Modern Etiquette: Good Ideas for Tough Times

Illustration by Anna Emilia

Today’s etiquette topic is one that’s near and dear to my heart. I’ve been through some pretty major life changes in the past few years (Divorce, major health issues and several family deaths, among others) and I’ve been both pleased and surprised by the way people around me have reacted. I was moved and touched by the way that both complete strangers and dear friends stepped forward to support me and saddened by the way some people chose to shrink away, out of fear, confusion or not being sure what to say. So, after hearing from a dear friend who reminded me of a floral arrangement I sent after the death of her mother-in-law, it inspired me to tackle the idea of bereavement. It’s a sad topic, but one that we all deal with at one time or another. And I truly feel that most people want to support people in tough times, but often don’t know the best way to handle the situation. So today I thought I’d cover a few guidelines that will help you support the people around you- and help teach them ways to support you when you’re going through a tough time. As always, I welcome and wholeheartedly encourage you all to respond with your thoughts. It’s hard to know how all of these situations feel until you’ve been through them, so I hope those of you who’ve been through some of these tough times can let us know what would have been the best way to support you in that moment. xo, grace

The full article continues after the jump…

*Please note: These ideas are just suggestions and clearly some people will respond differently or want a different response. This discussion, and the comments below, are merely to get a dialogue going so we can work together to find a better way to support those around us and avoid anyone feeling left alone or hurt during a time of need*

Ten Things to Remember

1. When in doubt, make contact: The biggest thing I’ve heard from friends who’ve gone through tough situations is how alone they felt. People (including me) tend to feel scared of how to respond and assume that giving people space is the best tactic. But I’ve found that more often than not, a call, hand-written email or thoughtful email is incredibly appreciated. You may not hear back right away, but people remember when others take a moment acknowledge the tough time they’re going through. One note: I think making contact is different than demanding time or attention from someone dealing with a loss. Make your contact brief and leave the door open for further communication. That way you can tell if they do in fact want to talk, or if they’d prefer some time alone.

2. Private matters are best left private: Whether or not someone chooses to announce something on Facebook doesn’t mean you should respond in kind. I think very serious matters deserve a serious response. This is not the time for emoticons, abbreviations or YOLO dropping. If someone announces the death of a family member online, it’s perhaps best to respond with an email, call or written letter if you can. If not, a private message that’s heartfelt is best.

3. When in doubt, send flowers: I was raised by parents that sent flowers for just about every occasion. Engagements, birthdays, anniversaries, births, deaths – you name it, we send flowers for it. I know not everyone loves flowers, but I’ve seen even the most curmudgeonly person smile at the delivery of a plant or flowers that acknowledge a tough time. Clearly this should be tailored for the occasion (a dozen red roses aren’t great for a death), and this guide to flower symbolism is handy if you need help choosing an appropriate arrangement. Though I’ve found that if you just ask the florist, they know what to do, too.

4. See how you can help: Without being pushy, try to see what your loved one most needs. Do they need someone to help with meals? Someone to pick up the kids? Or maybe just a shoulder to cry on? Ask what they need and give just that- no more and no less. This is a time to focus on what’s best for them, and not what you think they should be doing. (i.e.: After a death, some people want to stay indoors and mourn. Insisting your friend go for a jog and get outside to shake things off may be well-intentioned, but if they say that want a few days to grieve, listen to them.)

5. Don’t Make It About You: One of the things that most frustrated me when I went through a divorce was the way people immediately launched into marriage advice based on their relationships. Without even asking what I was dealing with, they assumed my situation was exactly like theirs and they knew just what to do. When someone is dealing with something tough, it’s best to let them ask for advice if they want it. And if they choose to grieve in a way that seems different to you, let it be. A dear friend of mine lost her mother and chose to honor her with a meal of her favorite traditional dishes from South America. I was shocked that some of the attendees made a big stink to everyone about “all the meat’ being served. I respect someone’s right to not eat certain foods, but you can easily participate in an event without compromising your beliefs. Skip the meat and just be present for your friend and support them with your presence and listening.

6. Keep in Touch: An initial out reach is great, but one of the saddest things that happens after a tough situation is the way people can forget and drop off quickly. That’s often the time around which most people start re-entering normal life and it can feel like everyone forgot about you. Whether you use a Google calendar reminder or another method, make a date to check back in with your friends and see how they’re doing a few weeks later. They may need some time to grieve, but letting them know you haven’t forgotten about them or their loss a few weeks later is often very appreciated.

7. It’s Always Ok To Say I’m Sorry: Mistakes happen and sometimes people panic when something bad happens to someone close to them. Whether it makes them worried about their own marriage or fear their own mortality, sometimes losses make people shy away from staying close to the people dealing with the loss. But it’s never too late to step back in and say, “I’m so sorry I wasn’t there for you when [XYZ]. I should have been and I’m sorry. I’m here now and want to do whatever I can to support you. How can I help?”. A heartfelt apology can solve a multitude of problems. And no one wants to pile the loss of a friend on top of another tragedy.

8. Every thought counts: I read a lot of rules in old etiquette books about who can and cannot contact someone after a death, etc. And that ideas frankly feels wildly out of date to me. Through social media, blogs and every other form of virtual connection, we’ve made contacts with people in other parts of the world who care about us- even if they don’t know us well. While it doesn’t make sense for all of them to assume an invitation to a funeral, it does make sense to assume they can all reach out to express condolences. I think this goes for co-workers and anyone else who knows what you’re dealing with. A short and simple, “Hi Dave, This is Cathy from accounting. I know we don’t know each other well, but I heard about your loss and just wanted to tell you how sorry I was to hear about your mother. My most sincere condolences to you and your family.”. I received some truly special emails from D*S readers after my grandmother died- people I don’t officially “know”- that meant as much to me as emails from my dearest friends. Mainly because they were heartfelt and supportive. You can never go wrong with something simple and genuine like that.

9. Never say “aren’t you over that yet?”. Just don’t. That is never going to go over well. If the person who is still struggling with something is very close to you, perhaps you can bring up the idea of how you could help further (Are they interested in being connected to a counselor? Would they want someone to accompany them on their first big night out after a divorce? Do they need company to visit a loved one’s grave for closure?). But unless that person is very close to you, it’s best to let them grieve on their own time. Some losses (like the loss of a child) can feel constant and ongoing, so rather than judging their process just see what you can do to help.

10. Keep the ball in your court: No matter what the situation is, it’s always polite to be the one who proposes plans until someone is ready to re-enter their regular life again. Rather than leaving a message with an open ended “Call me if you need something”, do your best to stay in touch and propose actual plans like, “Would you like to join me for tea?”, that give someone the chance to accept and move forward. Sometimes taking that first step out of the house is the hardest, and sticking with it and offering small but concrete plans is helpful. Simple outings like walks, meals, a movie, etc. are great because they don’t take a lot of time and give people a chance to dip their toes back into things without feeling overwhelmed.

Good Gifts for Tough Times

These ideas should be tailored to what the person in need wants most, but they’re good jumping off ideas for helping a friend.

1. Flowers: Sending flowers to a funeral, a hospital or a family home is always a thoughtful gesture. Even following up with a small bouquet or plant after a few weeks have past can be a nice gesture to brighten their day.

2. Homemade meals: Sometimes meals are the last thing on someone’s mind when they’re dealing with a tragedy or tough time. See how you can help, or even set up a meal tree with other friends, to ease their load in the beginning.

3. Chores & Cleaning: When someone is going through something tough, holing-up indoors feels like the safest thing to do. If you’re able to help someone run simple chores like grocery runs, drugstore runs, cleaning up around the house or going to the post office, it can be a big life saver. I knew a friend who dealt with the loss of a child and just simply wasn’t able to deal with taking care of home matters for a long time (understandably). A good friend of ours checked with her and then decided to come once a week and clean up the house, do dishes and wash clothes for her. It not only helped her out, but it gave the friend some time to connect with her and talk once a week, too.

4. Babysitting: Dealing with children when you’re grieving can be hard. Offer to babysit, take their kids to the park for the day, etc. There’s no need to imply or talk about the parents not “being up to” doing these activities, but instead frame it from the perspective of, “I haven’t gotten to spend time with [children’s names] for a while and you deserve some down time to yourself, so how about I take them to the park and out to lunch and you relax today?”

5. Hand-written letters: Checking in with someone or sending encouraging notes in the mail can be a kind surprise, and a way to check in without invading their need for privacy or space, for someone grieving. I got some very thoughtful hand-written cards after I got divorced and I still remember every to this day.

6. Anniversary of event: People re-live tough moments when an anniversary passes (the death of a loved one, the year they lost their job, etc.). Offer to spend time with that friend on the anniversary if they don’t already have plans. A lot of the time those anniversaries feel just as tough as the original event, and having some company- or a distraction- can be a big help.

Laura

Thank you! What a helpful post. I’m a 40-something working in an office with mostly 20- and 30-year-olds. When my mother passed away two weeks ago, I was shocked at the lack of response from the younger folks. A Facebook status “Like” isn’t the most heart-warming way to console a co-worker.

Carrie

Grace, all of this is so spot-on. A dear friend of mine lost a family member recently and it helps her so much when people don’t forget what happened and remember to stay in touch, especially on the anniversary of his passing. The smallest gestures can be the greatest acts of kindness.

