Helping out after a tragedy

By Mir
June 3, 2008

The very pretty Stephanie writes:

Dearest wise and beautiful Mir,

This question isn’t really about bargains, but it is an area in which I felt your readers, including me, could benefit from your knowledge. The husband of a dear friend of mine, though not a very close friend, recently and very unexpectedly passed away. They have two young children. In addition to the overwhelming grief, I know that it will be tough on her to keep the household running, so I want to help her as much as I can. I dropped off some non-perishable, healthy, snack-like items so the kids can have something good to eat without her having to prepare anything, as well as some toilet tissue since so many people will be coming and going. I left her a card saying that I was there for her and the kids for anything they needed. I know she has family and close friends who will be there for her, but I would like to do more. Do you have any suggestions? Thanks!

My condolences to your friend and her family, Stephanie. That’s a terribly sad situation, and it’s so sweet of you to want to think of ways to really help her out.

First of all, I want to tell you that I think the snacks and toilet paper idea was genius. You know it’ll all be needed/used, and it doesn’t feel like an overwhelming thing, and so kudos to you for coming up with such a great idea.

As for what else you can do, I have a few thoughts, and then I hope others will chime in.

She’ll need you more later. If she has family and such around right now, chances are that her fridge and freezer have been stocked and there are people tending to her every need—for now. The most difficult part of resuming life after a tragedy is that after a little while, everyone goes home and you are expected to “go back to normal” on your own. Right now she has help; later, she won’t. In a few weeks, anything you do will be even more appreciated than anything you could do right now.

Offering is nice, but doing is better. Speaking from personal experience, I know that even when someone says “let me know if I can do anything” that it can be very hard to actually ask for that help, even when you know it would be given willingly. When the time comes, don’t ask if she needs anything; show up with a complete meal (that can be easily reheated or eaten as is), or call her up and say “I’m taking my kid to the park today, how about I pick up your kids and take them with us?” Don’t be pushy, of course, but “I’m here for you” is easy to disregard. A solid proposal (or a pan of lasagna) is not.

You just happened to be cleaning out the closets…. This one is easy if you have an older kid than she does, but it can easily be accomplished with a “friend” as well. You (or your friend) were cleaning out the outgrown clothes and oh! Look! Here’s a bag (or two or three) of hand-me-downs that would probably fit her kid(s). Or here are some outgrown toys we were going to get rid of. How about that? You just thought you’d drop it off. If she can use ’em, great, and if not, no biggie, feel free to donate them. This is no-pressure help (and if you do it right—and really, who amongst us doesn’t know someone with hand-me-downs they’d be happy to offload?—totally without cost to you).

It’s berry season. I forget where you’re located, Stephanie, but around here we’re knee-deep in berries. If you go out picking, maybe you’ll end up with an extra bucket you could just drop off for her and the kids, because oops, you picked too many.

How close you are to this woman is going to govern how much emotional support you can actually lend, of course, but in the meantime, the best help comes in the form of things that are useful but also appear to be low- or no-cost so that she doesn’t feel guilty or beholden.

Readers: Other suggestions?


  1. When my husband lost his job last Nov, I really appreciated the anonymous grocery store gift cards I received in the mail. It helped so much!

  2. When we couldn’t afford Christmas for the kids due to the fact that we had NO MONEY, we came home from church to find a $200 gift certificate to the mall. After unleashing a wave of tears, we were able to give the kids something after all.

    I still don’t know who to thank for that gift of relief, but you can bet your booties that we’ve been watchful for whomever needs a gift fairy each Christmas (or other times of the year as well.)

  3. When my dear friend’s husband passed away suddenly a few years ago, Christmas was her major stumbling block — emotionally, not (as much) financially. Her husband had always done the decorating, and four months after his death, she was still too grief-stricken to deal with it. So another friend and I went to the dollar store and bought lights, wreaths, and all manner of holiday baubles, and decorated the house when we knew she would be out with the kids. The kids were very glad to have the decorations up, and my friend was relieved to have not disappointed them.

    So, my advice to the letter-writer is to come up with ideas to address areas that the husband usually took care of — maybe lawn work (I also raked her leaves that first year) or pet walking.

    Also, think to the future — if he always did the snow shoveling, that’s going to get lost in the first wave of neighbors and friends being helpful. When cooking for your own freezer, making an extra (disposable) tray of lasagna to bring over in a month is a good idea. And so forth.

  4. I agree about needing help later on.

    Also, if you are bringing food immediately after hearing of the event, consider breakfast food.

    One of the handiest things we got right after my mother died was some milk, some OJ, and a nice tray of pastries we used when people were in and out of the house that morning.

  5. Everyone has such good ideas.

    How old are her kids? If they’re small, what about dropping off diapers/wipes or formula or baby food, since that stuff always seems to run out at inconvenient times? I love Busy Mom’s idea of bringing milk too.

    You could offer to help chauffeur the kids to daycare/school/wherever.

    You could offer to do some laundry, clean the bathrooms (which are likely getting a lot of use with all the visitors!) or the kitchen for her.

    Remember her on the dates/events that might be especially tough for her – all the “firsts” without him (like her first birthday after his death). Offer to take her to lunch or something – something to let her know you haven’t forgotten her (or him).

    Depending on the kids’ ages, what about books on the loss of a parent to help her help the kids process their grief?

    My condolences to your friend.

