved into a more serious problem.

You can help by calling a local hospice and asking about support groups and then bringing up your concerns in a compassionate way, such as:

"I'm worried by how tired you've been and that you haven't been getting out after work or on the weekends. There's a support group at ________ on Tuesday. How about if I go with you?"

If it's been over two months since the death, encourage the grieving person to seek professional help if you see any of these warning signs:

  • Difficulty functioning in daily life.
  • Neglecting personal hygiene.
  • Excessive bitterness, anger or guilt.
  • Inability to enjoy life.
  • Extreme focus on death.
  • Withdrawing from others.
  • Constant feelings of hopelessness.
  • Alcohol or drug abuse.
  • Talking of dying or suicide.

Something sweet is happening...