The holidays can be difficult for anyone, but especially if you’ve just lost a child, a sibling, a parent. Everything can make you sad. Christmas carols, ads for toys, images of happy families, Christmas movies, all the talk about the stupid Elf…
While no grieving parent would want to damper the excitement for others, this is an exceptional time for loved ones to show a little extra TLC.
I cannot speak for all grieving parents, but for me, it was very, very difficult for me to identify my needs to people when they asked us what they could do to help. At the time, I would have appreciated anything. I was so lost and in so much pain, it took all efforts for me to get up and pretend to be a normal person every day. And this lasted for almost two years. Obviously it wasn’t as bad during all of that time, but the grief was really hard, for much longer than I expected.
For me, the most helpful thing would have been for people to just DO. Do Not Ask. We buried our daughter on December 21, 2011. We had another infant still struggling in the NICU. At home, we also had a 4 year old and a daughter who turned two on December 22, 2011. To say life was overwhelming is an understatement. We could have used a lot of help. But I was afraid to ask for it. And if someone asked me if I needed anything, I would tell them we were fine.
Because it made me uncomfortable to ask for specific items or help.
Now, had someone brought a meal,(and some did!) or took the kids for a day, or sent in a house cleaning service, I would never have said no. Because I needed help.
My husband does not like taking help. So whenever someone would ask HIM, he would also say we were fine. Of course, he was not the one responsible for the children, or preparing meals, or taking care of the house. Here again, if help had been given, he would never have refused it upon arrival.
I cannot tell you how each person will respond. It is YOUR job as a loved one to determine what would be most helpful to the family. Food or gift cards for restaurants though is almost always a win. I cannot even explain to you how difficult it was for me to do normal things like preparing a meal or grocery shopping.
You can find more specific tips and advice on helping a grieving mother in this post and in our book Sunshine After the Storm: A Survival Guide for the Grieving Mother.
How to Help a Grieving Family over the Holidays
1. Send or deliver a care package. My husband’s work was so kind to us after our daughter died. They put together a huge gift basket that included presents for all of us. It was a simple act, but it was so touching. They also sent a Peace Lily, a beautiful plant that remains in our home, four years later, reminding us of their kindness. The above picture is an example of the type of packages we send out through the TTTS Support Team and through our nonprofit, Sunshine After the Storm, Inc.
2. Take them a meal. Or meals. You can organize friends and family through sites such as Take Them A Meal or Sign Up Genius. We would have appreciated food for months, especially with a baby in the NICU. Make sure to consider the size of the family – and make sure to take enough, but not so much the family feels they are wasting food. And bring chocolate.
3. Send text messages, emails, or cards. You don’t have to have the RIGHT words, but a simple “I’m thinking about you,” or “I am heartbroken for you,” or “I am here to listen,” can be very consoling. I have learned that people react very differently to “I am sorry for your loss.” I used to recommend that, but have found that many people really take issue with this phrase. If they are religious, let them know you are praying.
4. Visit. Depending on how well you know them. Some people do not want to be visited. Others feel abandoned if people do not come. You will have to determine where your loved one falls on this spectrum. If you do decide to visit, watch for social cues that they need the visit to end. In the immediate aftermath of a death, the family members may not be able to really express how they feel about visits. Be prepared to make it a short visit.
5. Help with the other children. Take them out to give the children and parents a break.
6. Are there household needs that you could help with? Maybe get friends together to pay for a cleaning service for a month, or help with yard work, or other burdensome projects.
7. Honor the deceased member by making a donation to a charity or organization in their name. It truly blesses me when friends and family donate to the March of Dimes or to TTTS Organizations, or to Sunshine After the Storm in memory of Kathryn.
8. Don’t be afraid to speak the name. Personally, I love it when people talk about Kathryn and speak about her by name.
9. Give a special ornament with the child’s name on it. I love our special ornaments that allow our angel child to be a part of our Christmas celebrations each year.
10. Love them. I can’t tell you what will be meaningful to a person that I don’t know. But I CAN tell you that just about ALL people appreciate being loved. It may be a call, a card, a text, an invitation to do something. And don’t be discouraged if they don’t always respond. I can promise you, even if they aren’t ready to engage, they are so appreciative of the effort.
11. Don’t ask. Just do. As I started this off, it was so difficult for me to respond when people asked me how they could help. Honestly, anything anyone did would have been appreciated. I was so touched by one of our neighbor’s. We did not know them well at all, but when he found out about Kathryn, he just showed up with a piping hot lasagna. It was so thoughtful, and so very helpful. He didn’t stay long. He said he was so sorry and wanted to help, so he made us dinner. I’ll never forget that.
There are many, many more things that can be done to help, but this should give you some ideas about how to help a grieving family over the holidays. These are just a few of the things that were most helpful to me, OR things that I wish had been done for me. If you have sought out and read this post, you are already being a good friend/loved one to this grieving family.
Blessings today and always.
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