When someone suffers a devastating loss, it’s not always clear as to what will help them grieve. We are all called to accompany one another through trials and hardship, but it’s awkward and difficult to be direct and ask, “What do you most need?” In fact, this question can often overwhelm the griever, because it’s such an open-ended one that hardly anyone can answer it with confidence in the hours or days following death or loss.
I remember shortly after Sarah was born, and I couldn’t begin to address the overwhelm I was feeling. This is not something that has diminished with time, either. Yet, as with every form of grief, people assume that a person or family “gets over” or “moves on” with their lives at least a year or so after the loss.
But in some situations, grief lingers far longer than we imagine. And it can take on new forms all the time. In our case, it was welcoming a daughter with a lifelong, complicated rare disease. Becoming a caregiver is not something we will relinquish until Sarah is gone (hopefully after Ben and I are). In other cases, when one becomes a widow or widower, navigating the single life, especially when one has been married for decades, is another form of grief.
Grief needs time to be nurtured tenderly. Those of us who struggle through it need at least one or two people who are attuned to when the grief gets harder, people who check in on us long after everyone else has gone.
I found that, if you are the one offering comfort to someone who has suffered loss, it’s best to be direct about what you are able and willing to do to help: “I can bring you a meal on Thursday” or “I’m able to babysit for you on Monday afternoons from 1 to 3.” This is a huge relief for those who dread hearing, “Let me know if you need anything.” (We never do.)
Here are specific ideas using the model of the Corporal Works of Mercy that you can try when someone you know has suffered a loss and you want to help them out. (A separate article will address the Spiritual Works of Mercy.)
Corporal Works of Mercy
To feed the hungry
A baby is born. Someone undergoes emergency surgery. A neighbor dies. A friend’s house burned down. These are just a few examples of situations that warrant love in the form of food. There is nothing so nourishing when you are in the throes of grief than to receive a home-cooked meal. If your gift is to cook, offer to provide a meal – maybe even for a month or two after the loss.
To give water to the thirsty
The thirst of the grieving is usually different than the literal form. We thirst for companionship, for someone to sit with us and allow us to cry or vent. We thirst for friends who drop by with a care package. We thirst for restorative sleep. Slake the thirst of a hurting heart by offering your friendship in simple but meaningful ways.
To clothe the naked
Grief throws everything of its axis. It doesn’t matter if it is expected or a complete shock. No one is truly prepared for the long-term aftermath. In our situation, as with many caregivers, everyday life is hard. We have received boxes of gently used clothing for our children, often arriving during times of financial hardship. Don’t underestimate the gift of clothing, especially for infants and small children.
To shelter the homeless
If there’s one thing Ben and I long for more than anything else this season in our life, it’s a true reprieve – a getaway that takes us far from our normal lives for even a short weekend. But for those who have a child with a disability, and other young children in addition, it’s difficult to find anyone generous (or brave) enough to take them for a time so that mom and dad can take a break from the burnout. If you are able to host a family’s kids for a weekend or even a Saturday afternoon, offer to do so for someone who is grieving.
To visit the sick/imprisoned
Many who are mourning a loss or losses have shared with me that they wish they had someone to regularly check in on them after the initial rituals have ended, such as funerals and burials and dinner with extended family. Few people consider how lonely it can be when you have an empty chasm in your heart and feel broken on the inside. It is wearisome and draining. If you have the gift of your time, call and let your friend or family member know you want to spend a few hours to just sit with them. It is an immense treasure that will never be forgotten.
To bury the dead
I’ve met a lot of people who refuse to attend funerals, because they are uncomfortable and don’t like to be reminded of their mortality. But we don’t go to funerals for ourselves. We do it to pray for the one who has died and to support the family. Funerals and viewings are always inconvenient, because they disrupt our lives. That’s how death and birth are – they are interruptions that intend to remind us of the reality that life is fleeting and should not be taken for granted.
Go to a funeral. Pray. All you have to do for the family is say, “I’m sorry.”