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Why Not to Say ‘How Can I Help?’ to the Grief-Ridden

Don't ask the bereaved what you can do — just do something


After a recent funeral, my husband, Bob, and I drove to the widow’s home at her request to help greet visitors. It had been a large funeral and hoards of people, many of them from out of town, were expected to drop by. When the bereaved woman came through the door, she muttered, “Oh, God, look at all the dust on the floor.” Then she retreated up the stairs to her bedroom, where, I assume, she treated herself to a hard-earned cry.

Immediately, her son and I stood up. He hauled out the vacuum, I grabbed a broom, and we began to clean the floor. Taking our cue, others rose to help. In short order, the bunch of us put that dust where the widow plainly wanted it: in the trash can.

That little story, though not very interesting, tidily illustrates the best answer I can offer to a question common in the wake of death: “What can I do to help?” Certainly, it was the question I heard most often following the 2009 death of my first husband, Joe.

Don’t Put More Burden on the Bereaved

It’s uncomfortable, this business of what kind of help to offer when someone you care about loses a loved one. Offers of “Anything, really anything, just ask” are well-intended. But here’s the truth: an offer of “anything” is an offer of nothing at all. When someone is feeling weighed down by grief, the last thing he or she wants is the additional weight of having to figure out something for you to do.

Concrete offers are far better. “I’m heading to the store. What can I pick up for you?” “How about if I drop your son at soccer practice tomorrow along with mine?” “Are there any phone calls I can handle for you?”

Often, what’s needed is not as predictable as people suppose. (Yes, bereaved people need to eat — but you might want to survey the array of untouched gift platters on the kitchen counters before adding to the overload.) Nor are they as melodramatic as people tend to imagine. (“If you find you’re up at 2 a.m. and can’t sleep, I’m your person. Call!” Um, probably not.)

The key is to listen and watch closely. Though expressions of need are not always obvious or overt, they’re there. Is a bereaved father repeatedly trying to silence his dog’s barking? Offer to take the dog for a walk. Is a widower’s attention wandering from the person talking to him? Step in and take over the conversation. Is a widow disturbed by the dust on the floor? Grab a broom. Such tasks may seem small and inconsequential, but they’re not. They’re what the bereaved person needs in a given moment — and your considerate response is appreciated.

How Friends Eased My Sorrow

Sometimes, if you pay close enough attention, you can offer a response that answers a profound need — perhaps one the bereaved person wasn’t even aware of. This was brought home to me by friends in 2010, following the death of my sister, Ann.

In the weeks before Ann’s death, I’d been disturbed by how the here-and-now of her illness was blocking my there-and-then memories of our relationship. Each time I tried to recover a treasured memory, I came up blank. Finally, a single memory jarred loose, one I hadn’t thought of in decades. But it was so small and insignificant that it provided little solace.

On Ann’s burial day, as family formed a circle around a gaping hole in the ground, her husband explained that in his Mennonite faith, the funeral tradition was for people to speak if they felt so moved. I hadn’t known this was coming, and as my younger brother Jonathan offered his beautiful prepared remarks, followed by my father, who spoke movingly of his love for Ann and his pride in her accomplishments, I felt increasingly at a loss. When I felt Dad’s eyes on me, I saw no option but to offer that one tiny memory. “I don’t know why this moment sticks with me,” I said, “but it’s been playing over and over in my head.”

We’re young, maybe 10 and seven, seated on the wood floor of the bedroom that we’d once shared and now is Ann’s alone. As we play a game of jacks, we also try to memorize the lyrics of America on Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends album. Back and forth we pass the red ball, round after round of jacks. Each time the song ends, I move the record player needle back to the beginning of the America track until we’ve both mastered all the verses.

That’s it. Just us. The jacks. The song. It felt so inadequate. No tribute at all.

Back home the following night, in honor of Ann, I hosted a gathering of local friends, most of whom had met my sister. (She’d visited often during Joe’s illness and after his death.) Over wine and cheese, I confessed my dismal performance at graveside. Out of a lifetime of memories, I’d managed to come up with just one trifling moment, one that said nothing about the remarkable woman Ann had been, one that failed to pay tribute to her many accomplishments, one that … I couldn’t even say why that one.

Sensing an opportunity to ease my distress, my friends flew into action. First, they Googled and dated the release of S&G’s Bookends album. 1968. That, they noted, meant Ann and I were more like 13 and 10, a far greater maturity gap than 10 and seven. Then, drawing on their intelligence and compassion, these wonderful women deconstructed the hell out of my little jacks story. A sampling of their comments:

“Home. Play. Safety. Music. This is ‘America’ as we iconically envision it, yet seemingly rarely is home life so tranquil, safe and loving.”

“You’re like girlfriends, not sisters. You’re on the teen side; she’s still fairly young. It shouldn’t necessarily have worked.”

“It suggests a depth of connection. Many girls who are 13 would rather die than go back in age to playing jacks. And you let her into your world by sharing the song.”

“It was one of the small moments with your sister. Isn’t that what life is all about?”

“That song is about love. I love this story.”

As they burnished that moment into something that glistened with meaning, I came to love it, too. These friends helped me see that it was not only a fitting tribute, but a perfect one. Not to Ann — but to our unique and irreplaceable bond as sisters.

By listening closely, my friends heard my need. By responding, they rescued me.

Jill Smolowe
By Jill Smolowe
Jill Smolowe is the author of Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief. To learn more about her book and her grief and divorce coaching, visit www.jillsmolowe.com.

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