McKenzie

This article has been bookmarked. I too agree that flowers are appropriate for pretty much any occasion. Especially living out of the country, far from friends and family, it’s a great way for my people back home to know that I am still thinking about them.

mosey

I never understood how to treat bereavement until I went through it myself and realized how important it is not to ignore (give space to) the person who’s going through it. When I experienced a tragedy in my family a few years ago I felt as though no one (outside my family) could possibly understand what it was like. So that said, I don’t think it’s a terrible idea for someone to say ‘I understand what you’re going through…’ Anything to make you feel less alone might help.

Catie

Thank you so much for writing this! You touched on what was most important to me when my father passed away: friends and even acquaintances simply reaching out and acknowledging my loss. I got a beautiful handwritten note from my best friends aunt, whom I barely know, and it was something I treasured. Loss is such a lonely feeling, because no one can bear it for you, but it is greatly eased with even a few simple and compassionate words.

Libbie Summers

Thank you for this. Such a great reminder for when life changing things happen…bad and good. It’s always comforting to hear from friends. One of your best articles.

Grace Bonney

Carrie

Thanks- I totally agree about that. A couple I know lost a child and they said it was so helpful to have people continue to check in- even years later- to give them the chance to talk about everything and commemorate that life. I think most people are just scared to reach out because they assume it will bother people, but I think more often than not, people actually want to hear from the people they love and hear their support.

Grace

Grace Bonney

Mosey

I agree- I’m sorry if it seemed like I was implying people couldn’t express a shared sentiment. I just meant not to make the conversation about what YOU would do, etc. That sort of unsolicited advice is different than a shared understanding- which is indeed such a valuable thing.

Grace

Claire

What thoughtful and excellent advice. Thank you for researching this slightly out of scope but always relevant topic!

Snowden Flood

That’s a lovely and very useful post Grace. I think particularly the British become frozen in times of trouble – not out of meanness but for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. I won’t forget all the meals and food that people kept bringing me when I found my self unexpectedly single with a week old baby, combined with flowers and lots of visits it made a difficult time bearable. I think your points about getting it wrong and saying sorry and anniversaries are very useful for people to know.

Samantha @ Blissfully Bossy

This is really right on — esp the part about being alone. I’ve gotten through some very hard times because people kept trying and kept making the effort with me. I like the part of “every thought counts.” When you receive a gesture like this from someone you don’t know well, it’s touching. I try to remember this and reach out to people because I know it would mean a lot to me if they did.

Thank you for the very real post!

ann

As always Grace, great piece, I would like to add one more thought if that is okay, that it is important to reach out to people who are struggling with mental illnesses along with physical illness. A teenager we know was hospitalized for depression recently and her mother told me that she was shocked at the paucity of the cards received. It was hard for me to get my son to send her a card, he does not know her well but we sent some puzzles, etc. Sometimes when I am at a complete loss what to say, I just try to come up with some memory of a happier time with that person to share…

Robin

Perfect timing for this post! Over the weekend my coworker had to make the unbearable decision to take his brother off of life support and it was heart wrenching to see him go back and forth about the decision. There’s nothing you can do to make the situation better for a friend but like you said, listening and just being to help him go through different options I think helped. Also, offer to take some of their work load if it is a coworker, the last thing they need is to feel guilty for not making a deadline etc. at work.

Grace Bonney

Ann

That’s a great idea- and a great point. Depression and other mental illnesses are just as difficult as other tough times discussed here and definitely deserve the sort of support and outreach described here. As someone who’s dealt with depression, I can say from experience that a persistent, supportive friend feels like the best “medicine”.

Grace

Ren

I’ve never commented before, but I feel this post requires it. Having recently gone through a medical family emergency, these points really hit home with me. As another poster stated, moments of sadness and grief really do require more than a like on a facebook status. In today’s technological day and age I think it becomes far too easy to forget about another person’s troubles. Thank you for a truly useful and thorough post.

Ros

Also: don’t insist on talking about it if the person changes the subject. My grandmother passed away two weeks ago, and, honestly, by the time she passed, it was almost a relief, as the previous two years had basically been a soap opera of epic proportions and the weeks before her death had been ghastly, and nothing could be done. I find myself doing verbal gymnastics to avoid discussing the specifics of the situation with people who seemed to want to know exactly why/how she died and exactly what the family is doing, and I’m really not keen on re-living the entire affair or airing the extended family’s dirty laundry (frankly, that’s being done in court, not at the pub).

Express sympathy, and listen to what the person says: if they want to talk, they will, but if they change the subject, for god’s sake go with it.

LASingh

This is such a needed post for our generation! I feel like with the huge surge in connectedness through social media and technology, we are often afraid to experience pain, and can use the excuse of “giving someone time” to justify avoidance. On the other hand, grief has a way of compounding upon itself and sometimes other people’s losses will make us relive our own. I think what you said about not appropriating every situation to be just like something you’ve gone through is so essential. Just listening and offering love and support is much more healing!

dabney

Great post Grace – I especially agree with checking in after everything has gone back to “normal.” I would also add: along with “don’t make it about you,” be careful about inserting your own belief systems into condolences. Not as in “you are in my prayers” because that’s thoughtful and harmless, but the “you must be relieved he’s with God” or “It was God’s will” variety.

c

This is such a helpful guide! Thanks for sharing from your heart, Grace.

A good friend just lost a parent and I really had to think carefully about what would be best for her specifically during that time. She’s the kind of friend that would literally give you the shirt off her back but would never ask you to go out of your way for her…she would listen to your emotions all day but wouldn’t want to burden you with her struggles. However, in the midst of the last stages of her parent’s illness she reached out to a couple of very close friends who were able to relay things back to all of us. They thought she would want to be reached out to while at home dealing with family things, and then would want a lot of company after she got back. This is not how I personally handle things, so it was good to hear that insight.
When I wrote her a message, I found myself taking it slow choosing my words. I said “let us know if we can help in any way” then erased it and wrote “we are here for whatever you need.” It’s like you said, leave the door open but don’t put the burden on the other person! That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve learned about helping others. They may not be able to say “here are the specific ways you can help me”, so without stepping on toes, you can step up and give them a shoulder to lean on, whether it’s “I have a casserole in the fridge for you, can I drop it off at 5:00 tomorrow?” (instead of saying “when would be convenient for me to bring you dinner”) or maybe saying “I’ll be home a lot this weekend just hanging out, so you can come over and we’ll talk or we’ll watch a silly movie and eat junk food.” Those are my really rambling thoughts, hope they make some sense :)

Mike

Excellent. I appreciate the effort you have taken to write this. I agree strongly with everything that you have written. Three things come out on this for me and my experience. First, treat others as they Should be treated (versus as you would like to be…). Second is your point “It’s not about you.”, listen thoughtfully and ask questions that lead only back to the other person. Lastly is to not ask questions that are not open ended and to keep the offering of help to little things at first, it keeps those needed the help from initially feeling overwhelmed or guilty. Thanks again.

Margaret

Such great tips — thanks for sharing them. I’ve learned that you can’t really go wrong by reaching out, even if you don’t know the person particularly well. When my friend’s father-in-law died, whom I only met once at her wedding, I at first felt awkward about attending the funeral; later, I realized that just being there was showing support to my friend and her husband, who were the ones who really needed it. Seeing friendly faces in the crowd made a huge difference for them.

Just making that contact, and offering to help before waiting to be asked, means more than I think we realize when we’re not the ones suffering. Thanks again for the great post!

Stephanie

Thank you so much for tackling this difficult topic, the advice you provided is so appropriate. I wish I had this guide last fall when my best friend lost her father. But I’m glad I’ll have it for future reference. Thank again for this wonderful post

D.A.

Thank you for this. One more way to help that some friends of mine have found useful (again, of course, every person’s needs are different): offer to keep other people in your friends’ circle informed about what’s going on. It can be exhausting for someone going through a tough time to constantly update all the well-wishers, and having another person be the contact often feels more personal than e-mail or social media.

D

This is all really sound, insightful and helpful advice. As you said, there’s such a broad range of reactions to grief and it’s important to respect people’s different ways of dealing with their grief. Because of the broad range of reactions, however, even if one puts their best effort forward in supporting someone grieving, it can still not be received in the way that the supporter intended. Someone I knew had a friend with terminal cancer, and the person who attempted to support the friend with the illness was well versed in dealing with and supporting those struggling with illness, grief, etc. due to their profession. Understandably, the ill person was scared, angry, and had many complex emotions surrounding her/his illness. Unfortunately, those emotions took their toll and unrealistic expectations harmed the friendship despite the supporter’s sincere and caring efforts (including specific offers of help, checking in, apologies). So from the perspective of unpredictability, I think it’s important to be aware that even if one does the best one can do in terms of support, it may not garner the results one hopes for.

Amy

Thank you for the post. I love flowers and my mother loved flowers, but as I was taking care of her last weeks after exhausting months in hospice and the floral deliveries kept coming, I was overwhelmed. It was something else which to care for. Once cut, flowers are dying, as was my mother. The worst part was once they, like my mother, passed. Sad, fading flowers turn into empty vases. Even in her prime, Mom always said “Send me flowers when I am alive, not when I’m dead.” So Mom and I vote for no flowers. If you know them well, a bottle of wine, a maid certificate, a card, a photograph, a story about your loved one that you had never heard, a gift basket. At least I wouldn’t have to take care of a gift basket.

