Most of us struggle figuring out how to help when someone’s loved one dies. We don’t want to do the wrong thing. We want to find the exact right thing. We worry about timing, about cost, about eloquence, about what other people will do.
I’m a hospital chaplain, often spending time with people in those moments right after a death. So I decided to learn what people have found helpful. In the first survey, I gathered 155 responses from people, answering questions about their loved one, about themselves, and about what people said, did, offered, and what they wish people had done.
For example, I asked respondents, “In the days following that death, did someone do something particularly helpful that you still remember?”
55% said “Yes, I remember clearly.”
Here’s a sample of what people said:
Raked leaves. Answered the phone. Came and sat with me. Brought meals for family and visitors. Brought frozen and unfrozen meals. Cleaned my house so the service could be there. Gave me a ride to the memorial service. People who showed up and didn’t say a lot, or who did simple acts of service. Hugs. Flowers. Cards. Told stories about my dad. Didn’t stay too long. Came and told me about the death face-to-face rather than over phone. Made a pot of potato soup and fresh bread. Came. Best friend stayed a week and cleaned and cooked and served. “I’m guessing he prayed but what I remember most is that he came.” Told stories about how my brother helped them. Drove 8 hours to the memorial service. A bracelet. Brought ice cream and sat with us and said, “I love you. This must be hard.” Came to be with me. Brought paper towels, toiletries, water.
Sometimes, people told very specific stories about how this act or this gift was just the right thing at just the right time, but that there was no way the person acting could know how helpful it was. People were simply being caring.
Respondents mentioned people in general, church family, family, friends, neighbors. Only a couple people mentioned healthcare workers or church staff.
Here are some quick observations from this part of the survey:
- People remember actions that show someone noticed what they needed (and like).
- It’s not about fancy, it’s about helpful.
- It’s not about professionals, it’s about friends and family and neighbors.
- Serving and cleaning can be as helpful as stuff.
- People are surprised when people go out of their way to show up.
- Cards still count.
- Not everyone remembers what was done because, as one person said, “I was in a fog for that whole week.”
- Not everyone is cared for by the same things, just like not everyone expresses care in the same way.
As I work with this survey, there will be more observations. For example, fewer people clearly remember helpful things people said as opposed to what they did (24% said, 55% did). And 82% offered responses to what they wish people had said or done.
What I know now, however, is this. Do something that acknowledges that this loss is hard.
For more on the project, visit beinghelpfulinloss.com
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