  6. What about taking her car and filling it up with gas? Mowing her lawn? Maybe she wasn’t the one to handle home repair – type up a list of your favorite plumber, appliance repair company, exterminator, and other “emergency” numbers and put them on her fridge so she’ll have them when she needs them.

    I agree with other ideas about scooping up her kids occasionally and taking them to the park or something, if the kids are up for it.

  7. I was ten when my dad died, and I remember a classmate of mine mowing our yard that summer. I purchased Richard Paul Evans’ book The Dance several years later and wish I’d had it then. It’s a children’s picture book about how a father is there through his daughter’s milestones, always watching. At the end, when he is dying, she asks him how she can go on, and he replies something to the effect of he will always watch her, even when she can’t see him. The illustrations are achingly beautiful, and I can’t read the book without crying (in a good way!)

  8. Your suggestion that she will need you more in two weeks is spot on. When my husband passed away I was numb and with all the family and friends around was having everything done for me.

    Couple suggestions for > 2 weeks:
    Plan a night out with her ever so often. Have your husband or neighbor babysit and take her to a movie. If she says no – insist (me 😉

    Show up with a complete meal every Wednesday (?)

    Try to engage her in activities – insist (again = me 🙂

    It’s way to easy to sit in the house and wallow in the pity and grief.

  9. To add –

    She will want/need time with real genuine grown-ups. It’s hard to be the only adult in the house 24/7 (oh God is it). Doesn’t mean a big-deal play date for the over 18’s, just means maybe seeing if she wants to join in a book club or a knitting-and-not-knitting club or something (or just hanging out at your house or hers and TALKING).

    It’s hard, hard, hard to keep on taking. You’re always grateful, but (at least I am like this – probably others are more graceful) it’s so difficult to be the person who has BE grateful all the time. So it’s hard to ask, yes, but sometimes even hard to acknowledge. I did my best, honest I did, but it was really, really difficult to keep writing notes that I felt like said, “hey, thanks for the handout since we’re so destroyed here. Don’t mind us, really, just… thanks.”

    Services are often easier to accept than goods, even if they’re desperately needed. I would totally echo the, “I was going through my closet and…” sentiment above – those used clothes came with love already worn into them and didn’t hurt my pride. (I know, I come off as a totally ungrateful bitch don’t I?)

    If she wants to talk about her husband – LET HER. Listen to the story she has to tell and if it’s funny, laugh! She loved him, she misses him, she might want to talk about him. I know it makes people uncomfortable but for me it was a way to keep that part of my life a living, loving memory.

  10. When my dear friend passed away, leaving a husband, a toddler and a newborn, we (playgroup) started an account for him at a local prepared dinners place (4 options of full entree / side dishes a day – just heat in the micro), so that down the line, there was always healthy food available without much work.

    We also gathered pictures we had of her with and without her kids(pics from our cameras, many we’d never shared) and made a scrapbook.

    Additionally, many of us wrote letters to the kids talking about their mom, sharing stories and things we wanted them to know about her.

  11. My condolences to your friend. When a co-worker lost her husband a few years ago, we made dinners for her once a week — after she came back to work. It helped ease her transition into single motherhood and it reminded her that we were still there for her. Nothing can make the pain go away, but being there is everything.

  12. When I had a death in the family a couple of years ago I was unbelievably grateful to the people who brought by feminine products, TP, kleenex, and simple food items like oatmeal packets, individual yogurt, bagels and cream cheese, etc.

    I would like to second what Mir said: don’t forget about the person two weeks, a month, two months down the road. She will still need a shoulder to cry on (if you know her very well), someone to talk to, and someone who lets her know that she is cared about and her husband is missed.

    Also, don’t say “call me if you need me” because, if she is like I was, she will feel badly calling people who have already done so much for her. If you know she needs something, just get it. If you think she is lonely, invite her out for coffee (and insist!).

    Try to mention her husband and gauge her reaction. If she seems interested in talking about him, let her. I hardly every talked about my loss because people just seemed uncomfortable and looked like they wanted to talk about something else. On the other hand, if she doesn’t want to talk about him, don’t push it.

  13. I have belonged to a somewhat large online group of Mommies for over 7 years now (we all had our 1st babies in Jan. 02) and when one of our friends had a similiar situation we showered her with gc to Wal-Mart, Target, Kroger, gas stations, and other places that carry necessities. We are so far flung that we weren’t able to do the in-person things (like take her kids to the park, great idea btw!) but the gc allowed us to help out, at least a bit.

  14. Go to your calendar now and reserve the dates for 1 month from his death, 3, 6 and 12 months. Plan something to do with your friend even if it is “let’s take the kids to the zoo”. Call her about two weeks before the anniversary and just invite her without mentioning the fact that it is the anniversary. It may be that she would like some time alone on these days also. So you could offer child care if she refuses your invitation. The most difficult days are the holidays, kids birthdays, kids recitals, and especially something like father/daughter picnics etc.
    If you really want to do something memorable, buy a wonderful plant (rose,or other shrub) and ask her if you can plant it in her yard as a memorial. You can get her children (and yours) to help. It will get the children out of the house and will give many years of joy, providing memories of “Daddy’s rose”.
    I have also “shared” the buy one get one free items from the grocery with someone in need. I’ve taken grocery sacks filled with items…. “I can’t use two of these” and it has always readily been accepted.

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