Thousands of other people are teaching me how to love someone through grief. You see, I realize now I have NEVER been good at reaching out to those who were grieving. I made a lot of excuses such as, "I don't want to intrude", "We're not that close," "I'm sure plenty of other people are doing it," and "I don't want to make them any sadder than they already are." A lot of times I think I just chose my agenda versus reaching out, and I missed many opportunities to walk beside grieving families.
My amazing friend Heidi, who writes the compelling blog Fancy Feet, recently published a great piece about What to Say when a friend has suffered from a tragedy, in Heidi's case, nearly dying in a fiery car crash.
This got me thinking about trying to sum up for you some of what has been done for us. We are truly amazed by the outpouring of love we have received upon losing Jack, and we hope some of these suggestions could help us all know how to "love on" another family in need.
1. PRAY. PRAY. PRAY.
2. Attend the Funeral. To attend funerals people must travel, skip work or school, arrange childcare, and figure out parking and directions. Funerals are inconvenient. The bereaved family knows this and will be blessed and lifted when people extend themselves to be there. Do not worry if you were not close to the deceased, or have been out of touch with the family for many years. Attend anyway. A funeral is a communal event; you will not be intruding. You never know if your presence, or even a glimpse of you or a hug from you will be THE ONE that provides the most comfort.
3. Cook. Have a point person arrange meal sign-up via a website such as Sign Up Genius Consider making a meal and freezing it in your own freezer for when the other meals stop coming. A small family will appreciate smaller meals so they don't feel they are wasting food. We were so grateful to have meals provided for us for almost 4 months!
4. Send a card or a handwritten note. If possible, include a personal story about the the person who died. Even the smallest anecdote is welcome. These are treasured by the family and read over and over. One friend reminded me in a card that one of Jack's first words was "Azalea." How cool is that?
If you are not able to share a personal story, don't worry. A simple, "I am so very sorry for your loss" or "My heart is breaking for you" will help. When you write your letter, consider going ahead and addressing another envelope to send 3, 6, or 9 or 18 months out. The envelope will help you remember to pray for the family, and your next letter will come when most people have stopped sending cards.
5. Flowers can be overwhelming. You may want to consider sending flowers to the home a month or two after the death so that they will not overwhelm the family. Seeing a house full of flowers, that would eventually die, was hard for me.
6. Come by to show your support. When Jack was missing, close friends and family just showed up. They stayed with us until we found out the horrible news of his death. Several sat in the dark at my kitchen table until after midnight to be there when my sister arrived. They all had other things they could have been doing that rainy night, but they showed up.
In the days following a death, a family should have a point person who feels comfortable telling people whether or not it's a good time to visit, because immediate family members may be too shocked and confused to be able to communicate this. When you drop by, be prepared for a quick hug and then to be on your way, but be flexible. If the bereaved family asks you to stay, be open to that, too. Men, don't be shy about coming by. Tim appreciated men dropping by just for him.
7. If you are a close family friend, consider taking any children out for an activity to give them a break from the home atmosphere. Kids need chances to feel "normal" in the midst of grief.
8. Give the family pet some attention. Our neighbor walked Shadow several times a day and even kept her overnight during those first crazy days.
9. Consider the physical needs of the home. Working in the yard could make a family feel too exposed or vulnerable so soon after a death. One friend mowed our grass for us. He didn't know that Jack was the grass mower in our house and that it would be so painful for us to do it ourselves, but he just thought it would be helpful and showed up. Another family raked our leaves. One friend, after asking if it was okay, came by and planted 100 tulip bulbs in our yard while I was at work! Mulching, powerwashing, or cleaning someone's gutters could be other outside jobs a grieving family might not feel able to tackle. You can include your kids in some of these tasks. I remember Tim taking Jack to spread mulch at a newly widowed friend's house and it was a meaningful experience for them both.
10. Drop a gift in the mail. We received wonderful grief books, devotionals, inspirational Cd's, fruit, sweets and more in the mail. Every day of the week I now wear special, meaningful jewelry that represents Jack and was sent to me by people all over the world. These touching gifts took time and effort and are so special to us. Margaret has received small gifts and even a care package from France! Consider mailing a gift card to a restaurant or the movies for a family to use later when they feel up to it. Sometimes a gift card provides the motivation to get out of the house.
11. Make a contribution to charity in the name of the deceased. Consider writing it on your calendar now to do annually so the family will know you have not forgotten. These donations help a family see that something positive can come out of their loss. If you feel led, spearhead a scholarship or a charitable event in the person's name.
