After the loss of our sons, Patrick and I have been overwhelmed by all of the love and the support that we have received from others.
Only a year ago, Patrick and I picked up and moved hundreds of miles from our friends and our families to start the next chapter of our lives in a brand new place, where we had previously never visited and initially knew no one. Little did we know then just how soon life would test the strength of our new support system, and we certainly could never have imagined just how beautifully our new community would envelope us and wrap us in their loving care. Thankfully, they have become like a family away from family for us both, caring for us when we have so desperately needed it most.
Through this time and through this care that we have received, Patrick and I have learned some invaluable lessons on how to best support others as they experience the overwhelming and all-consuming power of grief. Inspired by our personal experience, these are lessons that I hope to better embody as I seek to help others in the future, and perhaps you will find these practical tips helpful as well. May we all better support those around us through their pain.
Offer Practical Support
“No one ever told me about the laziness of grief… I loathe the slightest effort. Not only writing but even reading a letter is too much. Even shaving. What does it matter now whether my cheek is rough or smooth?
It’s easy to see why the lonely become untidy; finally, dirty and disgusting.”
— C.S. Lewis
When grief takes hold, it takes over. For many, it can be as overwhelming physically as it is emotionally. To understand grief’s all-consuming power, WebMD actually includes “Grief and Grieving” under its list of ailments –
Grief is expressed physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.
With all of this, grief can make even the simplest of tasks of daily living feel nearly impossible. This struggle provides one of the easiest and best ways to help someone through grief – offer practical support. There are countless ways to do this. Here are just a few ideas to get you started –
When I first started experiencing debilitating complications during my pregnancy and was forced to go on bedrest, Patrick and I reached out to our church and asked if the congregation would be willing to bring us food. Their support continued after our sons died, when cooking meals for ourselves became one of the last things we wanted to do in the midst of our pain.
This was one of the most helpful, though at times overwhelming, blessings that we received, and we discovered some helpful tips along the way –
- Be mindful of portion size. Each night for several weeks a different parishioner would bring us a dish. During that time, the best meals, we found, were not the ones that you might expect. You may assume that bigger meals would be better, thinking that it would save us from having to cook more meals over time. However, this generosity actually can quickly become overwhelming. Patrick and I soon discovered that we just could not eat everything that we were given. Our freezer quickly filled with meals meant to serve twelve people, instead of two, and we became gluttonous as we were given entire pies and sheet cakes to share. The best meals, we found, were ones that were of a more reasonable portion size, or meals that could be frozen in individual serving sizes.
- Remember healthy food. Salads and asparagus typically are not what comes to mind when you are considering bringing something to comfort someone in their grief. Yet, after being gifted countless cookies, pies, and entire sheet cakes, these healthier options were exactly what we started craving after awhile.
- Think creatively if you’re far away. I was a member of an online support group for women battling similar fertility issues – Beat Infertility. And though I had never met these women in person, they amazingly all chipped in together to send us two giant boxes filled frozen meals from a delivery service called Top Chef Meals. This was one of the most thoughtful gifts that we received, and it was easy enough to do, even from far away. If you are far away, try to think of creative alternatives like this to offer support even from afar.
Offer to do chores
The chores and work of daily life became similarly daunting – first, when I was on bedrest, then when I was in the hospital, and finally when the grief just became too much. Some of the most helpful support we received came when people offered to help lift this burden.
There are countless ways that you can support someone who is grieving in this practical department –
- Look after the pets – We most needed help in this department, especially when I was still in the hospital. It was an indescribable relief to know that we had people who would come to our home to walk our dogs and make sure that they were fed and cared for while we were away. Pets are often a top priority and concern for people in the midst of crisis. If you can offer to either come and check in on the pets or to take them to your home for a little while, this may be an indescribable help.
- Go grocery shopping for the basics – Think of the things that run out quickly – milk, cereal, fruit, bread, toiletries, etc.
- Care for daily tasks – Mowing the lawn, caring for the garden, fetching the mail, cleaning the house, running to the pharmacy, moving boxes to the basement – these are all ways that you can help lift the burden a little.
Buy practical gifts
Flowers are great. However, one of my favorite gifts that we received while we were in the midst of our grief was something far more practical – a dog leash. A parishioner who was caring for our dogs noticed that up until this point we had been struggling to walk our dogs with two different leashes. Noticing this, she decided to gift us a dual-leash that now enables us, and our helpful dog walkers, to walk our dogs more easily at the same time. Because of its practicality, this leash has actually become a lasting memento. Now whenever I use it, I am reminded of her and the love and care she showed us during such a difficult moment, and I am forever grateful for her thoughtfulness.
If you notice a need like this, think out of the box and give a practical gift that may help ease that particular burden.
“Survivors do not mourn together. They each mourn alone, even when in the same place. Grief is the most solitary of all feelings. Grief isolates, and every ritual, every gesture, every embrace, is a hopeless effort to break through that isolation….
