I have been working on this post for quite some time. This summer marked two years since my brother passed away, and we’re nearing a year since we lost my mom to cancer.
With the holidays quickly approaching, I thought now would be a good time to finally share a few more thoughts on how to help a friend coping with loss. I shared this post two years ago (and an update a few months later) but after losing my mom and trying to navigate life all over again, I’m expanding on a bit more and sharing some gift suggestions.
I don’t want any of the recommendations to come off poorly as I’m extremely thankful for each and every bouquet that was delivered, card and text that was sent and more, but I’m sharing my honest thoughts in hopes that it will help even just one of you reading this. I also share this while recognizing that it’s still uncomfortable for me to help someone else going through loss as everyone has a different experience. I’m not perfect and there are people I wish I would’ve reached out to earlier or sent a better text or card. Death and illness are hard, messy and uncomfortable topics.
Beyond the initial days and weeks of losing a loved one and the holidays, there are different times of the year that trigger sadness. And, oftentimes it’s hard to know unless the person who is grieving tells you or you knew the family extremely well. My mom passed away December 19 last year. We found out her treatment wasn’t working the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (about an hour after we closed on our first home). Needless to say, the next month is going to be really hard for me – not to mention that my brother’s birthday is December 17.
After she passed away, I sort of went into autopilot. Unfortunately, it was like Groundhog’s Day with making funeral arrangements and writing the eulogy. Then Christmas came and went (it was more about getting through the day) and I went back to work all while trying to make our house a home. I kept myself so busy that I didn’t leave much time to process the loss.
On Valentine’s Day, it hit me while I was at work and someone was talking about what they got their daughter. My mom loved all of the holidays – not just the big ones – and always put together a little something for us and realizing I didn’t have that hit me hard. I went straight home from work in tears and watched a sappy Hallmark movie. One of her friends rang the doorbell at the most perfect time with a little gift basket of cookies. She had no idea I was having a really rough day, and it meant more than she knew.
I guess I’m sharing all of this to say that there isn’t a bad time to reach out to someone because when you send even a text on a random day, maybe that will be just what they need when they least expect it.
What you can do in the first few days or weeks:
Ask smaller questions or just do
I mentioned this in my post last year, but try asking them how are they doing today or how has the week been as opposed to the generic and automatic how are you? That’s a really big question, and do you really have the time or want the answer?
One of the most common ways to end a text when someone is going through something tough is ‘let me know if there is anything I can do.’ While this is coming from a good place, it leaves the ownership on them when in all honesty, I didn’t even know what I would want to do in one hour let alone what I would want someone else to do for me. Plus, I’m bad at asking for help to begin with. Instead, you could offer something more specific. If they live nearby, offer to get their mail (my girlfriend did this for me when we lived downtown but were staying at home) or if they have a pet, offer to take them on a walk or feed them. Depending on the time of year, you can help with yard work.
You can always drop something off at their door and send a text letting them know it’s outside. They might not be up for talking but that gesture is really kind.
Or when in doubt, if you’re on your way to see them, text them and ask if they want Starbucks (or their caffeine of choice). You can also bring some quick snacks that are easy to eat on the go or easy to grab without much thinking at home (granola bars, cut up fruit, chex mix, etc.)
Avoid certain phrases
“She’s in a better place.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“I know what you’re going through.”
The person who lost someone might eventually use them but especially in the beginning, nothing seems fair. I also struggled with the phrase “This is a new normal.” Nothing about what we were going through was normal. It’s okay to say that you don’t know what to say but that you’re thinking of them.
Don’t make it about you
I had multiple people tell me about other family members they had recently lost, and it took a lot of self-control not to stop the conversation. While I felt awful that they had lost someone, oftentimes it was an older family member or a distant relative – someone that didn’t feel as close as a mom or brother (i.e. not the same thing).
I really try to remember this when I’m reaching out to others who have lost someone or are dealing with a recent cancer diagnosis. Every cancer journey is different. And you just don’t know what else they have on their plate or maybe they’re coping with how their relationship is with a loved one. I was extremely fortunate to be so close to both my mom and brother but I know that’s not the case for everyone. Life is complicated.
Reach out when the world goes back to normal for everyone else
One of the hardest things for me was seeing the world go back to normal for everyone else and feeling like they didn’t know the pain I was still feeling.
I have friends who send notes around Irish Fest (a weekend festival in the summer) because they know how much our family loved that weekend. I have another girlfriend who texts me ‘Thinking of you’ or even just a heart emoji on the 19th of every month. Like I said earlier, even the little gestures can go a long way.
Other Gift Ideas:
Honestly, a handwritten note means more than you know. You can include a special story/memory of the loved one as well. It can be really comforting to hear stories they may have never heard before (at least it was for me), and I loved that people kept their memory going as opposed to not talking about the past.
A gift card to a local spa
Let them get out for a massage or mani/pedi on you as they haven’t put themselves first in awhile.
These are definitely the go-to gift. If you can, I would wait a week or even a month and send them later. During the first week, we weren’t home as often as usual since we were making funeral arrangements, and admittedly, we got a lot of flowers. Coming from someone who loves flowers, they were all beautiful but a bit overwhelming to find space for throughout our homes and then I felt bad that we weren’t around to enjoy them. A few people sent flowers a month from when our brother and then mom passed away, which was a pleasant surprise and a much needed pick me up. Or you could consider sending a plant that will last longer.
Consider how many people you’re feeding. The home cooked meals were always delicious but at times, leftovers can get overwhelming, and we felt bad if we needed to throw food out. We had a really amazing group of friends that knew our family’s food preferences and spaced out the feedings to make sure the refrigerator didn’t get too full.
Dinner becomes the go-to meal so consider dropping off bagels or muffins so that they have something for breakfast too.
Another option would be to send gift cards to their favorite fast food restaurants (including their favorite pizza place and/or Chinese restaurant) for when they don’t want to think and want something quick.
Some of my thoughtful friends gifted truly special pieces.
A bracelet with my brother’s monogram.
A bracelet with my mom’s signature.
A rose necklace.
My friend and her daughter made me a gorgeous print with lyrics to the song from my mom’s funeral “A heart that’s broke is a heart that’s been loved”. My friend cut out hearts from paper that her daughter painted. It’s a really special piece.
Starbucks Gift Card
If you have the app, you can even order one and send it straight to their email (I think you can text it now too?). It takes under five minutes, and I loved getting those emails. I send these pretty frequently now – even if it’s only $5 to cover one drink.
Several of our girlfriends put together some amazing gift baskets. They included candles, chocolate, savory snacks, mints/gum, lotion, eye drops, hand sanitizer, hot chocolate, tea, essential oils, wine, cozy pajamas, nail polish, blankets and more. You can customize it for what might help them relax the most.
While this list is by no means everything you can do for someone (and obviously it’s a bit catered to my likes and interests), these were some of the things I appreciated most. I wanted to reiterate one more time how grateful I am for each and every gift we received (I’m still working on thank you notes from last year), especially knowing how hard it can be to try to reach out to our family after experiencing more loss in two years than we ever could have imagined. We are blessed with a truly incredible support system.