12. Mention the deceased person's name when you see the family. It's hard. Do it anyway. The family will cry. Do it anyway.
13. Invite a family member out for coffee, a meal, a walk, or a sporting event. One on one time with a friend, sharing the story and processing it, is a valuable form of therapy. Don't worry if they say no; sometimes they are not ready, or they may need to spend time with someone else right now. Ask anyway.
14. Use texting, email, blogging or Facebook to reach out to the family. You can do this anytime of day or night. I have one friend, whom I did not know very well before the accident, who is committed to praying for us and sending us messages when her baby gets her up at night, which is often. Don't worry about saying the same thing again and again. Your friends are not looking for words of wisdom, just the reminder that you are there.
15. Do not feel offended if your phone calls go unreturned. Just leave a loving message. I have found returning phone calls, or even picking up the phone, to be daunting and difficult, but I still appreciate hearing messages.
16. Send photos or videos of the deceased. Even if you think family members might already have photos from an event, send whatever you have. A new facial expression or a different angle provides them with another glimpse of the one who is gone. The photos on today's post were sent to me by a reader I've never met who realized Jack was in the background of some of her photos from the LEGO store in 2010!
17. Use your special talents to show your love. A poem. A knitted prayer shawl or blanket. A painting. Handcrafted jewelry. We have been stunned by the way people have shared their talents by making us gifts from the heart.
18. Get creative! You have heard how our community tied royal blue bows around trees and mailboxes so that we would feel loved when we drove around town. Then our blogging friends tied ribbons at their homes around the world, and even put them on their Christmas trees. Now, we have made blue ribbon magnets with Jack's Bible verse on them for our cars. Who knew how the simple act of tying a ribbon could bring us so much comfort?
Maybe there is a special color associated with the deceased, or a symbol (dove, butterfly, rainbow) that reminds you of him or her. For Jack, friends and neighbors made LEGO crosses to wear at the funeral. These incorporated 2 of Jack's greatest loves! Maybe YOUR idea or kind gesture will be the one that will most resonate with the family, whether it is tying bows, lining their driveway with luminaria, setting up a Facebook memory page, having a card signed by a Sunday School class, or organizing a tribute such as a balloon release. If you are feeling led to commemorate the deceased in such a way, it could be a big blessing to the family.
19. Even if you didn't know the deceased, consider sharing what the deceased means to you NOW. Eternal life is, well, ETERNAL. Jack's life is affecting people in ways we could never imagined, and we are blessed that so many people are making the effort to let us know, through emails, blog comments, letters, or person. This helps ease the sting. Have you had a dream about the person who passed away? Tell the family.
20. You may want to drop by during the day, or at work. While this not be appropriate for some people, because of their job settings, it has been nice to me to be surprised by friends bearing smoothies, hugs, or a cup of tea at my tear-friendly workplace.
21. REMEMBER. Take note of the season, the day of the month, the day of the week, even the time of day that the deceased person left us. Reach out at these times as you feel led-- through a quick email, text, or note.
22. Write the person's birthday and death day on your calendar. Send a note, an email, or flowers on those days.
23. Memorialize the loved one by planting a tree, erecting a cross, making a stepping stone, donating a book to an elementary school, starting a scholarship, or installing a bench.
24. Visit the cemetery. I have only been to Jack's cemetery 2 times, but I know others have gone FOR me. Maybe a face to face at visit at the family's home isn't your thing, but saying a prayer in the quiet of a cemetery is.
25. Follow promptings. If you feel a prompting to reach out, it could very well mean that the family needs your support. Do not get bogged down thinking about how close you were or weren't before the death. A reality of death is that relationships change during difficult times. The grieving person may not have the support you think they do. YOU may be the one who can best relate, or listen, or connect with a hurting person. It may feel awkward at first, but it's worth it. I think of how blog readers have felt prompted to write to me, share their own experiences, and offer prayer. If they had gotten bogged down about our not knowing each other "in real life," they would never have reached out.
26. Find resources! We were too overwhelmed to find grief therapists, grief centers, and grief camps for our family. We needed other people to help us with this, once again NOT trying to "fix us", but pointing us toward things that could give us support. Don't assume that family can do this on their own.
Okay, so this is a VERY long list, and if it weren't after midnight, it would probably grow longer. I hope it doesn't sound entitled, or like I think other people should take care of every aspect of our family's life, just because we lost Jack. These are just some of the incredible ways people have reached out to us, and I hope by sharing them others can be helped similarly.
Of course, NO ONE can do all of these things. But someone did do EACH of these things. And more.
Love is a verb.