Melinda

What a wonderful post and good advice. My husband died several years ago and you described very well how lonely it feels when people don’t reach out for fear of doing the wrong thing. Like you and others have said, it’s important not to put the burden on them for asking for help, be more open and specific. It’s never easy to ask for help, and it feels especially difficult and risky when in such a vulnerable state. I remember receiving a lot of condolence cards, many from people I had only met once or not at all, and it really helped.
I’ve never been really good at reaching out to people in need, so I know how difficult it can be, even after experiencing major loss and difficulty myself. These kinds of lists are a good reminder/instruction sheet for all of us.

Kendall

thank you for a beautifully poignant post. Bereavment and grief are such difficult topics and the responses of those grieving can fluctuate from one member of the family to the next.

I know when my mother passed away just simple gestures meant the world. When I returned home after being in another state with my family during her sickness and passing, my house had been cleaned, yarworkd had been done and a nice pot of homemade soup was simmering on the stove. I will never forget those gestures.

Yvonne

Thanks so much for this post. I lost my mom two and a half weeks ago. I used to be one of those people who avoided people when they had a loss to give them “space” but I quickly realized, going through it myself, that all you want is people to check in and support you through this hard time.

Julie

#5 is one of my favorites, even if only a single line in a pretty card is written, it can make a tremendous impact. After my Dad passed away (my parents had been married 54 years), my mom often remarked how she looked forward to going to the mailbox each day to open cards. When I, myself had cancer, cards were some of my favorite things because they required nothing in return (I was so overwhelmed). They gave me my privacy but made me feel I wasn’t alone.

Heather

I wish more people understood how to deal with situations like these. I feel like so few people are willing to stand behind their friends when something tragic happens. They just get nervous and shy away, and that kills me! We all need a support system, after all! Such a lovely post

Kaycee

Thank you for this thoughtful and relevant post. I really appreciate you sharing from your personal experience, and I trust this information will be put to good use, and help me to be a better friend in the future!

Jen

This was a timely article since my father passed away a few months ago. Like others, I was touched and noticed how different my family and friends were in dealing with death. Some were very supportive and wanted to help my family and me through the funeral preparations or just talk. Others were brief and one or two were no where to be found (and they are close friends) which stung, so I reached out to them a few months later, when I could figure how to word what I wanted to say as neutral as possible. I don’t enjoy speaking up for myself in awkward situations, but I value my friendships, so I hope it works out somehow.

Traumatic events really shape our lives and offer us viewpoints and experiences we’d maybe experience only a few times in our lives. And though it sometimes takes great sadness to bring people together, but it’s time well spent. How I wish we’d spend more time together when we’re happy and around too.

Thank you.

Linda

Thank you so much for addressing this topic so thoughtfully. Much needed!

rachelle

thank you, thank you, thank you for this graceful and heartfelt encouragement to do the right thing and be the right kind of person when someone you know has experience death. I actually have been shying away from someone who recently had a tragic sudden death in their family – after my initial call of condolence a few weeks ago, I began to feel so awkward and uncomfortable calling again and so I just kept making mental excuses and putting it off. This post was exactly the thing I needed to reach out to my friend today and ask to come by and visit next week. Thank you for taking the time to craft this lovely reminder of the role of courtesy and encouraging a deeper and more authentic connection with all of those around us, especially in difficult times. I’m so sorry you recently went through hard times as well. I hope that this spring brings you a sense of renewal.

Martha

Thank you Grace for this post. I wanted to second what you and Ann touched on, regarding mental illnesses, like depression. Mental illness adds a layer of loneliness for those dealing with it, since it’s still not acceptable to talk about openly in our society (sadly). In my personal experience caring for an immediate family member with severe depression, even my closest friends were surprisingly unfeeling and judgmental when I opened up to them about what I was facing. It was an extremely lonely time, I don’t think I received a single card or thoughtful message from anyone, really.

Please, if you know someone who is personally or connected to someone dealing with depression and other ‘touchy’ personal issues like eating disorders and addictions, I would encourage you to offer your support. Even if they don’t want to talk about it, they need to know they are supported.

If you don’t know what to say or how to respond, I suggest treating the situation as you how you would a physical illness, which I think as a society we’re more comfortable talking about. As long as you keep any judgements you have to yourself and just offer your support, even the simplest gestures will be greatly appreciated. All your tips are great Grace. Thank you!

Anne

Thank you for this column. A couple of things:
Amy said, “a story about your loved one that you had never heard”. I second that. It can be given during a visit, written in a letter, or as a footnote to a priinted card. It can be any story about the loved one, even a well known one, and because it’s from your perspective, it gives the bereaved a wonderful and new way to remember their loved one.
Also, here in San Antonio, Texas, many, many people take food. Giving food is a common thing here for many events. Once, when I lived in a triplex, the husband of my landlady passed away (they lived in the bottom unit). I made her two loaves of homemade white bread–just the plain old Betty Crocker recipe & took them to her hot. She reminded me many times of how wonderful those loaves of bread were to her & the family. Hot homemade bread just does something healing to the soul.

riye

My best advice is do what you can and what the person will accept. And please, if the deceased was a jerk or the person who is experiencing the loss is a pill, just try to be kind. A lot of people feel the need to defend the person who passed and its best to let it go. This is not the time to clue them in on what the person was “really” like–that’s not your job. Please, just be kind.

Tracy Davis

This was a great post, I plan on sharing it on my blog. Even when you think you know what to do in a situation, when it actually happens to you all of a sudden you can’t think of anything. This list will be a great reminder to look back on.

Here are some practical things I learned after my infant son died last year. Several of them correlate to items on your list. I hope it’s not inappropriate to share the link here.

http://thepodgefiles.blogspot.com/2012/01/what-to-say-when-you-dont-know-what-to.html

Thank you for writing this!

Kate Brennan Hall

This was a wonderful post. I love your list of suggestions and will bookmark it. Your post is an example of creative living—spreading generosity through thoughts, word and deeds (creations).
One theme that runs through these gestures is “time”—the most precious gift you can give someone is the gift of your time to listen, send them cards/flowers, listen some more, and check in after all the dust has settled; because from my own experience it was in the weeks following the hard event that I needed some TLC and someone to take time to help me process my thoughts/grief.

Casey

It’s so interesting how people deal with crisis differently. My mom had a stroke on Tuesday, and my family members are all taking it differently. Frankly, some just can’t handle it and want to run away. I don’t blame them for that, I just try to keep in mind that they are doing their best to cope on their own terms.

While I am grateful that my mom has lots of friends who love her, I am flabbergasted that so many of them are overstepping the appropriate visiting boundaries. She is recovering from a serious brain injury and doesn’t need the stress of trying to chit-chat with everybody-and-their-brother when her speech is impaired. So, remember what’s appropriate when someone’s recovering from a health problem. Broken leg: Sure, come hang out. Stroke/Heart Attack/Major Surgery: Send a card with a sweet message.

CarleyGeorged

it’s things of this well-rounded nature that keep me in love with Design* Sponge. Thank you, Grace!

gretchen

thank you for writing this. i recently lost my daughter shortly after birth, and have been so utterly amazed at the kindness of my amazing friends, family, coworkers, and people that i’ve never even met. seeing their responses to my grief has taught me so much about how i want to be in the future. i agree with your comments for the most part. a few thoughts – this is what i’ve learned and what works for me, but may not work for everybody. everybody grieves differently:
– if you feel sorry for somebody’s loss, just say it. don’t be afraid to say something because you’re afraid of making them sad. you cannot make them sad. the odds are, their grief is always on their mind. our society avoids talking about death. i’ve come to believe that anybody who can say the simple words “i’m sorry for your loss” is very brave.
– if you’re thinking about somebody who is grieving, let them know. knowing that there are people out there thinking about you or praying for you or wishing you the best is so helpful. something as simple as a text message in the moment can mean a lot.
– in the early days of grief, you may not get much a response from “let me know what i can do to help.” they probably don’t know what they need. just do something. if you don’t know the bereaved very well, maybe that’s just sending a handwritten note/card, a poem, flowers, making a donation to a charity, etc. our closest friends and family did our dishes and brought us food and sat with us. we cried, we laughed, we looked at pictures. it was good medicine.
– if the deceased is buried in a cemetery, and the bereaved likes to visit the cemetery, maybe offer to go with them sometime if you’re able to handle it. i love visiting my daughter, and i’m grateful for the friends and family who have gone to visit her with us, but i understand if it’s too emotional for others.
– try to remember the anniversaries. it means so much to know that other people know what a tough day it is for you.

C

A great post.
My sister passed away from a very sudden illness when I was 15. At the time many adults told me and my brother that we should “take care of our parents” and “not be a burden to our parents because they were already going through so much”. That was very hard for us to hear. We were both grieving and although our pain was different from that of our parents I belive it is important not to put additional weight on siblings in this already super difficult time.

Elisha

What a wonderful post. Your list of suggestions are really great. #2 really resonated with me greatly. I lost one of my best friends last month and while the outpouring of sympathies on my facebook wall was appreciated – it’s hard to see that every single time I log in, especially when just trying to keep my mind off things. The thoughtful and private messages I recieved, that I could chose to look at when I wanted, were definitely the best route.

