When my darling mother-in-law died a few weeks ago, it was awful. I say that lightly, as if such an inadequate word can possibly be appropriate.
A person I loved died, and worse, she was the mother of the woman I’ve chosen to share my life with. We made it to her bedside with just hours to spare before she died. All I could do was hold Lala afterward.
Watching a loved one grieve doesn’t hurt more than your own grief (it can’t, of course), but it hurts differently. When you’re in your own grief, you can’t do much more than lie down in it and pull up its grimy blanket around your chin. When you’re proximate to it, you want to help and you’re sad—it’s a terrible, difficult mix.
You know you can’t help the hurting.
So you want to help in any other way possible.
Last year, one of my best friends lost her only child in a freak accident. He was just 24 years old. All I wanted to do was help, but I didn’t know what to do. I googled then, and I googled last month, and I still came up with mostly-unhelpful checklists of legal things to do, of processes that needed to be taken care of, of forms you needed to get.
I’m not knowledgable enough to write that kind of article. Instead, this is for you, the friend or the partner of the bereaved. You’re the person who wants to help, who says, “Let me know if I can help in any way,” and you mean it, I know you do. But those grieving don’t even know yet what needs to be done, so consider offering to do something specific from the below list.
TL;DR: Just show up. Keep showing up. Next year, show up on the anniversary. Be there. Listen. If they’re huggers, hug. Help in small ways. They add up.
Some Things That Will Need Doing
1. Make Phone Calls.
In the best possible world, plans will be in place. In tragedies, though, they’re not. Help brainstorm what should be done with the remains. Cremation? Burial? Where? When? Organ donation? (Yes, it’s terrible that you need to think about this so quickly. But it has to be done.)
Who needs to be contacted and told? Can you help with those notifications? The immediate family can be overwhelmed by making those phone calls, by having to say the same, terrible thing, over and over.
2. Help With Decisions.
There are two parts to a funeral – the ceremony (and a reception/wake), and the placement of the remains. Does the family want a church service? A secular service? Nothing at all? All fine. Start making the calls to the right places to schedule what you need. Hear what the family needs, and make the phone calls.
Have a piece of paper with all the information you’ll need to give, over and over, so you don’t have to keep asking: Full name, date of birth, place of birth, date of death, social security number.
3. Help With Immediate Organization
If it’s been a long time coming, the house might be full of medical equipment. Find out if you can help clean some of this out. It meant a lot to my father-in-law that the hospital bed in which his wife had spent 20 months being very ill be donated to charity, immediately. We found a hospital supply charity in the next town who wanted the goods, but they couldn’t pick them up, so we hired a moving company to do a small move of the equipment for us.
If there’s a ton of medicine in the house, offer to get rid of it. Look up the local medical waste box (often in police department lobbies) and bring the pills, all dumped together into large ziplocks. Remove personal data from the bottles (a Sharpie is good enough) and toss them.
Some medical supplies like saline flushes are great to donate to the local SPCA – check with them. Other medical supplies that aren’t drugs can be donated to organizations that pass them out to the homeless, who really need this stuff. Again, get out your phone and make a few calls.
4. Offer to write the first draft of the obituary.
It can be wildly helpful for the bereaved to have something to edit rather than coming up with the obituary themselves. Be factual, but make it real and compelling, too. Find an obituary you like and copy the format. You won’t get busted by the plagiarism police. Here’s my mother-in-law’s.
If the family would like donations in lieu of flowers, now is when to decide on the appropriate charity. Call them and find out what their best contact is. Once the obit is done and approved by everyone, send it to the local paper (it’s usually charged by the column inch). Consider sending it to their hometown paper, too, if that’s different.
5. Help Get the Death Certificates
Get ten. You will think this will be too many. It won’t be. Contact the mortuary or Vital Statistics in your state to start this. Later, when it quiets down, Social Security needs to be notified, phones deactivated, banks closed, credit cards deactivated, online accounts accessed. All of these things will need an original death certificate. A good list of what will need to be done later is here. These things are hard, by the way. Offer your friend/family member your assistance in doing them. Even going along with them to the DMV can help.
