Cards, carnations and casseroles—that’s how we used to do sympathy. But, social media has changed everything. By now, anyone on Facebook has seen death notices by family, friends and acquaintances. These messages prompt us to reach out to each other—and we do. After posting about my own mother’s death over a year ago, I received hundreds of heartfelt sentiments on my wall. It was a little overwhelming, but, in the moment, much appreciated.
Grief is a hungry monster, and what I wanted were practical expressions of support from my community.
As the weeks passed, however, those electronic blips of kindness were forgotten. There were details to be settled, a memorial service and lunch to plan, accommodations and travel to be arranged. Like the February snow falling around me, the cold fact of Mom’s death settled in, and, with it, messy emotions. Grief is a hungry monster, and what I wanted (and found difficult to ask for) were practical expressions of support from my community. But I’m lucky. After the initial tsunami of electronic sentiment, tangible signs of love eventually arrived.
There were the cards: carefully selected and handwritten, coming from friends, far off family, and, maybe most touching, acquaintances. I kept them in a stack on my desk, and in the months after Mom’s death, re-read them—proof that Mom mattered not only to me, but to others.
There was the cousin who hosted the funeral brunch at her club, paying the rental fee herself. A newer friend, who hadn’t known Mom, generously set up the food, served and cleaned up afterward. I was also blown away by the folks who came to the funeral: the work friend from 28 years ago who attended by herself; the estranged friend there anyway, because she knew and loved Mom; the entire choir my Dad once belonged to, who movingly sang the songs my mother requested.
And of course, I’ll never forget the friends and family who traveled from out of town to say goodbye to Mom—Cleveland, Florida, New Jersey, and Colorado. Their presence healed me—their thoughtfulness forever changing the way I respond to death. It makes me now want to be the one who shows up or helps out. And, when I can’t, send the card, bake brownies, or call—demonstrating the importance of their loved one.
I’m not alone in appreciating practical, heartfelt expressions of sympathy. I recently asked friends what gestures helped them most in their grief. Here’s what they suggested:
Be specific: Don’t say, “If there’s anything I can do…” This puts the onus on the grieving to come up with an idea in their confusion and overwhelm. Instead, Sue Tannehill offers, “I’d like to bring over dinner on Wednesday evening, or is Thursday better?”
Make it easy: Suzanne Morgan advises this to those who would provide a meal, “Make the serving dish recyclable so I don’t have to wash and make sure the right person gets the right dish. Too much to do when one’s world has crashed.”
Go above and beyond: Lynn Averill was moved after the death of her husband when, “One friend came to the wake with a cooler in her car and arranged for it to be moved to my house. Inside, there were about a dozen pre-cooked, single portion meals, all frozen, wrapped and labeled.”
Be creative: after the death of Debbie Patten’s son, “one friend came over and brought soothing music and did a foot massage with reflexology and scented oil, and did not say much at all to me—that was the best, most loving action.” After Mary Gregory’s mom died, she received, “a tape of Pachelbel’s Canon, a scented candle and bubble bath—one of my favorites.”
What these expressions of sympathy have in common is that they are not reflexive, easy, nor easily forgotten.
Empathize: Sherry Burns advises, “Tell someone to take time to grieve. Don’t try to ‘cheer them up.’ It’s a process that has many stages. Also, remind them that as bad as it is at the moment, just know that it will get better. It always does.”
Look for the need: One woman was able to help a friend whose husband was dying—listening to her and, “when she said things like ‘my garden is getting out of control,’ or ‘the weeds are stressing me out,’ going over to her place and doing the yard work for her.” Christie Thomas favors telling the grieving, “in advance if you’re going to Target or the grocery, and asking what you can get them while you’re there.”
Talk about them: Dean Oberg proposes, “Sharing memories of the good times had with the deceased. Maybe things you never knew before, and how they touched or made your life better.”
Be present: Michael Collins advances, “Be there. Don’t go away. Sometimes just be quiet. Many (most) people are just clumsy, awkward, unhelpful, or not there. Or not there long enough. Or not enough there.” Beth Genco wrote, “You don’t need to say the perfect thing. Maybe a hug.”
Use technology for good: Lucia Sommer advises, “organizing a care circle so people can take turns cooking, cleaning, and doing other chores and errands.” She shared free online platforms that make this incredibly easy such as Lotsa Helping Hands, Carebridge, and Meal Train.
Keep in touch: David Dietz comforted a childhood friend who recently lost both parents, writing, “I reach out every couple of days and ask him how he’s doing. The other is that I let him know that I love him like a brother.” Christina Abt encourages, “remembering the person who passed on holidays and special days throughout that first year—always the toughest.” The most moving correspondence I received was an Easter card from a cousin months after my mother’s death. She recounted how much Mom meant to her, signing off with, “My kids loved your mom too.” I kept that card and it still makes me cry.
What these expressions of sympathy have in common is that they are not reflexive, easy, nor (like a Facebook message), easily forgotten. In a very busy world, they require slowing down, thinking of another and taking concrete action.
It’s that lavish thoughtfulness during our darkest days that lets us know we’re not alone in our grief, and that our lives (and those we love) amount to something. For in the end, as Anne Lamott says, we are all just walking each other home. It sure helps to have some company along the way.