To face death is to stand alone.”
— Steven Erikson
The isolating power of grief can be overwhelming. And while you may never be able to fully join another person in their pain, you can, at the very least, reach out and offer a helping hand.
Attend the funeral
Patrick and I did not know how many people to expect at the funeral for Ezra and Leo. There were practical issues to consider – every funeral Patrick has led at the church has been held in a small chapel, rather than in the much larger sanctuary; people were out of town as it was Spring Break weekend and the snow birds still had not returned from their winter homes in the South; our families live far away and, other than our parents, most of them could not join us.
However, there was a more fundamental fear – no one, other than us, had ever known Ezra and Leo. No one else had ever seen them, had ever held them, or had ever met them face to face. So we anxiously worried, would others miss or mourn our stillborn sons who never had a chance to live or to be loved?
As we entered the sanctuary and walked toward the tiny casket at the front, we were both immediately overwhelmed with gratitude when we saw that the pews were overflowing with people who were there to support us and to mourn with us. It was one of the most moving moments on our journey.
One of the greatest acts of solidarity you can offer to a grieving person is to attend the funeral. Mourn with them. Cry with them. Remember with them. And most importantly, stand with them.
Offer your support
In the days that followed our loss, we were overwhelmed with support from near and far. Our mailbox was full, and our counters were covered in flowers. There are many ways to offer your love and your condolences to someone in grief –
- Write a letter – This may be obvious, but a simple card expressing your condolences can be deeply meaningful. Some of the most touching cards that we have received conveyed a simple yet profound truth – “I do not know what to say at a moment like this.” Do not offer platitudes or cliched positivity, such as, “God must have needed another angel” or “This is all in God’s plan.” Words like these may actually be more painful than helpful to a person in grief. Instead, merely offer your sympathy and admit that there truly are no words for such loss.
- Send flowers – This may be another obvious one. However, the best flowers, we found, were the ones that were potted. These potted plants still live in our home, even months later, leaving a longer lasting legacy of the givers’ remembrance and love. Other flower arrangements that were particularly helpful had mementos added, such as butterfly pins, that we could keep as keepsakes.
- Give to a cause – Some may ask others to give to a particular cause in lieu of flowers. We asked our loved ones, if they wanted, to give to the organization that had so helped us while we were in the hospital – the Pregnancy Loss Support Service at Strong Memorial Hospital. Others also donated blood to the Red Cross in honor of Ezra and Leo, since the generous gifts of blood donors saved my life. A few women even donated their wedding dresses to organizations that transform them into burial gowns for babies. These, and so many other causes, are all indescribably beautiful ways to honor the lives of the person who was lost.
Mark your calendar for 3 months
Some grief literature suggests that between 3 – 6 months may be the hardest in the grief process. The funeral is over, the casseroles have stopped coming, the sympathy cards slow, and life starts to return to “normal” for everyone else, even if it does not feel normal at all. This is also when the initial shock and denial feelings may start to fade and the full force of the reality of the grief strikes. If you want to help someone in pain, mark this time in your calendar and make it a point to reach out. They will likely need it.
Take Your Cue
“Only the forgotten are truly dead.”
— Tess Gerritsen
It is an honor to walk with someone through grief – to be invited into their pain, to be welcomed onto their lonely journey, to touch their wounds and offer healing. Each person will experience grief differently. So as you journey along with them, it is important to take their cues and you may be called on to offer different things in different moments –
(I have offered this advice before in a previous post – Tips for Impatient Sympathy – but it is worth repeating.)
After some time passes, people stop using the name of someone who has died, worried that mentioning their name will bring up pain. Yet, that silence is deafening and perhaps even more painful. There is an innate fear when others stop using their name that they have been forgotten, that it is like they never existed at all. In our case, this fear may be even more daunting, because no one other than ourselves knew Ezra and Leo personally. So dare to name them aloud.
A listening presence is one of the greatest sources of support that you can offer to a person who is grieving. All you have to do is listen and offer a nonjudgmental space for another person to share whatever may be on their soul in that moment. Yet, finding someone who is willing to listen and who is capable of holding another person’s pain with love and care is a rare gift. Many cannot offer this. They get too uncomfortable with these difficult emotions, so instead, they jump too quickly to offer advice, or a pithy platitude, or simply change the subject entirely.
(If you are afraid about saying the wrong thing, feel free to check out this previous post for some additional tips – How Not to Say the Wrong Thing)
Finally, sometimes a grieving person needs some help to come up out of their grief for a moment of reprieve. Be careful how you do this, but if you sense it is appropriate, offer some kind of distraction to give them an opportunity to escape, even if only momentarily, from their pain. Offer to watch a movie, give them tickets to a play, take them to a ball game – whatever may work for them in that particular moment. If a person is ready for a temporary escape, this kind of support can be invaluable in the midst of grief.
Hopefully these tips help as you embark to help others journey through their pain. I know that these have all helped us, thanks to the love and support that we have received from others.