Laurl

Thanks for providing this guide and in a concise way. I could always do better in this type of situation and I have bookmarked this post to refer back to. Thank you for providing such thoughtful content. Though I hope none of us will never need it, however I know that we will at some point and it is great to find it.

Merinda

Thank you for sharing that beautiful and thoughtful post Grace. My partner’s mother was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and we were deeply touched by the number of people who sent over home cooked meals, took her on small outings after surgery and generally did everything they could to get a smile on her face. We live two hours away, and knowing that she had a big support network around her meant the world to us (and to her as well). Even the smallest gesture means so much.

Jo

Lovely post…and spot on! My fianc√© lost his disabled son who passed away in 2010 and people have actually said “aren’t you over it yet???” He was so hurt, and I was shocked and hurt for him. I’m so glad to see this post…thank you again. I went through a divorce also and I never felt so isolated in my entire life. Not one hot meal or offer to babysit, but I’m through it…and stronger for it. Best of luck to you.

Sarah

Thank you so much for this! My co-workers father passed away suddenly last night and this was so helpful- I will be buying a card and sending her flowers this weekend. I am 28 and haven’t had to deal with many situations like this before so I really appreciate the advice.

Joanna

Thanks for the etiquette posts!

While I love the idea of sending flowers to someone who is grieving, it may be a good idea to think about the recipient first. It’s not traditional to send flowers to a Jewish funeral or to those sitting shiva. Some will mind, others won’t. If you want to send something tangible, food is often a good choice. Writing a note always works!!

Grace Bonney

Jo

I’m so sorry to hear that people have said that to your husband. That is the most careless thing someone could do.

Grace

Jenn

Wow, the universe keeps giving me tools. Thank you Holly. Any thoughts on how the person grieving might open up to others?

We are dealing with end of life care for my grandpa (dad) and it is really tough. My tendency is to shrink away, but being alone just wont do either.

Its really challenging bringing it up with people. I know some wont respond thoughtfully. I have opened up to some who have launched into a narrative of their sick aunt twice removed and well ‘life’s crazy’… Not helpful. (not about YOU as mentioned above)

Sometimes a person just needs to be seen. A hug, a smile, an invite out to tea or a walk in the sunshine.

Just be there.

Jenn

Wow, the universe keeps giving me tools. Thank you Grace. Any thoughts on how the person grieving might open up to others?

We are dealing with end of life care for my grandpa (dad) and it is really tough. My tendency is to shrink away, but being alone just wont do either.

Its really challenging bringing it up with people. I know some wont respond thoughtfully. I have opened up to some who have launched into a narrative of their sick aunt twice removed and well ‘life’s crazy’… Not helpful. (not about YOU as mentioned above)

Sometimes a person just needs to be seen. A hug, a smile, an invite out to tea or a walk in the sunshine.

Just be there.

Grace Bonney

Jenn

I’m so sorry to hear about the situation you’re dealing with. I think all you need to do is what feels right- everyone grieves differently. I think the one thing you can try to do, if you’re looking for some guidance, is to remember that the people around you love you and support you. So if you have any doubts that they’ll be up for helping out, try to assume that they will be :)

Grace

Jenn

Grace- great advice. I will absolutely keep that in mind and trust. You are right, everyone grieves differently. I needed to hear that!
All the best.- Jenn

Susan

When my dad died I was so surprised at how many people I barely knew contacted me with a note or card. It was so touching. One of the nicest surprises was on my Dad’s birthday, the first year after he died, I received flowers from a friend of mine and a note saying how she knew it must be a difficult day for me as I was missing my dad. I was very blue that day, missing him and consoling my mom. So I really appreciated someone thinking of me that day and also the effort she made to take note of his birthday (from the service or his obituary) and then remember me on that day several months later.

As well, my children really appreciated the friends of theirs that made the effort to come to their grandfather’s funeral. It can be tough for kids to understand it all and be uncomfortable for them. Often their parents are so busy with other adults. It was nice for my kids to see that their friends knew they were grieving too. Now I always encourage my children to reach out to their friends who experience a loss.

Lisa

Thanks for this… well written and I think helpful. It is often hard to know what to do.

My husband got seriously ill last year and initially we got a lot of calls and checking-in in the beginning, which was all very nice. Weeks later he was still ill and the phone calls and such had faded away, and he was getting in a real funk, very unlike him. I decided to be pro-active and I reached out to our closest friends (on the sly), letting them know that he needed them to distract him from how he was feeling, to maybe call and check-in with him. They jumped to it! I call it ‘friend therapy’, and it works every time.

So I guess I am trying to say, if you see someone struggling a little bit, organizing some subtle friend therapy is a big gift sometimes.

Ariel

My mother lost her dad when she was very young – just twenty-one years old and still in college. She remembers how lonely and confused she felt when none of her friends ever even mentioned it. She understands they didn’t want to say the “wrong” thing, but it made a sad time in her life sadder! She always taught me to jump in and “say something!” before the discomfort in seeing a friend or acquaintance go through a loss can even set in. You can choose your words carefully without overthinking it; I believe people put off reaching out at these times when they psych themselves out by worrying about saying something gauche or somehow making it worse. Again, when someone goes through bereavement, it’s not about us! So when my close friend’s boyfriend died suddenly in his sleep (we’re only in our mid-twenties) I knew to keep calling and “checking in” even when she rarely returned my calls or picked up the phone. I heard later from her roommate that she often expressed gratitude for those “checking in” voicemails even while she appeared to be ignoring them.

Abby

This is a really thoughtful post about a tough subject. Thank you Grace & the D*S team for taking the time to write it.

Kate

Like Lisa posted above, my best friend’s husband has been seriously ill for the past nine months, and I have struggled to know how to help her and her husband while living across the country. I have taken to sending her care packages out of the blue to distract her and remind her that she is loved. They usually are just filled with yummy food or jewelry, whatever I see that reminds me of her.

It’s still frustrating to not be able to help babysit or take her out for coffee, but I take comfort in knowing that while she is busy serving and taking care of her husband, I can help pamper her.

Thanks for the other suggestions as well!

MK

Such a lovely post. Thank you for bring up such a sensitive topic. A few comments mentioned attending memorial services if possible- I second that. When I look back on my mom’s memorial service, I am still touched by both close friends and also acquaintances that went out of there way to attend. I now understand too why my mom always made a point to attend funeral services for people she knew- it was not only respectful, but a way of supporting those that are grieving.

Kimber

Great post, Grace.
One thing I’d like to add is that (for me at least) it is not consoling for someone to say “well, at least she lived a long life,” (like in the case of a grandparent) or a similar comment that makes one’s grief feel unjustified. Yes, the grieving person is grateful they had their loved one for how ever long they had them in their life, but just say “I’m so sorry for your loss,” without throwing in an additional comment that makes this person feel like they don’t have the right to be completely heartbroken. You can’t compare one person’s loss to another’s – a loss is a loss. I know people mean well when they say, “well at least…” but it’s not your place to try to explain to me why my loved one’s death should feel anything less than horrible.

Marilyn Wisniewski

I am a retired seventh and eighth grade teacher. After five of my students died of different illnesses/hit by car; I decided to write a death and dying course for middle school students. It included losses, grieving, consoling the grievers, a visit to local funeral home, hospice;, most importantly follow-up after a person has experienced a death of a loved one. . It was a hugh success with both the students and their PARENTS. Grace, thanks for doing your great work in this area of LIFE! that so many people do not know how to handle.

Charlotte

Ariel, my experience was the same as your mother’s. After my mom died (when I was 16), people would not talk about her around me because they “didn’t want to make me sad.” But the lack of discussion made me feel like I was in the twilight zone… like I had only imagined that this very important person had existed in my life but had now clearly been deleted from everyone’s memory. Really, there was nothing so powerful as when one of my friends would be out shopping with me and say (bravely, and sincerely), “Ooh, your mom would have loved those sheets. Totally her style.” Or, 15 years later, in an email out of nowhere, “Charlotte, do you happen to have that recipe for your mom’s lemon torte? It is my favorite dessert ever… would love to make it, but if you don’t have the recipe, just thinking about it made me happy remembering all the fun times with your mom.”
On a separate note, my entire family is very allergic to flowers, and we felt pretty funny putting them out in the garage to make sure my dad could still breathe. If you do send flowers, try to avoid the ones with hardcore pollen (lilies, for example). Also, the meal reservation system is one of the greatest ideas ever. It can be overwhelming to end up with 30 casseroles in your kitchen, and nowhere to put them. So a system is great. I’ve actually pitched in before at a friend’s house who lost her family member… my role was to manage the incredible influx of food. It was too much for them to deal with.

Finally, I have also dealt with bouts of serious depression and anxiety, and it is incredibly lonely. Those calls are a big, big deal. And truly, even if you don’t hear back from your friend, please do not take it personally. Reach out again. Your friend may be in such a painful place that he or she is literally incapable of returning your call (this is what I refer to as “falling off the face of the earth.” If you know a person struggles with mental illness… rather than taking it personally and saying, “Why aren’t you calling me back?” Try saying, “Hey, friend, I haven’t heard back from you and I just wanna say that I love you. I’m checking in.”

Thank you for bringing up this topic, and thanks to all for sharing. You are advanced!!!

aaa

this is very interesting to read because it differs from my own experiences. when my father died, i did not want any of these things. i don’t talk about my feelings with anyone but my husband. i wanted normalcy and light-heartedness from my friends and co-workers. i’ve always assumed other people are the same way, and it looks like i’ve assumed wrong, so it’s good to hear about other people’s experiences.

