Grief – What Can I Do?

I started to respond to Amanda’s question in the comments section of the Grief is Dirty post, but realized it needed it’s own post. This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked what someone should do when someone they know is grieving, so I’ll try to offer some real, tangible advice from my own experience. The disclaimer here is that obviously MY grief is MY grief, and I have yet to find any two people who grieve EXACTLY the same. My prayer is that the Lord guides my words and someone will be helped by them.

1. There is nothing you can say that will make her feel better or make her pain hurt any less.

The sooner you understand this key point, the sooner you will be able to offer real comfort. Yes, you want to take this all away from her because you love her and hate to see her suffer like this, but grief isn’t supposed to be fun. Grief is supposed to hurt and it is important…let me say that again…it is IMPORTANT that you let her grieve. The best thing you can say right now is, “I don’t know what to say” and then give her a hug.

2. Don’t ask, “What can I do for you?”

She doesn’t know. Especially in the early days, she will more than likely look at you as if you are a brick wall she has to scale. I was most blessed by those who picked something to do and then asked my permission to do that thing.

Examples:
*Took our favorite picture of Emily to be enlarged for the funeral, bought a frame and an easel. That picture now sits in our living room beneath our family picture.
*Brought paper goods to the house while there were 9 million people living in my house (no need to ask about this one…it’s a consumable thing)
*Brought coffee and didn’t ask what kind, just brought something she thought I would like then sat with me while we drank the coffees…not expecting anything from me.

3. Don’t ask to take the kids for the day. (unless you know her well and know she would appreciate this)

The LAST thing I wanted after losing a child was to lose them ALL to someone else’s house. I couldn’t even stand the thought. No, I wasn’t functioning real well, but I needed the children to be right there where I could see them and touch them. You’d do better to ask if you can come and watch the children at her house while she rests for a bit.

4. Do something that encourages the family to move forward as a family.

It is very tough for a grieving family to begin making new memories that leave out the child who died.  Consider doing something that encourages the family as a whole.

Examples:
*a zoo or museum membership
*gift card to eat out as a family
*invite the family to join your family on an outing to the park or pumpkin patch or a game night in your home

5. Avoid the common phrases that too often end up sounding flippant and heartless.

Things like, “She’s in a better place now” or “She’ll never have to suffer the pain of growing up” hurt more t han they help, especially in the beginning.  Yes, I know she’s in Heaven and yes, I know that is the best place ever, but I hurt.  Don’t kid yourself into believing that saying those common phrases somehow ease the pain.  They don’t.  They are better left unsaid because you can be assured someone else out there will say them.

6. Don’t compare your loss to her loss unless you’ve actually lost a child.

Your dog dying, your grandma dying, your dad dying (no matter how close you were to any of them) just isn’t the same thing.  My dad died 51 weeks to the day before Emily died.  It just wasn’t the same kind of grief.  They were both grief, but they were apples and oranges in how they felt.  I would never presume to know what it feels like to lose a husband or a mother, and unless you’ve lost a child, you should never presume to know what that feels like.

Instead of trying to sympathize by comparing grief, consider saying something like, “Grief is so painful.  I cannot imagine how hard this must be.  I am so sorry.” In this way, you are validating that what they feel is hard and doesn’t compare to anything else.  They need to know that the pain they are feeling is okay to feel.

7. Ask hard questions, but in a loving way, and make sure you listen to the answer.

Do not shy away from specifics when talking to the grieving person. If they’ve been grieving longer than a couple of weeks, they will probably welcome someone who will ask them something otehr than the usual, “How are you today?” questions (because frankly, that’s a useless question becuase the “right” answer is always, “OK,” and she is NOT OK.)

Examples:
“What are you struggling with today?”

“Are there any memories that are especially hard for you right now?”

“How has the Lord been comforting you today?”

“Have you remembered anything about [her child's name (see #10)] that has made you smile today?”

8. Listen to what information she does offer and brainstorm what you can do to help based on that information.

Stress makes me feel like I need to control something and the first thing I usually want to control is the clutter in my house. I had several friends who came to help me declutter for an afternoon here and there. Doing this made me feel as though I had accomplished something and I even managed to hold a normal conversation for an hour or so. (There will come a time when she will want to feel somewhat normal.) These friends offered to come over simply because they heard me mention the clutter in my house being overwhelming. They realized that was something the could do to help me and jumped right in.

Examples:
*Is she worried about all the Thank You’s?…Buy stamps and offer to help her address (not write!) them.

*Is she having trouble focusing on what needs to be done during the day?…Ask her if you can call her at 10am every day to help her think through lunch and supper and one thing she can focus on doing that day.

*Is she worried about homeschooling the other children?…Grab some great educational videos or some of those neat educational bookbags from the library and help ease her mind.

9. Work behind the scenes.

She doesn’t need to know or even notice what you’ve done for her. This is true giving of yourself.

Examples:
*Organize the meals that will be brought in (don’t just assume this is being done). A good online resource for doing this is Take Them A Meal.

*Come over while her house is overtaken with company and tidy her kitchen and clean her bathrooms.

*Give a memorial in her child’s name.