6. Help with Funeral planning.
There is so much to be done for a funeral, and this is where you can come in super handy. Pick one of these things, and offer to do it (and then do it well, and on time).
Speakers: Who will speak at the service? Make sure those people want to speak. Don’t make anyone talk who doesn’t want to, even those closest to the deceased (especially those). Can I offer my favorite funeral poem for this? Is it weird that I have one? I read that first in a Rosamunde Pilcher book in which someone dies, and I thought, that. That’s what I’d want read. That’s what I believe.
Photographs: This is an enormous task, and I honestly think it’s the most wonderful job of all. Send requests to everyone you know to send you pictures of your loved one by a certain day and time. Ask them to look in their phones, their photo albums, and their social media. Accepting them digitally is great. Share the DropBox you create for the service with everyone.
Start sorting them early—you won’t be able to put them all into the slideshow, so put the best ones into a separate file.
PROTIP: If many of them are paper photographs, go to a big box store and buy an expensive, fast scanner (not a flatbed — you want a feed-through one built for scanning multiple photos at a time, trust me on this).
Don’t worry about what you pay for it, because you’re going to return it when you’re done (keep the receipt!). Is this morally wrong? Totally! Do we care, though, about screwing a big box store a little? Not right now, no, we sure don’t! Plus, you’re going to come back to this big box store and spend a million dollars on food and drink and other things for the service, so they’ll survive.
Slideshow: By no means a must, I have to say that I think the slideshow with music is a really, really beautiful moment in a funeral. Typically 5-7 minutes, set to one or two songs (their favorite songs or the favorite songs of the bereaved), you get to look at your loved one from birth to death. Include all the best photos. Include some funny, terrible shots, too. The audience needs that break, the laugh that comes when you see the bunny fingers, the flipped bird.
Use iMovie or any other app that works. Let each photo show for 4 seconds. Any shorter is too short, any longer will leave you with fewer photos to look at. Divide the seconds of your song(s) by 4 to see how many pictures you’ll be able to fit, and then cull your awesome photos some more. Burn the slideshow onto whatever medium the funeral home/church requests, thumb drive, CD-ROM, or whatever, and then make backup copies, in case one doesn’t work. Bring your laptop the day of the funeral, also just in case. Make sure they test it once, and that you can see that it works.
PROTIP: Put ALL the photos, not just the great ones, onto another music-less slideshow and have that looping at the wake.
Photo on easel: Pick the best photo of all, the one that everyone agrees on, and send it online to your local CVS or Walmart. You’ll be able to get it blown up within an hour for a ridiculously low price. Get three or four copies, one for the framed one at the front of the church, and a couple to give away. Then go buy a frame at Michael’s or other craft store. Take the photo with you so you can decide what suits best. Double-check with the church/funeral home that they’ll have an easel to display it on (they will, but dude, double-check everything).
Memorial Fliers: Use that same best image, and make something simple. Full name, date of birth, and date of death. A favorite quote, perhaps, or a Bible verse if that’s appropriate. You can go as simple as 4.25/5.5 (8.5/11 cut in half, vertically) on good quality heavy paper. On the back, you can put the obituary for those who didn’t see it in the paper. Send to a local printer or FedEx (you can do it all online) and pick them up early to check to make sure it looks good. Arrange for a family friend to hand to them out at the service.
Guest Book: Finding a guest book that isn’t made for a wedding is difficult. If you have time, do it online and Amazon Prime it to the house. If no time, hit Michael’s again and look for something in a darker color.
Other Fancy Things to Do that the family might like (placing wishes in a jar, burning letters after the service, etc). Buy the appropriate items with the family’s approval and be responsible for getting them where they need to go.
House Protection: Get someone (hopefully not closely related or a good friend) to stay at the house during the funeral. Unfortunately, houses are sometimes burglarized while the funeral is going on (the time of the service is usually in the paper, after all) — burglars can be pretty sure most people are at the service. I’ve loaned my dog Clara for this service, too — a good barker and someone to call the police if there’s any problem is added peace of mind.