Claire

Grace, what a wonderful article. I am an avid reader of design sponge and particularly enjoy your etiquette posts. I’m always grumbling about things like children not standing up for the elder generation on public transport, but this last post regarding death is not really something parents teach their children how to handle so perhaps this is why so many find it so uncomfortable. I have experienced the loss of loved ones many times but it was not until the age of 26 (I’m now 32) when my mother died very suddenly that I really saw my friends & family in a new way both good & bad. I agree with all of the suggestions made. Don’t leave it too long to reach out & in this day of text messaging just forget it. Pick up the phone & call. Don’t send flowers (or wait as Grace suggests & send them weeks later) send a card with your fondest memory of the person who had died to their loved one & try to make it either a humorous or nice memory. They will re-read this card 100 times after the flowers have wilted & need to be thrown away. In times of death it’s not what you do that will be remembered but what you don’t do. So stay close enough to let the person know you are there & after the weeks & months have passed take the initiative to call them regularly especially if it is a bereaved husband because he is less likely to reach out. Finally, I wanted to share the most touching thing said to me after my mother died to show how much words can mean. A young mentally disabled guy was working part time at a retail store in Melbourne with my sister. I went to visit her at the store a couple of weeks after my mums funeral as we were going to lunch. Though the guy at the store had a lot of difficulty communicating he clearly wanted to express his condolences to me. So he took my hand and looked me in the eye & simply said “I am crying for you on the inside” (pointing to his heart). It was the single most beautiful & thoughtful sentence I could have ever hoped to hear during that time.

Miss Heliotrope

Gosh – lots of people have something to say. Mine’s from a slightly different angle: I am the one dying of breast cancer. It has been – wryly – amusing to watch who does & doesnt stay in touch – not just with me & my husband, but with my parents & sister, who have had friends vanish overnight.
I have had friends stay in contact with me (in Australia) from the US, Italy, Switzerland, and Iceland, but people who live in the next street won’t make eye contact or say hello.
Worst of all, & the thing that brings me to screaming point, is family members – my own cousins – from whom I have heard nothing since diagnosis. I’ve been told by others that they are upset, but that’s nothing to how I feel about their behaviour.

Liz

As a Grief Counselor and fellow compassionate human I thank you for talking about this very important human topic, that often gets pushed under the rug, in your blog. Well done!

Maureen

I just lost my mother last week. My friends have been wonderful, but my young adult daughters have been incredibly saddened by how uncomfortable and unsupportive their friends have been. They’ve woken up to the fact that email and social media are very weak substitutes to human contact. They needed to hear a sympathetic voice saying “I’m sorry for your loss; you must be so sad”. I worry about “character” with this next generation(and I don’t mean to sound old…I’m not). Expressing condolences in person may be really hard, but its character building; it makes you feel you’ve stepped up in some small way. Lets all remember that when a friend is grieving.

Phyllis

My husband has been ill for over a year now. He became mentally ill and it’s clear that our lives will never be the same. There is such a stigma in our society about mental illness so I suppose that many were like me before this happened – we just don’t know how to respond, so we just don’t. Or maybe it just scares us or we think it is contagious in some way. It’s awkward and uncomfortable so we avoid it. My hope is that as knowledge about how the brain works, there will no longer be any distinctions between physical or medical illnesses and psychological ones. It’s all physical. If the brain isn’t working it is no different than the heart or liver or pancreas not working.
My daughter and and I learned early on who we can trust and call when we need to for whatever reason. We are so lucky to have a wonderful circle of friends and family.
Thank you Grace for this wonderful post. Kate- you are an awesome friend. Keep sending those gifts that let your friend know that she is in your thoughts. Small gestures have a huge impact-more than you can ever imagine.
Ditto on all the comments about “it’s not about you”. Just say, “I’m sorry to hear your husband is ill, how can I help?” Then keep quiet and listen. Touch base periodically even if told there is nothing to be done. Know that it can be hard to think about delegating tasks when under duress. Still, everyone is touched to know that they or their loved ones matter to others. So send a card, send flowers, take a casserole, meet for coffee, attend the funeral.
Ditto on the apology observations- If an apology is needed, make it simple, sincere, and about what YOU did. “I’m sorry you got mad that I hurt you,” or “I’m sorry you got hurt because I …” are NOT apologies. These statements blame the victim and add insult to injury.
Thank you again for this wonderful post and to all the commentors. Blessings to all.

Stacey

When my father died many years ago one of the most comforting condolence letters I got was from a friend who included a brief memory of him, something like “I remember the time that your father did thus and so and . . ” It showed that my loss was real. A friend of mine (a “virtual” friend, someone I’ve never actually met) recently lost her husband. I put off writing to her for 2 months because I didn’t know what to say. But it’s never too late to let someone know that you’re thinking about them. I finally told her just that and said that I wished I had known her husband and that from everything she and others had said about him, he must have been a special person. We’ve since had a hand-written correspondence. Finally, it’s important never to shy away from letting a person talk about the deceased. Don’t change the subject. And if you have memories, share them.

meg

Fantastic post. I had a year of many losses in our family and the number one thing that I remember from that year is the simple, consistent check-ins, meals, and many other small favors that people did for our family. Whether is was coming over early in the morning to shovel our driveway and sidewalks, bringing a full meal each week, helping to clean, or even just sending a grocery gift card, all of these are remembered and cherished.
I found that a lot of people would tell me how to feel–“Keep your head up” or “Just stay positive and things will work out.” This was not helpful at all. A few friends were really good about not saying things like this and letting me know that it was okay to feel whatever I was feeling, with no pressure to put a positive spin on a terrible situation. I still feel a special gratitude to those friends. I think we all need to try to remember that–whatever a person is feeling in a time of grief, they are entitled to those feelings and we need to support them in those feelings.

Tam

Your article really hit home with me today. This week was the anniversary of my father dying from Alzheimer’s disease. Grief is a very personal experience. Thank you for sharing some simple, heartfelt suggestions.

Eva

Thanks Grace for this post. One of my friends just lost his father and this reminds me even more to check up on how he is doing now. Also to send him something handmade or handwritten. We have a custom among our friends to do this for the positive events in our lives, but why not make something (a card?) to show compassion when things are down.

Jane / MulchMaid

These thoughts are so helpful, Grace. When my mom passed away, one of the most thoughtful and useful things a neighbor did that day was to bring in a big pan of lasagne and some garlic bread: it was perfect for feeding the assembled family quickly and easily and I remember her kindness to this day. She truly understood how to be supportive.

Ruth

Thank you for such a useful post – I’ve put it on my Pinterest board so I can find it easily again. It was a gentle reminder to do some follow up calls & messages for friends. Another gesture that might be appreciated is to send copies of any nice photos you have of the person your friend/relative has lost. I think that is something I would appreciate even if had many photos of the person myself. My Mum has sent bereaved friends a simple but elegant (empty) photo frame instead of flowers and this seems to have been well received.

Rosa

Sometimes a hug can make all the difference. At my dad’s funeral an uncle I hadn’t seen in several years (my mom’s brother in law. Mom and dad were divorced 30 years previous) came up to me in the recieving line and gave me the squeezist, take your breath away hug that still brings me to tears two years later.

Of course my aunt (his wife) was the study for what NOT to do… when I thanked her for coming she looked me in the eye and said ” it’s with reservations you know…”

???

Linda von Geldern

Thank you for the heartfelt reminder. It is often hard to know what to do. Reaching out may seem difficult but always appreciated by the person who is grieving. But never say “I know how you feel.” When my husband passed away years ago I received a note from a well meaning client of his that expressed that she knew just how I was was feeling – she had lost her aunt recently. I laughed and cried over reading that one. No one knows how you feel. E ery relationship is unique. Letting someone know that you are sad for what they are going through goes to the heart of the matter.

Jill

This is a beautiful post. It is so important to reach out when times are tough, but also to be respectful about what people want most. If the obituary says, “in lieu of flowers, the family asks for donations to be made to …” I think it’s nice to honor the deceased person with even a small donation to that cause, because people are often inundated with flowers. Thanks to the internet, I can often find the obituaries of friends’ parents in their hometown newspapers and find out. And just going to the service or wake when possible means a lot. When I was diagnosed with a really serious illness, I didn’t want a lot of people in my small town to know, because I didn’t want my children to know yet, and I really appreciated friends who were respectful of that. I also didn’t want my illness to be the only thing people talked about with me or worried about when they saw me. But the friends I did let know were fantastic with meals (#1 help), playdates for my kids, and calls. Saying “let me know what I can do” is nice, but as people have pointed out, no one ever wants to ask, so just doing (thoughtful) things is even better.

Beverly

Wonderful advice. But if the family is Jewish, don’t send flowers for a death. We don’t kill something to mourn the death of another. I lost both parents last summer. The most poignent note was a handwritten note from their neighbor (a very old school fellow) on his personal stationary. Sometmes it is just the little things.

Molly

What a lovely and helpful post. It contains so many thoughtful ideas. Perhaps a donation to a charity that is dear to the heart of the person you are remembering would be another option. Also, the loss of a pet can be sure a hard and sad time. Thanks again for this post and the great and wonderful variety of subjects you post every day. Design*Sponge is a daily treat!

