How to Help a Grieving Family

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, we can do to take away the grief for a family who has recently lost a loved one. There are, however, things we can do to show them we care and to make living life a little bit easier in those first few days and weeks of intense sorrow.

Let me assure you now that my ideas are not exhaustive. Whatever you have done in the past is completely warranted and acceptable. These ideas are for those of us who want to do something and simply don’t know what to do.

We all want to do something. While we can't take away their grief, here are some ideas to show support and make life a little easier. There's only one rule:  Do Something.

Whether you’re an extended family member, a close neighbor, or an acquaintance two towns over, there are many ways to love on a grieving family. I know from experience (after losing my 22-year-old brother in a car accident several years ago and losing my mother-in-law to cancer just last week) that there is only one rule: Do something.

Be there.

If you’re nearby and you know the family well, don’t be afraid to visit their home in the hours and days after the death. They need your hugs and your sympathy. In some situations, those most affected are unable to receive visitors and don’t want to talk. Still go. Someone will likely be there to receive your condolences for the family. In other situations, the family wants to talk. They need to share memories. They want your stories.

One of my in-law’s long-time friends stopped by and shared a cute, funny story with the family about my mother-in-law. After giggling, they wrote it down. It is that important to the family to have the stories.

There is a guest book at the funeral home (for the viewing) and the funeral for a reason. The family doesn’t always know or remember who attended, but they want to know! Your presence does make a difference. It’s overwhelming emotionally, but there is comfort in knowing that their loved one was so important to so many people.

If you live far away or other commitments prevent you from visiting the family personally or attending the service, be sure to send a card. I’m preaching to myself here because I know how one day turns into the next and we all get busy. Sometimes a week will go by and I still haven’t sent my card. Send it anyway. DaySpring often has boxes of cards on sale. It’s a great plan to have sympathy cards on hand at all times.

Feed them.

My brother’s accident happened in the afternoon, and by the time I arrived to my parents’ house just a few hours later some friends had already brought food. The next morning as we were all rolling out of bed after a fitful, sleepless night, a friend walked in with a huge, piping hot breakfast casserole.  The food didn’t stop for days, overflowing our refrigerator and freezers. The experience repeated itself earlier this week at my in-laws’.

Food and drink is a necessity, and when a loved one is lost, everything strips down to necessities. Having those needs met by others is truly a gift in a terrible time. If you know of specific health concerns, allergies, or dietary needs of the family, be sure to accommodate those, but if you don’t, just do something.

  • Freezer friendly main dishes go over well, as sometimes there is just too much of a good thing. It’s a blessing to pull that food out of the freezer in the days and weeks to come, when exhaustion has set in. Meatloaf, casseroles, and pork loin can all be enjoyed now or stashed for later.
  • Use disposable containers when possible so the family doesn’t have to wash extra dishes and keep track of returning items.
  • Think outside the meat and potatoes. That breakfast casserole hit the spot, as did the bagels and cream cheese, and fresh fruit. Heavy meals and sweets are popular items to take to grieving families (in my experience) and while welcome, it’s so nice to grab a handful of grapes or some orange slices. Quick breads and muffins go over well for breakfast and snacks (and are easily frozen). Individually packaged snacks are handy and are helpful for small appetites. (trail mix, yogurt cups, cheese and crackers) The pot of pizza soup that was brought out to the farm on Monday was devoured quickly, too.
  • Bottled water is a gift, as are other individual drinks. We had lots of kids around (Grammy’s 16 grandchildren!) this week, and I know they enjoyed the occasional juice box from the cooler. With all the guests walking in and out, it’s nice to be able to offer and hand people a drink.
  • One kind soul brought lots of coffee, but my in-law’s didn’t have a coffee pot, so she went home and grabbed her coffee pot (one of those big ones with the spout at the bottom) for us to use all week. Oh my word, did we use that!

Supply the necessities.

If you don’t know the family well enough or are nervous about taking food for any reason, there are still plenty of items you can take to them, many of which you likely have readily available.

  • Paper plates, bowls, plastic utensils, and napkins are most welcome. No one wants to do dishes at a time like this.
  • Toilet paper. Call me crazy, but one of my jobs this week was just to make sure we had what we needed, and with 25-30 people in the house all day every day, we needed toilet paper!
  • Gallon freezer bags. They are handy for freezing leftovers.
  • Trash bags. Lots of people + lots of disposable dishes = more trash. Trash bags come in handy.
  • Kleenex
  • Stamps. There will be many a thank you written in a short amount of time. Stamps are a wonderful gift, and one that is easy to give from far away.

Meet their needs.

If their lawn needs mowed, mow it. If their car needs washed, wash it. If their children are going stir-crazy, take them to the park for a couple of hours. Sometimes you don’t ask, you just do.

After the funeral on Tuesday, two of my father-in-law’s best friends disappeared. We didn’t see them at the burial or the reception afterward. Later that day we received a message: “They’re almost finished baling your hay.” They had been in the field all afternoon, doing a job that needed to be done. Oh, the tears. That is meeting needs, friends.

This is sometimes a tricky one because you don’t want to intrude. If you know the family well enough and can see a need, try to meet it. If you’re not sure, it’s absolutely okay to ask, but be as specific as possible. “What time could I pick the girls up this afternoon to play?” “What laundry I could take home and bring back later tonight?” “I’m going to town in an hour. What errands may I run for you?”

They may or may not take you up on your offer, but you offered.

Stay involved.

Eventually everyone is going to go home. They’ll go back to work and school, and life will resume. For them. It has to. But when life resumes for everyone else, that husband or mother or father or wife is left alone with their grief, and that’s when it gets hard. So quiet. So dark. So very difficult.

