20 Things You Can Do For Those Who Are Grieving

This is a post I wrote nearly ten years ago on my son Joshua Michael's website. Since the website is currently offline and so many people keep asking me for it, I thought I would post it here. If you're one of the many people who posted links to the list years ago, I hope you can update the links. Thanks!

My husband and I would like to share some things that people did for us when Joshua died, things which we think might be helpful to do for others who are grieving.  When tragedy happens, sometimes it is difficult to know what to do, yet many of us just want to do something.  When our son Joshua died, so many people astonished us by the helpful and gracious things they did that we want to share them with you.   They are some answers to the question of ‘What’: What can we do now? (the question Fr. Benedict Groeschel recommended we ask instead of ‘why.’)

Some of these things are easier to do for close friends or family, but others can be done for acquaintances, neighbors, or even total strangers who have suffered a loss.

1. Go to the funeral, if there is a funeral.  I don’t think I ever realized how much that means until Joshua’s funeral.  When my husband’s aunts from the Midwest walked in, aunts who had never visited Virginia before, I was overwhelmed.  If you can afford it, if you can make the time, go.  And if you can’t, send flowers or cards.  If you are a close family member or friend and are able to step up to the plate, you could offer to handle the various details of the funeral, cemetery, hospital, or whatever it happens to be that is needed.  Our brothers and sisters took over so many details about the hospital, funeral, insurance, a rental car so I wouldn’t have to drive, the cemetery and other things. This freed us up to be with our children and to spend time grieving, praying, and thinking about Joshua. We were so grateful for this.

2. Visit – if not at the time of the tragedy, then later. At the time of the tragedy, sometimes grieving families are overwhelmed by numbers of well-wishers. So the phone call, visit, or letter that comes six weeks later, six months later, after the hubbub has died down can be of particular importance. One thoughtful thing some of my friends who visited did was to make a point of writing their cell phone numbers on my fridge door so that I could call them whenever I needed to talk.  Just looking at the numbers on a daily basis reminded me that they were there if I needed them.

3. Bring up the cause of mourning in open-ended, sensitive ways.  As time goes on, the grieving person can feel as though no one else remembers the loss.  It is constantly on their mind, yet they dread bringing it up, feeling that they’re just throwing cold water on whatever light conversation is going on.  One mother who lost her infant told me, “I feel as though I’m a walking Death’s Head every time I walk into the room.”  Feeling unable to speak about their loss can make grieving people feel so isolated.  But there are ways you can let them know that you haven’t forgotten, that their loss is on your mind. I appreciated the person who said, “I was just thinking of you the other day,” or “I remember how Joshua used to do so-and-so; you must miss him,” or even just, “I’ve been praying for you.”  If I wanted to talk about Joshua or about how I was feeling, this gave me an opening.  But if I didn’t want to talk, it was still good to know that others remembered.

4. See what it is they might need. Friends from our church organized meals for us.  A local church sent over boxes of disposable plates, cups and silverware the day after the accident.   How did they know that we would be hosting a lot of guests, and that we might not feel up to washing dishes for a while?  It was the perfect assist.  And in the days following the accident, when I felt mostly numb, one thing that broke me into tears was learning that spontaneously, people had started taking up a collection to buy us another vehicle, so that I would no longer have to drive the suburban that hit Joshua again.  Thanks to the assistance of so many people, we were able to buy a new used suburban on Ebay, and we were able to donate the old suburban to another family.

5. Get your group involved. If you are part of a group, such as the Knights of Columbus or the Legion of Mary, encouraging your group to make a contribution in some way to a suffering family can mean a lot.  I don’t exactly know how to articulate this, but grief can make you feel so lonely: to have a group of people acknowledge your grief by helping can be strangely healing. The Knights in our parish not only held a fundraiser but also sent out some men to clean our yard, help do some outside seasonal chores to get us through the summer, and did some little fix-ups such as fixing our screen doors.  But one thing I will mention is that it’s important to ask the family what they most need: sometimes a visit to the family’s home will bring to mind suggestions.  For example, after visiting us, another Knight and his family asked if they could buy us air conditioners, since they noticed our house, which was undergoing renovations, didn’t have central air at the time.  But doing chores without asking the family first can lead to some unexpected consequences: the friends of one family who had lost a child came in one afternoon and cleaned the entire house. The grieving mother was grateful, but she confided to me that months later she still hadn’t found things that were moved during the cleanup.  So asking first is always the best.

6. Make concrete suggestions.  “Is there anything you need?” is an often-heard question which can be difficult for a grieving person to formulate an answer to, because many times, they’re not sure what they need.  So coming up with a concrete suggestion: “Could your family use someone to mow your lawn this month?” is really helpful.  That way, the grieving family has less thinking to do.

7. Consider helping with finances. When Joshua died, Andrew’s brother Mike who lives near us immediately took over all financial arrangements.  He and his wife even paid all our bills until the funeral was over, keeping careful records so that we could pay them back when the dust had cleared. Obviously this was only something a close family member could do for us, but we appreciated it. Gifts of money are usually welcome, since a death often means unexpected expenses or just a tendency to put everything on the credit card and sort it out later. If the family isn’t in need of money, asking them if they would like donations sent to a particular charity as a memorial is sometimes a welcome suggestion.

