How do you provide extended ongoing support to friends or family after someone they love has died? After writing last week about cancer and losing my dad, and with the Holiday Season upon us, this topic has been on my mind.
In my experience, after a family loses a loved one, it can be a hard and awkward time for people around them. This has been true for me both when I lost my dad and as I have had close friends who have experienced loss. It’s hard to know what to say, what to do, how to act. And so, it can feel like, sometimes friends and acquaintances around the grieving family step away after the initial burst of help and support because they don’t really know what to do.
I recently read a post about ways to help a grieving family, and thought the ideas she gives are really important – especially the encouragement to just do something, to meet a need, and to be specific with your requests.
One thing I have realized though, a year and a half later, is that grieving extends long beyond the initial weeks and even months after a loved one’s death. As the months go by, you feel like you’re supposed to be okay, but you’re not.
It can be really hard to express to others the great grief and sadness that you experience on a regular basis. And even harder to share that it is affecting your ability to cop on a day-to-day basis, much less ask for any kind of help. You put up appearances that you’re okay, that things are fine, maybe even that the grief isn’t really affecting you.
It makes me so sad that our culture values individualism and “pulling yourself together” so much that we cover up our struggles and hold back our needs. We don’t let people around us know that we could still use their help and love and support. And in doing so we are taking away opportunities to love and serve each other in real and tangible ways.
On the flip side, for those around a grieving family, it can be easy to look at them and think they are doing okay. But please know that appearances can be very deceiving.
And even though it can be hard for someone on the outside to know when or what to help with, I hope I can encourage you to look beyond the outward appearance and see the need for extended help and support. Even if someone says that they are okay, or acts like they are, chances are they could really use someone to come alongside them and support them and they might not even know how much they need that.
I want to give you some practical ideas for how to help, but in a way that is really grace-filled, because I’m speaking to myself here too. I’m not good at doing these things when I know of a family that is grieving. But, I want to commit that moving forward I will strive to serve and help others in the way I so desperately needed during the year after my father died.
1. Continue to offer meals and companionship
We received TONS of food at my mom’s house in the week following my dad’s death. So much food that it was almost overwhelming. And while we were so very appreciative to not have to worry about what we were going to eat with so many extende family members around for that week, I really think the need for regular meals extends long beyond a few weeks after a loved one’s passing.
My mom is so fortunate to have good friends who invited her over for dinner every Thursday night. When another woman in the neighborhood lost her husband, she joined in and now they have Thursday Night Supper Club. And I’m so thankful to know my mom is with friends who love her and care about her and are giving her so much more than a good meal on those nights.
But it’s not just the widow who needs the regular meals and companionship, the rest of the family goes back to their homes and their lives, and life moves on. And yet it doesn’t. I cannot tell you how many days there have been when I was absolutely too overwhelmed by my grief to find the energy, either mentally or physically, to get dinner on the table for my family. I know my youngest sister struggled so much with loneliness, being away from my mom, our other sister and me, in the weeks and months after our dad died.
So think about ways to provide food for long after the funeral has passed. Drop off freezer meals that can be easily pulled out on a much needed night. Just call or email and offer to bring dinner one night, for no reason other than you were thinking of that person. Or invite them over for dinner, because meals and companionship together are one of the very best gifts you can give.
2. Continue to offer tangible help
While providing meals is important and necessary, there are also so many other tangible needs that can be met by others around the grieving family. Ongoing things like help with yard work, house cleaning, home repairs, even cleaning out the loved ones things when the family is finally ready.
My mom’s friends, neighbors, and sons-in-law take good care of her. They bring in her garbage can after the truck has come by, they mow her yard and snow blow her driveway. They help her with things around the house that my dad used to do.
We are called to serve the widows and the orphans and sometimes I think we forget that there is probably a widow right in our neighborhood who we could help and support and show Christ’s love.
But like with meals, the rest of the family continues to grieve and needs their community to come around them with love and support as well. Offer childcare for a for a few hours, either so a couple can go out for some much needed alone time, or so a parent can have some restful time to themselves. Even though it’s hard and might feel awkward, offer help with house cleaning, laundry, yard work, or working on a project around the house. Often times in the midst of grief it’s those daily things that can be so hard to stay on top of.
2. Continue to offer emotional and spiritual support
Grieving is such a hard and vulnerable road to walk down. It’s too easy to isolate yourself from people around you while you are grieving, when it’s really the time you most need the love and support from people who care about you.
So please, offer continued and ongoing emotional and spiritual support and love to those around you who you know are grieving. If the person or family comes to your mind, use that as an opportunity to both pray for the family and to reach out in some way. Let them know that you are thinking of them and that they do not have to go through their grieving alone.
Call, text, or send an email – or even a Facebook message! Invite them over for coffee or just to hang out and talk. Check in with them and see how they are doing. Ask if they need anything. Offer a shoulder to cry on.
Please be careful of asking, “Are you okay?’ or “How are you?” in the passing way that we so often do in our culture, in the lobby at church, in the grocery store, at the kid’s soccer game. Because, even though the default answer is, “Fine” that’s probably not the truth, but it’s too hard to communicate your feelings in a short fleeting moment. People who are grieving need someone to offer them the space and time, in the context of relationship, to share how they are really doing.
As important as it is to come around a grieving family at the time of their loss, it’s also important to remember to offer extended support and care for them in the weeks, months, and even years that follow as they walk through the process of grieving. If you know a family or friend that has recently, or even not so recently, lost a loved one I want to encourage you to think of ways that you might help and support them through the upcoming Holiday Season.
Have you been supported in your times of grief by friends and family around you? How have you shown care and support to a grieving family?
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