Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

How to Support a Grieving Loved One

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Today marks one year since my father-in-law died. We miss him a lot. I look back at this past year, which seems simultaneously long and like a blink of an eye, and wish I’d done a better job at supporting my husband through one of life’s biggest losses. There were moments I was mean when I should have been kind, and short when I should have been compassionate. The other day, someone asked me what advice I have for supporting a partner through the loss of his or her parent, and I wanted to say: Be better than I’ve been. But, while there were things I wished I’d done differently, there were also things I did well. (And keeping in mind we had a newborn at the time and a child who had just started all-day public school a few weeks earlier and was still adjusting to lots of changes, maybe we all did the best we could at the time, anyway).

If you’re ever in a position of supporting a partner through the loss of a parent or close loved one, here are a few tips for easing some of the burden and providing emotional comfort:

1. Offer to help spread the news.
If your partner is too grief-stricken or too tired from lack of sleep or too overwhelmed making end-of-life/ memorial plans, ask for names and contacts, if you don’t have them, of people who should be notified (of an impending or recent death as well as any memorial plans), and, in general, act as a liaison between your partner and his or her personal contacts who may be asking for updates.

2. Help with the planning.
There are so many little details to take care of when a close loved one passes away (especially if he or she was single or widowed), both immediately (funeral, burial or cremation) and also longer-term (settling an estate, disposing of the deceased’s personal items, possibly cleaning out and selling a home, etc.). While you may not be the appropriate person to handle some of these details, there will be quite a few that you can offer to take on (the smallest details — like ordering bagels for the shiva or figuring out transportation to the cemetery– really add up and can be delegated to ease the burden on those handling the larger details).

3. Take on more responsibilities at home.
This is a no-brainer, but if you and your partner live together and he or she is experiencing the loss of a parent, you’re going to have to step up and take on some extra domestic chores, including figuring out childcare when you have a newborn and a kid who needs to be picked up at school at 2:30 and you need to be at your husband’s side across town as he sits with his father in hospice waiting for his final breath.

4. And speaking of kids, if you have them, be extra attentive and loving, and find age appropriate ways of explaining death and how they can honor and maintain their bond with the person they’ve lost. (I love this book for younger kids!)

5. Find ways of remembering and honoring your lost loved one.
Talk about him, play music he loved, go to places he enjoyed, cook some of his favorite foods, bake or buy his favorite cookies, notice things in your children that remind you of him or that he would have been delighted by. Create or make or take something from his home to keep in your home that feels like a part of him with you. I had a small cedar box custom made (here) to keep sympathy cards inside and I had my father-in-law’s initials and “In Memory” engraved on the top.

6. Gently suggest therapeutic activities if you think they’d help with the grieving process.
Exercise, getting out of town, visiting friends, or seeing a therapist can all be healthy ways of moving through and managing one’s grief. As a loved one, it’s ok and appropriate for you to suggest these things, especially when an added benefit can be easing the strain on you and your relationship.

7. Make sure to take care of yourself.
I got what I call “supporter’s fatigue” this past year when I had more than one person close to me experience sudden and deep loss and need my long-term support. It was a challenge to balance their needs and the growing and sometimes very challenging needs of my two young children, as well as my own needs. But I was a better partner, mother, and friend when I got the sleep and exercise I needed, the change of pace and scenery I needed, and when I said “no” to anything I didn’t have to do if I didn’t really want to do it.

8. Ask for/Accept offered help.
Early on, when people ask what they can do to help, tell them. Ask them to babysit, ask them to pick up a few things at the store, ask them to drive you some place or call a cab or just come sit with you when you aren’t able to leave your home. We were very lucky to have friends and family bring food, drive us to the cemetery, pick up Jackson from school, babysit–I even had a friend come over and help me wash dishes, fold laundry, and get the kids to bed when I was so dead tired I could barely stand. When you’re thrown into the tailspin of loss and grief, you may be surprised who’s there for you and how they’re there for you. I suggest taking all the support that’s offered to you so that you can be a better support to your loved one who needs you more than ever.

Anything else you’d add to this list?

4 comments… add one
  • Stillrunning October 26, 2016, 1:22 pm

    I’d add forgive yourself for saying something inadvertently unhelpful or unkind. When my FIL was dying, my husband said he wanted to be able to go to him at a moment’s notice. I still cringe at my reply, that it would be too late.
    When my father was so sick we though he would die, my husband said he would make sure I could be with him, no matter what.

    We often don’t know how we come across until we’re the ones in the situation.

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  • LisforLeslie October 26, 2016, 1:24 pm

    This is a really good list. I would add “Don’t expect your partner to go back to normal quickly.” or however it could be phrased. Everyone has their own grief schedule and it can take a bit of time to work through grief and regain balance. On the day of my dad’s funeral I just remembered looking at the cars on the highway and the construction workers and fast food places and thought “How is this possible, why has the world not stopped?” About 5 months in a co-worker was saying that he really needed me to socialize more with the team and I just told him that my dad had passed away recently and that by the time the workday ended I was barely holding on to any semblance of emotional control. I was exhausted. He visibly blanched and we never addressed it again. It took about 9 months to get to the other side. I was functioning but it was really hard.

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  • ac_iris October 27, 2016, 10:34 am

    Such a great post, Wendy. Thank you for sharing this.

    I lost my mother 3 years ago in December. My mom’s death was unexpected when it happened and we were very close. My husband let me talk about things as much as I needed too and supported me as best as he could. Mirroring what LisforLeslie mentioned, don’t expect your partner to go back normal quickly. The first nine months for me were a fog and I was just going through the motions of my life. I would break down at work and find myself taking walks outside my office building just because I didn’t want to explain the tears to my coworkers and to just clear my head. I am grateful for my husband, grandmother, family, friends and coworkers who have just been there.

    My piece of advice would be don’t be afraid to ask for help and try not to internalize your grief at all times. I struggled with depression after my mom died and didn’t even want to get out of bed some days. I wish I had asked for help sooner. The walls of your home can feel like a sanctuary at times when your are grieving and it is so easy to not want to leave them. Even if you are just going through the motions, get up and take a shower, feed yourself, get out of the house and take a walk or exercise.

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      Dear Wendy October 27, 2016, 11:58 am

      Thank you for sharing that, and I’m sorry for your loss.

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