Ruth

P.S. Miss Heliotrope, thank you for your insight. I hope your cousins see sense soon and get in touch. Perhaps another family member can let them know how much you would appreciate hearing from them? I’m still not sure what I should say to someone dying of cancer, but I wish you much happiness in the life you have left. Sending best wishes from Scotland.

Rebecca Ewing

Loss has taught me something else: let your loved one grieve without dumping your personal stories in their lap. When my mother died, people would launch into a lengthy missive about their mother dying, and then proceed to add their father’s illness, and their neighbor who . . . blah, blah, blah. The burden of their grief on top of mine was exhausting. Months later and it may have been okay, but not then. How I appreciated those who simply said, “I know first-hand how that loss feels. I’m so sorry.”

C

I’m going through a painful divorce that is turbulent because my husband has an addiction problem. Out of respect for my husband’s privacy, I am uncomfortable talking about my situation, but I also find that my ability to function well is sometimes compromised and I struggle with not being able to explain WHY I’m such rough shape. I worry that I’ll be judged by my failures during this time, and I’m so tender that such judgement would be very painful. I am grateful for the charity that I’ve received from coworkers, friends, and family who have excused my exhaustion, tenderness, and tunnel vision- even when most of them don’t know the particulars of my situation.

Sarah

This was a great post and wonderful comments. I really identify with the ‘checking back in’ idea a few weeks later. When one’s world falls apart it takes so long to recover, and we have to be present in a world that is still turning. Just touching base every few weeks with someone who has had a loss can be incredibly helpful.

On a separate note, and keeping in line with the pet love theme this month, people should never underestimate the grief felt when someone loses their beloved pet. I’m a vet, and I consider the acknowledgement of pet owner bereavement to be so important in my job. Every one of our clients who loses a pet receives a hand written card signed by as many staff as possible. I’ve had clients tell me above insensitive and unkind remarks from friends, family and colleagues dismissing their grief when losing a pet. Grief is grief, and kindness is always possible.

Grace Bonney

Beverly,

Yes, flowers at a Jewish funeral aren’t appropriate. I made a note at the top of the post about checking to make sure what you send/give is appropriate, so that’s definitely something important to check before reaching out to someone, especially if it’s a religious occasion.

Grace

Gretchen

Thank you! What a good post and so many great comments. I lost my Mom 6 weeks ago. It was a long battle and the last two weeks were the worst.
I found that answering questions was impossible. A friend asked if I needed groceries, and of course I did, but I knew the next question would be “what do you need, exactly” and I couldn’t handle trying to answer so I declined her help. Helping in a time of need is not helpful when you have to ask what needs to be done. If you want to make food, just do it. If you want to clean house, do it. Don’t ask. It’s just too much for a person in mourning to manage other people.
Thank you for letting me voice my opinion and again, for writing this.

Nathan Copeland

This is a great post! It is amazing to me how even the simple things like “checking in” on people can help them feel better. I’m also kind of saddened that so many people think that a “like” on a social network is a good way to show support in times of grieving. Thank you for posting this, I am definitely bookmarking this!!

JC

Wonderful, helpful post. I just have a suggestion for “what not to say”, based on experience. Don’t say, “well, when MY father passed, blah, blah, blah.” At that particular moment, no one much cares what you experienced and doesn’t need to hear a long, involved story about YOUR pain and grief. Just reach out, be there, and save those personal memories for another time, maybe years down the road, when you can sit with your friend with a glass of wine and share a tear, a laugh, and a common experience.

Kristen

Thanks for the post x So important to talk about this.
One thing i wanted to add that while I dont think its appropriate to be comparing grief and making it about you.
I feel this behaviour is a reminder of why number 6 is so important.
Grief can be lonely and ongoing. Acknowledgement means a lot.

MS

I agree with others that flowers are just one more thing to have to take care of and dying flowers are very depressing. Plus many in our family are allergic to most flowers.

If I know the cause of death, I will often send a donation in someone’s memory (e.g. to the American Cancer Society if they died of cancer) or just donate to any charity in their memory.

Charlotte

MISS HELIOTROPE- I’ve been thinking about you since I read your post. I’m so sorry that your friends are failing to reach out to you right now. I just wanted to send some love your way.

Louisa

We lost one of our cats on Thursday morning, at 1year and 7 months, to what turned out in the end to be probably heart disease. He died on the operating table, and the first thing I asked the vet was what do I do now? I can second Gretchen here, in that the smallest decisions suddenly become impossible. You can’t think of normal decisions when grief hits you like that. I’d recommend if you want to help someone out, then go and see what they need doing rather than asking.
In my case my mum came round and we just talked it through, crying as we went, and this was exactly what I needed. He’d been ill for a while so I wanted to remember him when he was at his best, so the stories helped. I needed to talk and to get it all out, but it’s also important to think of your surroundings. I needed to be at home to open up. Asking someone to tell you what happened when you are out for dinner (for example) is not the right time. Better to ask if you can come round later, when they are in a safe place, and help them talk it through.
The stupidest question I find that people ask though, is ‘are you ok?’ Nobody is ok when they experience a loss. A friend of mine read in a popular newspaper on his way out for a night out that a girl he’d been to school with died on a skiing trip. People kept asking him all night if he was ok, so (as I knew him well) I kept countering them with ‘he’ll be ok, he just needs to have a good time tonight’ and changed the subject. He thanked me many times for helping him that night. He’d just heard about the news, so needed time to process his thoughts before he was able to talk about it, and the constant questions just blocked that process. It’s much easier to deal with a simple ‘I’m sorry for your loss and I’m thinking of you’ than trying to answer questions when you’ve just been hit with the news and aren’t capable of thinking properly.

B

Good post. One more tip: When someone’s family member dies, don’t ask if they were close. I think most people grieve the passing of a family member even if they weren’t particularly close and they will generally offer up that information if they feel strongly enough about it when you’re offering condolences.

#5 and #6 are especially great points. When a family member committed suicide, I hated to hear people immediately respond with things along the lines of “oh, I know of people who have done that!” I think it’s natural to try to relate to what someone is going through, but sometimes it’s better to admit that you don’t know what someone is going through but that you’re sorry and praying for/thinking of them. That said, if you went through something very similar (i.e. you both lost a mother to breast cancer), it can be comforting for the person to know they’re not alone. I remember one person in particular, telling me *in private* that her family member had also committed suicide. She knew the situations were different (every death is unique) but she could relate to some of what I was going through.

I was also really touched when I received a card on the anniversary of my dad’s death from the pastor who had done his memorial service. The pastor hadn’t even known my dad, and we hadn’t spoken with or seen him since the service. Anniversaries of someone’s death (as well as their birthdays and holidays) can be especially hard, so let people know you’re still thinking of them during those times.

Janet

Appropriate post for me to read as my mom, who was my best friend, past away six weeks ago. Most people handled things well, especially her friends that know how to set up making meals and organizing it among themselves. I took care of my mom from diagnosis to her passing, (10 weeks), so her friends helped out then and tried to do it in a way where I did not have to help organize it. When you are a primary caregiver, you do not have time for much else. One of her friends felt that she needed to know and control everything and even questioned the handling of my mom’s treatment and care with me, which was totally inappropriate and was already difficult enough in the decisions I had to make that I did not need to be questioned. As you said, except what is told to you and don’t ask anymore. As far as Facebook goes, I am not one to post much of anything on it, especially about anything that personal. To have someone tell me they are sorry about my mom’s passing on my wall and not in a personal message was totally inappropriate and that wall post announced it to everyone I know when some did not even know about her being ill. Nothing very personal or emotional should ever be anything but a private message.

Lesley Myrick

Thank you for this post, Grace. I lost my 26 year-old brother last November in a motorcycle accident, and was so grateful for the outpouring of love and support from friends and family. I think it’s so important to have people checking in and showing support not just during the first few weeks after a tragedy, but further down the road after too. I think people are scared to ask, but I would love if more people would ask me how I’m doing. I need that. Just knowing people remember and care means the world when you’ve gone through a tragedy. xo

Nicole

Hi Grace, I think its great that you are opening your heart and sharing this insight and reflection.

People often Just. Don’t. Think. Full stop. Or else they let fear get the better of them.

We had a baby five years ago that was still born (I had a scan 4 days before my due date because the baby had been breech and we were told there was no heartbeat) and at the time a lot of people faded in to the background and pretended nothing had happened and ignored our existence or what we were going through. We didn’t want big long chats about how we were feeling or any big to-do but we did want people to acknowledge that we had brought someone in to the world and instead of a new baby gift or card (commonplace for new births) to perhaps make a donation to SANDS (Stillbirth And Neonatal Death Society) or even just say that it beyond sucked and they were sorry to hear. Every year at the time that birthday celebrations should be in full flow (a week from now actually) I wish someone would just say something.

Death doesn’t erase someone from ever being, it just stops them from being in the present or future, that being is always in our hearts. There is a special gift in someone just acknowledging this.

Kay

Grace, you are cool because you CARE.

The constant (even if unreciprocated) communication and acknowledgement is so important to the grieving person. The same is true for those with depression, from grief or not. Just a text is even sweet.

You are spot ON with #10 — suggest something specific. Reaching out, asking for help, even simple decisions become hard with grief and depression. It’s such a relief when a friend says “wanna join me for…” and all you have to do is say “yes.”