10. Bring her child up in conversations and say her child’s name often.

It hurts more to hear you avoid their name. I still keep an answering machine message left by friends on the first birthday after Emily’s death because they were one of the few people who said Emily’s name that day when they called with condolences. Most people just said, “We’re thinking of you today.” I appreciated this, but it was not nearly as wonderful as hearing someone say, “We are remembering Emily today and missing her too.”

You have no idea what it feels like to have your deceased child’s name and life begin to disappear from people’s minds. The simple act of remembering means more than you can possibly imagine.

*********

If you, or someone you know is grieving, you are welcome to download my free ebook devotional Psalms for the Grieving Heart. To read our story and find more grief resources, visit The Grieving Mother page here on Raising Arrows. May you be blessed in comforted with the blessings and comfort we’ve received.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.
~Corinthians 2:3,4

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36 thoughts on “Grief – What Can I Do?

  1. Thank you so much for this post. I’m one of those people who over-analyzes everything and I almost don’t know what to say or write to the extent that it paralyzes me. I’ve been needing to write a card to the mother of a friend who just lost a daughter to cancer. I’ve been so paralyzed because nothing that I can think of to say is adequate. I have been remembering her daughter, though I didn’t know her well(she was the older sister of a friend of mine). I thought I would write some of my memories of her since I know this large family loves telling stories and remembering the good times. I’m so glad you said that you do like people to remember Emily and say her name. Thank you again. I’m so sorry for your great loss and am amazed by your strength and ministry to others. It’s a testimony to the grace of God and the strength of Christ in your life. Thank you again.

  2. Thank you for this post. We have a friend who has been pregnana and miscarried twice this year. I always wonder what to say or do for her. You are amazing.

  3. Thank you so much for this post….I have a friend who lost her husband this summer and I have wondered many times what to do or say….this has helped me so much.

  4. Amy,

    I loved this list and it will really help if I should find myself dealing with this situation. Too often most people are genuinely concerned but don’t know what to do or say for fear of saying the wrong thing and then do nothing.

    This is a valuable post!

    Love and Hugs ~ Kat

  5. A very good list of things. I wish i had people around me that had read that list. So many, she is in a better place. You need to snap out of it. What i really wish for is someone to ask me how im doing and really want the answer, yes he may have been 11 months since i lost my daughter but the pain is still there.

  6. What a GREAT post! I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who DIDN’T want anyone to take my kids after my miscarriages or my stillbirth. I didn’t want my other kids out of my sight, but people thought taking them and giving me “peace and quiet” would be good. I didn’t want to be alone!

    Your blog is so very encouraging to me. I included you in a “Lovely Blog Award” at my blog (www.homewithpurpose.blogspot.com). Thanks for sharing so openly.

  7. #10 is the one I was hoping to see on your list. That is something my mother in law told me after my husband’s brother died. I just assumed for some reason that I shouldn’t bring him up a lot. Now that I know better I call her sometimes and say, “I was just thinking about that time that Danny…” It is hard to bring it up because she ends up crying. However, she thinks about him all the time anyway and it makes sense that it comforts her to know others think of him as well. Especially around holidays, the worst thing we can do is avoid talking about him.
    I’m so glad you shared this insight with the readers here! Thank you for this post.

  8. Spot on Amy! That list is soooo essential I wish everyone could read it and remember what to do and what NOT to do.

    AMEN to the ‘not taking the kids away’ one. I’m not sure why people think it is good to take all your kids away from you??? Besides the fact that most of the time the kids said more helpful things than the adults! :o) – Deedee

  9. What a great list to help the grieving. I read Emily’s story and I wept. We lost a baby boy at birth seven years ago. I had such a hard time handing his little body over to someone I didn’t know too. It just felt wrong.

    Thanks for sharing your story. I also have 2 littles ones in heaven (both 12 week miscarriages). I look forward to reading more :o)

  10. Thank you for the loving and sage advice!! It is difficult to know what to do to help someone who is grieving. As you said, there is nothing that you can do to take away the pain – but you sure wish you could. Your wisdom will help guide me the next time I am faced with this difficult situation.

    Blessings,
    Katherine

  11. I like the vulnerability and the practical wisdom of this post. Thanks for helping us all be better friends to those who grieve.

  12. Dear Amy, this is a wonderful list of very useful advice indeed.

    I felt especially connected to the part about daring to mention the deceased child’s name.
    10 years ago, we lost our twin boys (they were 20mo) and what I remember clearly is how people seemed to think I wasn’t doing ok because I kept talking about them all the time. As if they thought I was in denial or something. But to me, it was nothing different than refering to any other child, parents always refer to their children, what they liked, did, said that was funny or whatever.

    But it is indeed a huge misunderstanding that it’s best not bring up the subject or mention the child. It’s probably quite the contrary to most grieving mom’s – particularly in the beginning.
    Peace in Christ, Mette

  13. Thank you for this. I will really try remember all your points as I spend time with my sister-in-law who just lost their daugther.

    I had a friend that mentioned her sister sent birthday cards for her late son every year just so she would know that they would never forget him. So I added my niece to my birthday calendar as well. We will never forget her.