8. Send pictures.  So many people dug up and sent us framed pictures of our son Joshua that they had snapped at weddings, parties, and other events.  Having these photos meant a lot.  One part of my grief at losing Joshua was realizing that we had no family photo that contained all of us together with Joshua and our new baby. For a long time, I quietly mourned over this.  So it was with amazement that at Thanksgiving, we received two huge gold-framed portraits of our entire family with Joshua at my daughter’s baptism.  They were sent by fellow parishioners who had been attending another baptism at the same time, and just happened to have snapped a photo of our family.  They had the photo enlarged, then had a separate enlargement of Joshua holding my hand cropped out of the photo, and sent that in a matching frame. They had no idea how much this gift meant to me.

9. Remember the kids involved. Children work out their grief differently from adults, but they need special attention too. Relatives invited our children to come to their homes for special visits after Joshua died. Another family sent our children gift cards to a local toy store, and much to our children’s delight, they have repeated their generosity on Christmas and a month ago, on Joshua’s birthday. It gave us something to do to celebrate Joshua’s birthday, which our children were adamant about celebrating, and they were touched that it now seemed as though Joshua were buying birthday gifts for them.

10. Let them know you are praying.  Have a Mass said. Offer a spiritual bouquet. Simply pray. We know that one reason our family has survived is the prayers of so many.  There is no other way to explain how we have gone on without taking into account the power of prayer.

11. Send a grieving basket.  I don’t know if this was an original idea or not, but my husband’s relatives sent us a lovely basket filled with comforting and soothing things: a prayer book, a scented candle, homeopathic calming drops, a journal for  memories of Joshua, lip balm, quality tissues, massage oil, herbal tea bags, a crystal “hope” ornament, and a cuddly teddy bear that one of our children immediately adopted.  We kept the grieving basket on our sideboard and used it whenever we needed it.  Our children particularly loved helping themselves to it. It was so thoughtful.

12. Remember holidays. Christmas is always difficult for those who’ve experienced a tragedy, and I had a difficult time this Easter, when all the readings were about an empty tomb, and I was aware of a tomb that remained full. Father’s Day or Mother’s Day can also be painful. Offering to spend time with a family during those hard times or just sending a card or gift can be a real Godsend.

13. Send or make a prayer shawl.  I found out about the prayer shawl ministry, a group of women who create shawls “knit with prayers” for grieving families. I received one of these beautiful shawls from a group of women in Pennsylvania, and my children love having it. One daughter constantly sleeps with ours, and I know I have snuggled up in it from time to time.

14. Recommend a bereavement program for children. Friends told us a local hospice had a free bereavement program, and we enrolled our children in it.  They were able to make lovely memory boxes for themselves and it was good to have something they could go to that was just for them.

15. Send or make a memorial bracelet.  On Joshua’s birthday just a few weeks ago, I received the most wonderful package.  Kimberlee, a mother who makes jewelry, rosaries, and bracelets with her company Beads of Mercy (www.beadsofmercy.com) had created a gemstone memorial bracelet of Joshua for me. She had spelled out Joshua’s name in silver alphabet blocks, and attached charms for things that Joshua had loved the best: a knight in shining armor, a hammer, and a tiny train.  She also added a small crown for the crown of glory in heaven, and a crucifix and Miraculous Medal.  I was so touched by this.

16. Memorialize or remember the family’s loved one in a public way.  When Joshua died, a local children’s theater group dedicated their performance to him, and later on, our local ballet school did the same with their Christmas Nutcracker performance. Some people have donated money or copies of my book Angel in the Waters to crisis pregnancy centers in Joshua’s name, which moves me. It seems as though Joshua continues to do good, even though he’s no longer on earth. That’s such a healing thing for us, and I think it would bless other grieving families as well.

17. Visit the gravesite and leave something there.  We visit Joshua’s grave every Sunday we are home, and when we have found flowers or cards there from others, it’s very moving to us.

18. Help the family remember. I found I needed to do something positive in memory of Joshua in order to survive, and I’m told that this is a common way for families to turn their sorrow into something positive. At Christmastime our family decided to collect teddy bears in Joshua’s honor to donate to poor mothers. Friends and relatives made that possible. When we expressed a desire to start a small scholarship at Joshua’s nursery school, others came forward to help us.  Something as simple as offering to help a grieving family plant a memorial tree can be welcome.

19. Remember the anniversary. Cards, phone calls, and emails a year later mean a lot. On the anniversary of Joshua’s death, we were out of town: my sister was having her new son baptized James Joshua Hernon, and asked my husband and me to be the godparents.  So friends of ours asked if they could visit Joshua’s grave for us the day of the accident and pray for us.  Of course, we were honored.

20. If you have experienced a similar tragedy, don’t be shy about expressing your sorrow, even if the people involved are strangers.  My worst fear had always been hitting someone else’s child with my car. I never dreamed I might hit my own child.  I didn’t think I could live with myself.  But after the accident, one thing that meant so much to me was letters and emails from other parents who had accidentally run over their own children with their cars.  I could not believe their vulnerability: that they would share their shame with me, that they would reach out to me and urge me to forgive myself. I don’t know their names: some of the cards were unsigned. But those letters meant the most to me, and I thank God for them.


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