Another situation close to me is dealing with suicide. People are rarely open that their loved-one died by suicide, when in fact that secrecy reinforces stigma. I wish more people were willing to say “he/she lost her battle with depression and ended her own life.” Along with the loss of a child, loss by suicide seems so taboo that people are afraid to even say anything. We need to stick together, to love one another, and be honest.

kat

I also want to chime in on the ‘no flowers’ point of view if the person is going through cancer treatment. The scent can be overwhelming, based on the treatment choice and its terrible to have to explain that or dispose them or just refuse delivery. So again, back to your note on appropriateness.

Ashley Johnson

I haven’t had a chance to comment on this post yet, as I have been dealing with the passing of a very close family friend. Her celebration of life was on the weekend.

Thank you for this post, I have, unfortunately, gone through many tragedies in my life, as well as dealt with some serious health problems. I have to say that I believe the most important thing out of all that you said is that making contact is always the right thing. If people don’t know what to say they tend to shy away. Be brave, prepare, a simple heartfelt sentence is usually all it takes. I’ve lost several friends over their inability to face difficult and sad situations, it’s really too bad and makes the loss that much more challenging.

I have one other thing to say about flowers, although previous people have commented on it. Please be respectful of the family’s (or whoever is grieving) wishes. After my boyfriend’s father passed away we specifically asked for no flowers and requested people donate to a charity in his name instead. We still ended up with hundreds of bouquets needing to be looked after and flowers dying all over the house.

For most people I think a floral arrangement or plant may even be appreciated more a month down the road, once the dust has settled and everything else has died.

All you have said is extremely good advice and I wish more people knew these things.

No judgement and genuine love are usually the best ways to handle most sensitive situations. And don’t forget, be there when everyone else has gone back to their lives, and be there for the anniversaries.

Thanks Grace.

xo

Lauren H-B

Grace,

Thank you for addressing an important topic to our culture. As I went through the deaths of numerous people that were close to me, and at a very young age, I experienced the isolation that comes with mourning and bereavement. I turned to my artwork to work out my thoughts and it has continued to be my solace and my friend through very hard times. Art can provide a therapeutic path towards learning to live and deal with the losses in our lives. Perhaps providing or scheduling an art activity with a friend who is suffering would offer a way for that person to process some of the grief. Just a thought. Again, thanks for your great posts. They inspired some wonderful comments!

rt

When my mother died 12 years ago, I had a good experience where almost all my friends reached out in different ways to make me feel better. I never felt alone. But last year I had to terminate a pregnancy for medical reasons and I had a much different response. While some friends were supportive, many were at a complete loss of what to say, going as far as to say they “didn’t know what to say” when I spoke to them. I can give them a hint, anything but that. I really think it was my coworkers reaction that stung the most, while some wrote nice personal emails to me, several said nothing, especially one who was very chatty about the pregnancy before it ended and another who acted like I just came back from a vacation. It definitely stung but I think I am a stronger person for it. My expectations are lower, and I also think I have learned that maybe all these condolences in the world don’t heal the way time does.

Susan

At one time in my life I was struck with some very emotional occurences as well as financial impact. I came home from work one day to find a huge bag of dog food (I had two dogs, one with puppies) and a pair of fun sparkly earrings. I never found out who left it. But it certainly made me loved and cared for not only as a pet ‘momma’ but also as a woman.

Naomi

Since I’m late to this discussion, my comment seems appropriate, too: It’s never too late to do the right thing. If you failed to send a card/reach out/whatever, pick up the phone or write a note now. It will be appreciated.

