Is it best to give a grieving person space or lend a helping hand? Offer advice or just a shoulder to cry on? These personal stories reveal what works—and what doesn’t—when supporting someone through trying times.
Having a bodyguard
Courtesy Megan Devine
“As the team of wardens searched for my partner in the river, the lead warden told me to call a friend, as he didn’t want me to be alone. My friend Becky was the first to answer and came to the river immediately. We waited out the search together—with her mostly hanging back, giving me space, or entertaining our dog. After they found Matt’s body, a well-meaning, but poorly skilled crisis worker came to me, handing me a packet of information, saying, ‘now that you’re a widow, you’ll need these things.’ While I stood there, saying nothing, still reeling from the fact that I was, now, suddenly, inexplicably, a widow, she went on and on about my ‘widowhood’—facts and details and phone numbers. After several minutes, I turned to Becky and said, ‘please remove her.’ In that moment, my mild-mannered, gentle friend turned fierce (though calm and clear). I have no idea what she said to the crisis worker, I only know the worker went away. I have no idea what she said in the weeks to come, whenever someone, within her earshot, did something rude, insensitive, or intrusive. Becky became one of a core group of bodyguards—people committed to making the horrendous even just a little more gentle. Together, they made protected space for me. They called funeral homes to ask questions I couldn’t ask. They fielded hundreds of calls and emails from well-wishers, extended family, and nosey onlookers. They cared for the dog, took out the trash, kept co-workers informed. They took over when the immediacy of grief made some people, shall we say, rude and poorly skilled, in their actions toward me. They were so efficient and effective, many difficult things happened in those days that never made it to me—I was briefed only after the issues were sorted. I bet I didn’t hear the half of it. In removing so many external burdens, they left me to stare at the gaping hole that just erupted in my life, secure in the knowledge that they had my back. That one, sustained, kindness made all the difference.” Make sure you know these 10 things you should say to someone who is grieving.
—Megan Devine, Portland, Oregon-based author of the forthcoming book It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand
Getting flowers long after the funeral
Courtesy Zenobia Dewely
“The one thing that meant the most to me after losing my brother, Elvis, suddenly was receiving flowers after everything was over. Usually the calls, messages, texts, etc. are booming once it happens but soon after the funeral ends it seems everything stops. When I received those flowers I was at a point where I needed to hear someone’s voice or a shoulder to cry on. This truly encouraged me. Also this act of kindness prompted me to start Cookies of Comfort for Christ, a charity where I send out cookies to those who are bereaved, sick, or just in need of encouragement. I like to send to the bereaved weeks after the death of their loved one. The response I get is amazing because they receive the cookies and handwritten note just when they need them!”
—Zenobia Dewely, New York, New York-based founder of Zenobia’s Sweet Tooth
Hearing happy memories
Courtesy Brittany Anas
“I lost my father (and best friend) to brain cancer in December 2010. After he passed, the messages that were so touching to me were the ones where people shared memories of my dad. A friend from high school, for example, reached out and relayed a memory about a Denver Nuggets basketball game that my dad had taken us to when we were teenagers, and how fun my dad was. I especially cherish the messages from people who told me that I reminded them of my dad—whether it was having the same chubby cheeks as him or the same sense of humor—because it felt like I was carrying my dad’s legacy and that he was still a part of me.”
—Brittany Anas, Denver, Colorado-based freelance health and travel writer