Monday, March 19, 2018

What Can I Do To Help?

"Kids, when your best friend loses someone, you drop everything and rush to his side, only to find yourself standing there with no idea what to do or say."  
                  - Episode: "Last Words," How I Met Your Mother 

It's hard to know how to help, even if you have experienced loss before.  Every loss is different and every person grieves differently, but there are some concrete steps you can offer in an attempt to ease the difficult time.  Just remember that not all gestures will be accepted and appreciated by everyone, so tread forward with care and sensitivity. 

During Shiva:
  • Pay a shiva call.  
    • You don't have to say anything at all.  Your presence alone will show the mourner you care and they will talk to you (or not talk) as the spirit moves them.
    • Your simple presence brings much comfort in this time, whether you are a close friend or a more distant connection.    
  •  Send in a meal.
    • Be advised - some Shiva homes are overwhelmed with offers of food and meals, while others have fewer connections reaching out to help.  Try to find out the lay of the land - who is coordinating, what meals are needed for the week.  
    • Aim for variety and/or try to find out what foods the mourners prefer - healthy, dessert, snacks, drinks, cut vegetables, etc.  Try to help mourner retain normal eating routine, though eating may be a challenge at this time.  Don't be offended if your offer is not accepted or enjoyed in the way that you hoped.
  •  Offer to coordinate offers of assistance or help direct offers to the Point Person.
    • For meal planning, there are websites that can help with this: or  
    • There should be a point person coordinating orders of this nature as well as the mourners' needs throughout the week, re: minyan, shopping, food, medical concerns, etc.   
    • Once you know who the point person is, help direct other friends to that person so the offers of help can be coordinated in a way that is constructive without adding unnecessary extra work. 

After Shiva
Note: the mourner will need support for a long time to come.  Here are some actions that can be taken throughout the year and years to follow.
  • Put a note in your calendar several months out to reach out.  
    • There is often a beautiful outpouring of help offered to mourners during Shiva and even during the weeks of the Shloshim.  However, as life gets back to normal, people fall back into usual routines and the outreach grows much more scarce.
    • Phone calls throughout the year are welcome and appreciated because they help the mourner feel the support of the community, while they are still grieving for their lost relative. 
    • Don't be hurt if the phone call is not returned immediately.  I received many emails/calls/texts/facebook messages/etc. during Shiva and after.  I have not forgotten the feelings they engendered, nor the people who sent them.  Each one helped me to feel the love of my friends and community, even if I was unable to respond in what most would call a "reasonable timeframe."  
  • Assist or keep them company during routine household tasks.
    • I found challenges in accomplishing things that once came easily, which lasted for months after shiva.  
    • Organizing paperwork, paying bills, cleaning my apartment, planning meals, shopping, laundry, and even returning phone calls might have been easier with someone nearby, encouraging me to put one foot in front of the other.  
    • Go ahead and offer to assist with a specific task, but don't be offended if this offer is not accepted.  It may be embarrassing for the mourner to ask for this kind of assistance, or it may not even cross the mourner's mind (it didn't for me except once or twice for big projects), but when I did have the company, it was very helpful.  
  •  Perform or help with a specific task: 
    • example: "I'm going to the grocery store, pharmacy, etc. this afternoon.  What can I pick up for you?"
    • or even suggest specific items: "Can I bring you Orange Juice, toilet paper, Advil, etc."  
  •  Company for a minyan.  
    • For both men and women saying Kaddish, this is not an easy step, especially in the first days, and company can be helpful for moral support.
    • Note - for myself, I always appreciated the company, even when I was simultaneously concerned that my saying Kaddish - so painful for me - might also be painful to my friends who had not yet experienced loss.  I was afraid to make others hurt on my behalf (it is still difficult for my mother to hear me recite the Kaddish). 
    • Attending minyan with a friend in mourning is a kind, generous gift, just prepare in advance for the emotional impact both on you and on them. 
  •  Go out for a walk, a museum, a drink.
    • Find out what restrictions the mourner is observing during the period of Aveilut and find an activity that falls within accepted parameters.  
    • Distractions are good (at least they were for me).
  • Allow the conversation to flow.
    • Note - grief is different than depression.  The mourner need not (should not) be focused exclusively on their loss all the time.   Moments will come that trigger strong emotions of sadness, but mourners will experience a full range of emotion throughout the year.  
    • It is not necessary to continually redirect the conversation to focus on the loss or ask how the mourner is feeling.  Asking what the mourner is doing at the moment will allow the mourner to guide the conversation in the direction that best suits their mood.
    • Allow them to enjoy moments when they do not focus on their absent loved one - the moments when they do remember will be plentiful enough. 
  • Invitations to Shabbat meals or to spend a Shabbat/holiday at your home.
    • The mourner may feel lonely at times, especially around Shabbat and holidays.  Even if the offer is not accepted (for whatever reason - prior obligation, etc.), the invitation will help the mourner feel loved, wanted and appreciated.  
  • Exercise.
    • Offer to go out for a run, attend an aerobics, yoga, spin class, or something you know is in the mourner's ballpark.  
    • Setting aside time and motivation to work out can be challenging, as time seems to take on new meaning and move slower/differently than before the loss.  Helping to encourage healthy routines (in a pleasant, friendly way) and offering your company & moral support may be appreciated.  

A Word of Caution:  
While we know you mean well, sometimes open-ended offers are hard to accept.  Here are two phrases I heard very often...  and how they often landed, especially early on.  If you have used these words in the past, don't waste time feeling bad.  Just please keep these nuances in mind for the future.
[Reposting from "What to Say (and Not to Say)"
  • Let me know how I can help.”  
    • I know you mean well, but now I have to a) remember that you offered, b) think about your want/need to help me, c) find a job for you, d) look up your phone # or contact info, and e) reach out and ask you to do it.  You really want to help?  Call me with a specific offer.  I’ll know you’re there and willing to help and will be more likely to either give you a job right then or think of you later when I need the same job done.  Remember, I don’t know yet what I’ll need to get me through the next days and weeks and months, and the needs may change and evolve with time.  Please don’t be offended if I don’t take you up on this well-intentioned offer.
  • “Call me if you need anything or want to talk.”
    • Ditto above. The sentiment is sweet it's hard for me to keep track of all these generous offers. For now, checking in every so often and asking what I'm up to (rather than how I'm doing) will be much appreciated.]

These are just a few ways to help... throughout the year and beyond.  Use this list as a jumping off point for brainstorming additional ideas.  Please feel free to share them in the comments.  The more we gather, the more equipped we will all be to support those in our community when the need arises.

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I am an educator who is trained to reflect, not a rabbi or any type of halachic authority. These writings are in no way binding, and may not represent all approaches to and experiences in navigating grief. In fact, there will likely be those who disagree with me or can offer additional suggestions and reflections. For this reason, I am leaving the comments section open so that together as a community, we can broaden the scope of this blog to include a majority of human experience.

One important request: Please be respectful in posting your comments and be sure to frame your tips in the most positive phrasing possible. I reserve the right to delete any unkind comments and plan to update the original posts occasionally to include additional insights and reflections from our combined experience.

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