  14. Pingback: Looking for Someone to Blame in Tragedy | Raising Arrows

  15. Thank you for this post. I am posting a link to it on FB so that more folks will be prepared to minister (in a helpful way) when a friend is grieving. We too are QF and have 3 children awaiting us in heaven. I found your blog through my friend’s blog (Raising Olives).
    Thank you for sharing your experiences with losing Emily. I have an adopted child that was born w/in a few months of her birthdate. (We only have a few children b/c we have faced yrs of infertility.) Do you find yourself reaching out and touching children (like a pat on the head) around the age of the child you lost? I sometimes do because I am thinking, “Oh, this is the size my child would be now if she/he were still alive.”

    • I have a very good friend who’s twins are just 6 wks younger than Emmy would have been. I stare at them a lot…memorizing how they move and look. It is a good reminder to me that children do grow up. For a long time I struggled with feeling as though children just don’t grow up…especially those who face adversity.

      Thank you so much for linking to me and reading about our precious Emily. Many blessings to you on this journey.

  16. Your advice is right on! Thank you for sharing. One other idea … one year to the day after my son died, I received a Sympathy Card. What a blessing!

  17. Oh my goodness you got this so right! My oldest son died 12 years ago next month at the tender young age of 6. I still struggle with what I should say or do for a grieving parent despite being one myself. You prayed at the beginning of your post for the Lord to guide your words and He surely answered that prayer! Thank you for sharing your heart in this post as I imagine it wasn’t easy to write just as it wasn’t easy to read…as my eyes welled up with tears remembering those feelings and wishing someone would simply say his name. I remember one friend calling to say she was thinking of me on his birthday but she was afraid I would be upset by her call – I assured her she hadn’t reminded me of something I wasn’t already thinking about and that I so appreciated that she remembered my son. I have only recently found your post and I am so enjoying it. Thank you for sharing…from a homeschooling, God fearing, biological, adoptive, foster, bereaved mom. Mary

  18. Amy, I’ve not lost a child, so no, I can’t imagine how that feels. I did lose my sister when I was young though and saw how that affected my family in a very unhealthy way. Not only are your points good for outsiders that are unsure how to act or what to say, but also for those on the inside. When my sister died, her things were packed away, like she was never there. We didn’t speak of her for years and though I was young, I learned not to ask questions. I was 30 years old before I finally grieved her death. Death is part of life and we can’t not think about those we loved simply because it hurts. Thanks for sharing Amy, I’m sure this was a difficult post to write.

  19. Amy, this is so perfect, I completely agree with each point. One thing I think my husband and I needed, was to go away for a couple days right after we had our baby. It was weird, but when we got home from the hospital, a lot of people from our support group were going out of town. And that is what I felt I needed. But we couldn’t afford to. And I know it’s not for everyone, everyone has different needs.
    I also, from my situation, struggled with flowers. I hated seeing them die. It made me feel helpless all over again. But I know some people love receiving something beautiful and cheery.

    • Yes, seeing the flowers die was hard! I liked having the plants, but I have a friend who didn’t want those either just in case she accidentally killed them.

  20. run-with-endurance.blogspot.com

    I just wanted to share this with you; this family is friends with me and my family.

  21. I’m so sorry to hear your little girl died. I don’t know that pain at all. And I won’t even try to relate!

    What I can relate to is #2. My mom was on her death bed for 2 weeks. And was sick a month before that. (mom passed the day after Christmas of 2010) And everyone asked “anything I can do, anything you need?” You get to the point where you hate being asked that question. I remember speaking w/my pastor the one nite and she asked me that. And I look back on it, and I regret how I answered it. I forget how I answered it, either by saying I’m tired of the nurses asking it, or I finally asked like what? What can you do, what are you offering? I guess it didn’t help that I was 2,000 miles away from my friends, and church family.

    • {hugs} It’s such a tough place to be and I know people simply do not know what to say, but as I said in the article, better to just offer a hug than say anything sometimes.

      • Thanks! Yes, I agree! And you know they are trying to help. But when you hear the same thing over and over again, it just gets to be old. And I was frustrated and tired.

        I do remember, and I don’t think I ever will forget. On Mother’s Day.. at church, a college student (whom I know) saw I was upset (after church), and first handed me some tissues, and without a word, just hugged me. It meant so much, and was exactly what I needed. So many days, probably everyday, I just a good hug. Another lady at church, her mom just passed. And I saw her in the ladies’ room last week. And she said she hasn’t been grieving too much. All I wanted to do was ask her how she’s doing that? Here I was thinking we all grieved the same way, and she would be having a hard time like me, and she has it together.

        I was just thinking of that verse in Ecclesiates where it says a time to mourn, and instead of saying and a time to laugh, it says a time to dance. And then it reminds me of King David, and how he praised God in dancing. So a time will come when the mourning will end, and we will dance like David danced!

        Thanks Amy, for writing this article! And hugs right back to you! You have a beautiful family.

  22. Thank you so much for this post. The young child of close friends drowned this morning and we don’t know what to do, what to say – all we know is that we want to do something, anything. As I was looking for direction I came upon your post. It is truly appreciated.