Clary Cooke

Grace, I’m really late to this discussion,but we are here on the heels of the WEST , TX devastating , town encompassing EXPLOSION and the HORRORS in Boston…so I thought, as the parent of 3 Children ” GONE TOO SOON” I had to validate much of what has been suggested. All deaths are mind numbing if we loved that person. Loss, is LOSS, is LOSS. And there are no “degrees” of LOSS; but there are different KINDS… NONE is easier or harder than the other. THEY’RE DIFFERENT. The unexpected, UNTHINKABLE death of 3 children IS different than a beloved parent suffering horrifically and slipping out of this world. It is WHAT HAPPENS. ( Though the suffering is WRONG!) We pretty much expect to outlive our parents. This is not the same as saying,” we’ll be FINE when they go”. We are NOT fine. We are a PART of them. They were wiser, it CANNOT be OUR turn at WISE~ NESS ! Dear GOD, whom is in CHARGE up there!???? And are you SERIOUS!? ME? Wise?!
The loss of a child or, in our case 3 children( of 9) is mind numbing because WE DO NOT EVEN CONSIDER IT. At least WE didn’t . We have friends whom HAVE thought how they could prepare for something like that..Face it~ MAking a WILL is a good, responsible parental act; discussing “WHAT IF” ~ Joey is Dead? Megan? The oldest, Robbie? is flat WRONG.If anyone overheard us we’d be ridden out of the suburb on a rail!So, when a child, or children in a family is killed EVERYONE is VERY STRONGLY AFFECTED. No one can untangle the threads to figure out just WHOM should be reaching out to WHOM! In the 5 years since our family’s horror our friends ( the ones with whom we have not completely disconnected get more honest all the time. As it usually goes in the ‘Burbs, your kid’s friends folks become YOUR FRIENDS. These people, generally speaking, KNOW and LOVE your kid, family, YOU!
We have been told that several of them had first reactions like ” Now THEY are OUR WORST NIGHTMARE COME TRUE. OUR CHILD COULD BE MERCILESSLY TAKEN FROM US!” and NO ONE can bear to step THAT far out of the comfort zone.. I promise you! It is EXTREMELY common for your closest “people” to be freaking out and rendered unable to do ANYTHING. “Well, at least you have each other, a long, loving healthy marriage”~ WRONG! We cannot possibly help each other! Looking in to HIS eyes all I saw was my own shock, pain and horror reflected back!When the child is little ( 1 of ours was 3) the families of that child’s friends pretty much sllliiippp away. When you have the death of a late teen and mid 20 something, we were ASTONISHED when over 500 people turned out. I remember thinking, Where are the SNACKS! Drinks, Cocktail napkins…..This age group is shockingly honest and forthcoming with the LOVE! They shoot from the hip. They tell you funny and sweet stories about your child! You will want to take them HOME. Do not.One of those late teens contacted Compassionate Friends International and in a day an ANGEL appeared at our door. I still don’t know who called. That is ALL the information we were given. Our C.F ANGEL got US into grief therapy, our remaining darlings into sibling loss therapy, what NOW with my Mom and Dad therapy~ we were all given tools to
~~~Let slowly go of the LIFE WE HAD PLANNED and EMBRACE, slowly and GENTLY, the NEW LIFE our NEW family had been given. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

And we have, digging in our heels and fighting it all the way. But we are healing. We make friends all the time, but MOST IMPORTANTLY, we learned, because it is HOW WE LIVED, and CONTINUE to, a life without REGRET. Knowing the future may NOT BE, we treat EVERY DAY as a gift. We are sweet, loving and sensitive. We are NEVER punitive, we discipline sensibly and fairly.we LAUGH until our sides split, I write it ALL DOWN as I always have, we shoot HUNDREDS of hours of digital video, and still manage to be responsible citizens. Lastly, HOLIDAYS, especially Dec 25th are awful. Still. We were unable, that 1st Christmas, to even open a single box stuffed with beloved memories. So a few of the gang and I voted on a THEME for the tree and MADE 200 DIFFERENT ornaments in the Glitter theme ! We impressed ourselves a LOT! As folks love HOLIDAY DROP in for a drink things, I anticipated and , instead of having a linen closet full of “EH” generic gifts, as the visitors admire our AMAZING tree, we ask which their favorite is I take it down, ( or a kid does) , we tissue wrap and box and Bow it, tag it with their name and the year, and GIVE AWAY OUR ORNAMENTS! Our world gets close to THEIRS and ( THIS is the BEST!!!) After N Year’s? All we do is remove the lights and toss the tree!
It’s Dreamy!
This year is BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S!Shall we share a tutorial vid!!??

Karen

Dear Grace and team and all the friends in the D*S community in the US (I know we don’t know each other but the familiar nature of the postings makes it feel that we all know each other – I know you know what I mean).

Your wonderful postings and the comments they generate are a daily pleasure, everything that’s good about the american spirit shines through them. I just wanted to say how much I have been thinking about you all this week in the aftermath of the Boston tragedy. Sending love and friendship from across the ocean in England.

Ursula

Great post. Grief is so isolating. You want people to care but yet you want to be alone. It is such a personal thing. But I love the suggestion you made; just to let people know you are there with a subtle email, letter or even a gift. That’s lovely. I’m 35 and have already lost both parents, a brother and a sister in the last few years. I too have been surprised by peoples reactions; some not in a good way. But like you said, some people don’t know how to handle grief and don’t know how to be there. I hope many people are exposed to this post, there’s a lot to learn from it!

Shelly

My family had someone reach out to us in our grief in such an unexpected way and it has forever changed how we respond to those who are in pain. My young cousin was killed in a car accident. A man in the community had read about the accident in the newspaper and showed up at the house with a catering van from a local restaurant. He had arranged for my cousins to have dinner every day for the next 2 weeks. It was over the top and generous but it made me realize that we can do the same thing on a smaller scale. It seems a little stalker like to arrive on a stranger’s doorstep with a meal but I’ve never been turned away. It probably helps that we live in a smaller town. I simply explain how someone loved on our family and we just wanted to pass along the favor.

debra

Thank you. I am dealing with a break up from my dream come true. I reached out to people at my hardest moment, when all I wanted was someone to tell me Im gonna be okay or maybe call me. I felt as if I would die inside and still can not stop crying at my loss. There is no one to talk to. I feel very alone and in a strange place with people I love all around. I love them so much that it gives me strength. But I doubt I will hear from any of them. Maybe it is just like with him, no matter how much you love people they really have their own lives and my grief over my loss of relationship, and my grandmother dying at same time is just too much to take alone. Id rather be alone than think some one cares only out of pity and not true friendship. It is all superficial so far from friends. Maybe it is the same as with him, I only think they care and they really don’t. It has been a real eye opener how much they admire the two timer and have no friendship or advice nor a word of comfort. Not even a phone call.
D

Deb

It can be hard to see the depth of pain people are going through, I tell everyone I work with to get out even if it is just to get the paper, your in the fresh air and at least one person is going to smile and say hello. I am not good at doing what I preach but I know stay away from the crowed paces where everyone is oblivious as they rush to finalise some chore. Walk look at nature, get out the pretty things at home. Nature must be there to restore us. Pat a dog. It sounds glib I know but it starts to bring you back from grief. Find a stranger if needs be , to talk it out with, if no one else gets it. Every time I share a bench seat people share their stories. Your allowed to feel grief and your allowed to take the time to surround yourself with what gives you comfort during this time. You are going to be Okay! Your friends may have seen what this man was before you did and may be thinking it is better you know and not realise how deeply you are feeling. Your grandmother will always be part of you it’s hard to realise that you can’t call her however she has left a legacy for you to hold even if it is only what you see in the mirror. You will be ok. There are years that ask questions and years that give answers—Zora Neale Hurston

Deb-

marianne

very thoughtful and good advice. Thanks for taking the time to do this.
marianne

Eileen Garton

When our adult son that lived in another state was killed in an accident I just wanted to be alone with my husband and other 3 children. But early moringn my 2 nieces showed up at the door and stayed til late night. My husband that is ill would not leave the bedroom because of them. I spent all day checking up on hubby and nonsense chitchat with them. All I needed at that time was immediate family. I wished they had called first and gave me the choice of them visiting. I never even had the privacy to talk to my daughter in law and my grandchildren about their loss until the following day. The nieces know my husband is a very private person and doesn’t go to family functions other than immediate. Others did call and I just said we needed our privacy, had plans to make, etc. They all seemed to understand.

Ashley

I would like to add one more comment about loss from suicide. I have lost one friend to suicide and another has attempted and is still recovering/coping with depression. It can be very easy to criticize the person who has commited/attempted suicide, or to blame friends and family for not “doing enough” to prevent it. None of these comments are helpful.
I tried my best to be there for my friend while she was recovering, but I was met with very harsh comments from her family blaming me for her suicide attempt; it made dealing with her attempt and being there to support her so much more difficult. I really grieved over my friend’s attempt even though she lived; at first it seemed like she wasn’t going to make it and then when she did I was compounded with grief for her tremendous sadness, fear that she might do it again, guilt that I hadn’t done enough and anger that it had happened at all. I just wanted to talk through these feelings so I could be there to support her, but none of our friends seemed comfortable discussing it and everyone just kept telling me to “be there for her”… Well I thought I was before, had I not done enough?
I would just remind everyone of one of my favorite quotes, “Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.”
Thank you Grace, for such a thoughtful post.

amber

Thank you so much for offering this advice. I have walked with several friends down these sad roads, and there is so much to learn and surprisingly little information out there about what’s best to do. It’s the main reason why I started a blog (only updated periodically these days) about “what to do when” you find yourself or a loved one in tough times. I’ve written about miscarriage and the death of my friend’s 5-year-old daughter 7 years ago. Your advice to always make contact is the best advice there is. And, like you said, following up and reminding people that they are not forgotten weeks, months, and on the anniversary of an event is super special too. My friend lost her husband in a tragic death 14 months ago, and in some ways the time surrounding the 1-year anniversary of his death was even harder than when it occurred because she was no longer surrounded by family the way you are immediately afterwards, and she was back at work doing “normal” life but still not feeling normal at all. I write events down in my planner and copy them from year to year so that I remember anniversaries and birthdays.

Thank you so much for putting thought into this and sharing it with us. Very, very meaningful. xo

Julie

Although I did announce my mother’s death on Facebook last February) mostly to quickly inform family members overseas who it’s hard to call re: expense, time difference) and my old neighbors and friends from where I used to live. I got some lovely comments and messages. However, many of my close friends are not on FB and I called them and they expressed their condolences. However, I did not receive one card or plant or anything from any friend. I found that very, very odd. I live in a place where people who are just acquaintenances send cards with money. Although I certainly am not upset because I didn’t receive money from my friends, the lack of any formal follow up really did upset me. Is it because I called/Facebook’d and they expressed their condolences that way, so I shouldn’t have expected the customary former follow up?

Also, you mentioned “invitations” to funerals–where I live it’s announced in the local papers in addition to my phone calls so anyone can attend. I suppose if I were to throw a special dinner it would be invitation-only, but the funeral should be for anyone. Maybe it’s just a custom in the upper Midwest?

kim

What is the proper method to ask for family heir looms or a couple personal mementos for given to the immediate family members. By brother in law past away and I thought we were a fairly close nit group. So very reluctantly I asked his girlfriend when she was ready to allow the family to select a small moments from his personal items that would have some sentimental value. I had indicated that an annual fishing trip would be now a memorial trip and that it would be nice to give the brothers and father some type of memorial gift from the tackle or possibly maybe even have a trophy manufactured from the tackle. She took 2 finger prints one for her and 1 for the family before his passing that would allow us to order custom jewelry from his finger prints. We have not been able to order the jewelry as she is in possession of the waxed prints. I asked if I could make arrangements to have them sent to the supplier so that I could have pieces made for my mother in law and my 2 children. In asking this she felt it was bizarre that I would want to give these items to the family and that it was not my place to ask or even consider putting any of these items into action. I apologized for saying they would be gifts from me, but that they would more accurately gifts from her and our lost loved ones. She was not happy with that apology and figures I owe her for even asking at all. I am so confused and do not know how to handle the situation. I did clearly say that when and if she would be ready it would be nice for her to give the immediate family an opportunity to have a keepsake. I asked that if he did have any family heir looms from his decease grandparents, great aunt/uncle and cousin if at some point she would consider returning them to someone in the family. But she feels there are no sentimental items that would be for the family and it is bizarre that a sister in-law would be asking for such things. I am broken hearted by the whole situation.

Grace Bonney

kim

i’m so sorry you’re dealing with this situation. i would give her a bit of time to cool down and then have another member of your family approach her. long story short, if that doesn’t work, i’m pretty sure that legally those items belong to whoever he declared in his will (she is not his wife or commonlaw wife, yes?), or members of his family if none are specified. but that depends on the state you live in. i would continue politely checking in (with different members of the family) to see what you can have returned to you that belongs to your family.

grace

Arthur

How do you approach a friend who refuses to open up? I have a close friend who is currently going through something but I don’t know what it is. All I know is it occurred between christmas and the new year. Everything was fine and then all of a sudden she wasn’t replying to any of my messages and I ask her if everything is ok and she told me to leave her alone. I did just that as I didn’t want to anger her so I gave it a few weeks and check in again and the same thing. It has been 6 months now and still she refuses to open up at all. I have tried to do what I can but nothing seems to work. I have reminded her that I am here for her if she needs to talk, I have offered to catch up to either talk about what happened or just to get things off her mind, offered to babysit and due chores for her. And still absolutely nothing. She has opened up about her parents getting divorced two years ago so I struggle to see why she won’t talk to me. She had a baby last year so I am worried something may have happened. I feel like I may have annoyed her by accident by consistently checking up on her instead of just leaving her alone. It’s so hard to deal with something knowing that a close friend is going through something horrible and being completely helpless. What can I do?

Grace Bonney

Arthur

It sounds like you’re doing the right thing. Reminding her, not excessively, that you’re here for her is the right thing to do. But it does sound like you’re assuming something happened to her and not knowing that for a fact or assuming any role in what that reason for the brush off might be.

I would suggest a friendly sit down over coffee, nothing too high pressure, and tell her that you noticed a while back that she seemed to push you away. I would make the statement short and simple. Something like “Karen, your friendship means a lot to me and I wanted to talk because I noticed that about a year ago I felt as if you pulled away from me. I wanted to give you the time and space to discuss things on your own terms, but since we haven’t spoken about this change, I wanted to see if there’s anything I’ve done to upset you and to see if you’re ok?”.

If you ask directly and make it about you and not her (your concern, not her problems/issues) and she STILL doesn’t open up or acknowledge any issues, I think you need to let it go. If she just had a baby she’s going through a LOT of changes and you may need to just back up and let those happen. Things are rarely about us as much as we think, so this may be related to something she’s dealing with privately and on her own terms. I would give her space to do that and try to just adjust to this new normal for the time being.

Grace

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