7. After the Service
Cleaning: If people are coming to the house, don’t bother really cleaning that much. Do what you can to help tidy. No one will care, honestly.
Doing: That said, if you’re at the wake/reception, and things need doing, do them. Take liberties. Ask for forgiveness if you overstep. Wash the glasses by hand. Figure out where the paper towels are stored by looking through cupboards. Make tea without being asked. This goes double for when you’re just hanging out with the bereaved, before and after the funeral.
Drinks: Stock up on all the drinks. People will bring food, but have plenty of drinks of all kinds.
Food: People will bring cakes and cookies and casseroles, but when in doubt, bring over a shitton of wings. For people who’ve been grieving and forgetting to eat anything besides cookies, this straight-up delicious barbecued protein can save their lives.
To the same point, don’t send flowers, send an Edible Arrangement. I have no affiliation—I just know that we got two last month, and both times, the whole family stood around the kitchen eating that fruit right off their perfect little sticks. They’re expensive and delicious, and they’re appreciated.
Extra little things:
If you can’t do any of these things, that’s okay, too. Just show up. Hug. Listen. Don’t try to fix anything, and for the love of all that’s holy, don’t say something stupid like, “God picks the prettiest flowers first,” or you’ll get a well-deserved punch in the snoot. Show up the next day. And the next one, too.
Don’t forget to keep showing up.
Everything’s a blur up to the funeral itself, and then the wake is overwhelming, and then everyone is gone. Those first few weeks and months (and years) are the hardest. Keep texting. Keep emailing. Don’t feel hurt if you don’t hear back (this isn’t about you). Just keep letting them know you’re thinking about them. Drop off random gifts. Send cards out of the blue, or on holidays (which are always so much worse than projected, even the Hallmark ones). When you send a card, remember something specific about the person who died. Not so much, “I’m so sorry for what you’re going through,” but more of “Remember when he fell off his bike and didn’t cry even though his elbow was fractured? Wow, what a tough, amazing kid he was.”
Remember that some people Will Not Help. They will be there in body but not in spirit. Or worse, they just won’t show up at all. This doesn’t mean they’re not grieving. It means that they just can’t deal with what’s going on inside themselves. They can’t do it. Try to forgive them, I guess? I have a hard time with that, but that’s because I grieve by doing, not by evacuating.
The people who help won’t be the ones you think will. The ones who do will surprise you. This is part of grief. Lala always says that after her first wife died of cancer, she was completely astonished by who showed up and who didn’t. Be the person who shows up.
Book recommendation: Buy How to Survive the Loss of a Love for a surviving spouse.
Don’t blame anyone for anything. Don’t argue about anything, either. If the person you’re helping wants to yell at you, let them (this is the rare time I’ll tell you this – letting them roar harmlessly is a gift you give them – they might need to roar). For the love of God, don’t fight over divvying up possessions. Who cares what your cousin wants? Is it worth a fight, to have what you didn’t have last week? Nah. Be the proverbial duck, let it all run off.
On the same note, though, so take care of yourself. Talk to your lovies. Get hugs when you need them. I’m a huge advocate for watching reality TV. When my mom was dying, I watched America’s Next Top Model. While in Idaho, I watched The Bachelorette (got all the way to the last episode and don’t even care enough now to finish watching). There’s something powerful about being swept up in problems that simply do not matter at all. Reality TV is kind of magical for grief.
Indulge in vices if they’re not too unhealthy and you’re not maintaining sobriety. If you are, get to more meetings than normal. You’re holding weight on your shoulders — find people who can help you bear a little of that.
Bonus list: Here’s a good PDF checklist I found while cruising around online if you need more help – this one is a little overwhelming, but just printing it out and offering to help fill it in could be a huge help.
Overall: Be the person who shows up. Who sticks around.
You’ve got this.
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