The best of friends stay involved. Check in once in a while. Take a small candle and bottle of bubble bath. Share a piece of pie and ice cream. Call them up and ask them to go on a walk. Send a “thinking of you” card. Grief doesn’t end with the funeral.

Send a card. Take food. Text a “thinking of you.” Donate to the memorial. Visit the family. Order flowers. Scrub their toilet. Babysit the kids. Share a hug. Buy them a drink. Answer their phone calls. Help write thank yous. Clean up after guests leave. Man the door and the phone so they can take a nap. Wrap them in prayer.

Having been there done that, I can say with certainty that any act of kindness on your part will be well received by a grieving family. It’s never too early. It’s never too late. Just do something.

What acts of kindness from others have helped you in a time of grief? What good things have you done for others?

 

image by Sid

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Comments

  1. I’m so thankful that you shared this, Amy. Sometimes I don’t know WHAT to do, so I don’t do anything. Then I regret not doing anything. Thanks for helping me think outside the casserole dish. :)

  2. Love this! It is often so hard to know what to do and where to help. And the friends that did the hay for you all, what can you say except that it true friendship!

  3. I am a big fan of paper goods and stamps or anything that doesn’t have to find a home if the fridge. The last time I took someone was a few weeks ago. It took apples and your apple dip. :)

  4. My condolences to your family.

    This is a great list. Bottled water is a great idea. Supplying the necessities is so huge! When my grandpa passed away my mom’s small group showed up with a huge box paper products (paper plates, cups, napkins, plastic silverware, paper towels, etc) plus cleaning supplies and it was helpful.

  5. Having been on the giving and receiving end of things several times, I think this is such a helpful, practical list! It even gave me a few ideas I hadn’t thought of before. Thanks so much!

  6. In 2006, we lost one of our sons in a mass shooting. While I was going through the grieving process, I found I was my own worst enemy when I was by myself. It was comforting to me when I was around others as it prevented me from falling into a bottomless hole and withdrawing from my surroundings. So based on personal experience, I would say just being there is more comforting to those who are grieving than anything else you can do. Whether it’s sitting there holding their hand, answering the phone (we had a lot of calls from national news media), accepting deliveries… it really is a comfort.

    • Oh Dena, that breaks my heart. I am so sorry for your loss.

      I think people often are afraid to be in the way, so your encouragement to truly be there is a great reminder.

  7. Kelly Hess says:

    If you don’t feel comfortable going to the house, send a fruit basket! This always gets eaten and appreciated by a grieving family.

  8. When it has been family, one thing I bring is toilet paper. I know it’s probably odd for most people (although it’s listed in this post), but it really does help. When you have lots of people coming to visit, it is sometimes something that is easily overlooked.

  9. Being there so very important. When I lost my brother suddenly last year it was so awesome to sit with people ( some I don’t even know) hear about the impact my brother had on their lives. The baked goods and fruit are great too. The water and juices are great I never would have thought of that.

  10. Thanks for the great reminders in this article. We have learned over the years that it helps not only the grieving family when someone comes to help, but the one who comes to help, too! Doing something or bringing something needful helps friends and acquaintances work thru the grieving process too!

  11. Amy,
    I’m so sorry for your family’s loss.
    I often bake a batch of dinner rolls and take them to the family. They can be eaten with a meal or as a quick snack or made into little sandwiches or frozen for later if needed.
    These are really good ideas. When my grandpa passed away years ago, I remember that someone arrived very soon with bulk amounts of paper plates etc. So very helpful! Someone else brought sandwich fixings for right before we all went to the funeral home. It was quick and very minimal clean up which was a huge blessing.
    Another thing is to take meals in disposable pans and containers if possible. So much easier than having to return everything to their rightful owners!

  12. I’m so sorry you’ve had to go through losing ones you love Amy. It’s never easy. Thank you for this post, it really explains well and gives great advice!

  13. This week we lost my Grandmother. Of our family of 30+ my husband and I are the only family Grandma had that was local. So we have all the family flying in for the weekend for the funeral. Although we are only housing a handful, everyone will be eating and hanging at our home this weekend. This is a bit overwhelming for me as I already have a busy houseful of my own kiddos. A very special friend showed up this week with a huge tray of amazing cookies and a huge tray of oatmeal crème cookies. She must have spent hours preparing them. And she also walked in with 2 bottles of my favorite soda, a case of water and a big ole pack of Toilet Paper. I giggled when I saw the toilet paper because I knew we had both read your blog last week. She didn’t ask if I needed anything, she just told me she was bringing stuff. Had she asked, I would have said no. But, was I ever grateful. I haven’t felt that loved by a friend in a long time. I will surely think of how I care for others the next time someone I know experiences a loss. Thanks for your inspiring post.

  14. Hi Amy! It’s sad what you’ve been through, but I am so thankful you shared your experiences! So many times, a person just doesn’t know what to do, other than send flowers! I am thankful for these very eye-opening suggestions! Now I know what to do if ever the need arises! God bless you and your family as you grieve for your loved ones!

  15. The one thing we all learned after loosing our Dad recently was, never say “If there is anything we can do just let us know” to a grieving family. Our whole family agreed that we will never say that again. We will – just do something. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  16. I’m so glad I stumbled across your article. I’ve been at a loss as to what I can do for my close friends who are currently grieving, and this was such a huge help. Thank you.

  17. Amy thank you so much for sharing your experience and what other people can do in situations like these.
    I have a friend who’s baby just die right after was born, it’s just devastating. She also have other 2 kids so these recommendations are the answer to my question , what can I do for this family?. Now I have a better idea, thank you so much! God be with you and your family.

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  1. [...] How to Help a Grieving Family :: I’m so thankful Amy wrote this. Sometimes I don’t know what to do, so I don’t do anything. Then I regret not doing anything. This post is really helpful. [...]

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