DO’s & DON’Ts of Helping In Time of Loss

When someone you know and care about is faced with the sudden death of a loved one, or even the expected death of a loved one, you wonder what you can do to help.


Help in time of loss

Yesterday in my post A Case of Sudden Death, I shared how my sister unexpectedly lost her husband this past Monday. I was with her for a couple of days after that, and want to share what I mentally took note of during that time — what she needed, what helped, etc.

1. DON’T ask “What can I do to help?

As much as you are willing to do whatever they need, the truth at first is:  THEY DON”T KNOW WHAT THEY NEED!  This is especially true immediately after the death, when they are still numb, and exhausted. My sister commented to me more than once, “Everyone keeps asking what they can do. I don’t know what to tell them!”

2.  DON’T tell them what they need to do.

That was another thing my sister said to me the next evening after her husband died. “Everyone keeps telling me what I need to do. I don’t need to do anything right now!” And she was right. All she needed to do were the essential things like planning the funeral, and letting folks know the details, and then getting some rest. All the rest could wait. The day after he died, and she’d been up most of the night, she was pretty much numb, with shock and  fatigue. I think that’s pretty normal. (I will say that after a good night’s rest, she felt much better, was thinking better, and knew what she needed to do as far as phone calls that were urgent, etc.)

3. DON’T ask to come over for the first 2 or 3 days.

As much as you want to go show your support, and be there for them, they will be spending several hours at the funeral home getting things set up; there will be phone calls they need to make to family and relatives. There are just many time consuming things that must be done, and they have to be the one to do those things. (Having a relative or good friend to go with them or make some of the calls would be a big help!)

My advice, if you know the person well enough, would be to think of something practical, and just DO it for them.

I heard a story once about a young woman, with several kids. Her husband died unexpectedly, and a friend came to the house and cleaned and polished all the kids’ shoes, so they’d look nice for the funeral. That is what I mean by thinking of something practical.

4. DON’T call for the first day or two.

Unless you are related, or VERY close, it’s probably best not to call, as things are hectic. They are busy with what needs to be done, and probably have family there to spend time with them.

5. DO provide food.

Usually the person who has lost a loved one is going to have family over there to help, and the last thing they need to be concerned with is making food.

*Vegetable trays and meat/cheese platters are nice, because they keep well, and make for good nibbling throughout the busy day.

*Healthy, quick snacks that are easy to keep, and can be grabbed on the run are great.

*If you bring food,  use disposable containers. Then they don’t have to wash dishes, or remember what dish belongs to who, and deal with getting it back to the right owner.

*Providing paper plates and plastic cups are nice, as well.

*When bringing food, don’t come in, unless they insist. The house may be a mess, and they don’t need to worry about that. (I noticed my sister dusting her living room by the front door, and teasingly said something about it. She replied with, “Well someone is coming over with food, and this house is a mess!”

6. DO send a text message letting them know you care.

Sending a text that says something like “I’m so sorry for your loss! Just want you to know that I’m thinking about you, and praying for you.” is a great way to show your support,  but it doesn’t require a response from the person. Facebook is another great way to let them know they are in your prayers, if they are a person who uses Facebook regularly.

7. DO just go over there, IF you are a close friend!

Give them a hug, and let them know you wanted to be sure they were ok. Then  tell them know you just want to do some things around the house to help, and that they can do what they need to, and you won’t bother them. Look around and see what would be helpful, and get busy.

I think the two most important areas to consider would be the entry way, where visitors would come to bring food, etc. Is there anything you can clean in that area, or the area they see when they walk in? I guarantee you that is a source of concern to the person, but it’s not something they have time to deal with.

The other important area is the kitchen. Everyone feels better when they can walk into a CLEAN kitchen. Are there dishes in the sink? Wash them. Does the floor need to be swept, or vacuumed?

When I went to my sister’s house, her kitchen counters had things all over them, and so did the table. When her friend brought food over, we had to push things around to make a place for the food. The next day, I told her I thought it would be nice to have the counters and table clear so when people brought food, there would be a place to put it.

While she was busy making needed calls, responding to emails, etc. I cleaned up the dishes, counter,  and table, swept the floor, and took the trash out. It made things look much nicer, and also provided a space for things.

8. DO remember them AFTER the funeral.

This is probably where we most often err. Everyone comes to their rescue and support right when the death occurs. After the funeral is over and everyone leaves,  reality sets in. Then  they have to deal with bills, lots of decisions, and loneliness.

*That’s when you should call.  That’s when you should ask, “What can I do”? Then offer ideas in your area of expertise, whether that be helping with all the paperwork that will need to be done, decluttering and cleaning, being the driver for the errands, buying groceries, bringing meals, or just keeping them company.

*It would also be a good time to send notes and cards letting them know you are thinking about them and praying for them. This is a good thing for months afterwards. The first year is the hardest, I’ve heard.

*Remember them on holidays. That’s when the loneliness is felt the most. Invite them to join your family, and don’t just assume that a relative or someone else will. Even if they say no, it will mean a lot to them.

*Continue to pray for them!  Prayer can do for them what we can’t do. Be faithful in praying for them to have wisdom in the decisions ahead, to have the strength and grace they need, and to feel God’s arms of comfort around them.

Obviously, each situation is different, and there will be variables to consider. But overall, most of these thoughts would be good to remember when you want to be a help, and don’t know what to do!





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7 Responses

  1. What a thoughtful and helpful post. It is so hard to know what to do when a relative passes and you have covered it all here since you were faced with this situation with your sister. Thanks.

  2. Becky, I’m so sorry to hear about your miscarriage! I pray God will give you the comfort you need.

  3. I really appreciated #8. Recently my husband and I had a miscarriage and I didn’t really want to talk to people right after the fact, but the loneliness and longing for support from the people I loved set in later. It hurt when it seemed like I was completely forgotten.

  4. Thanks Colletta! Your friend would probably be blessed now by some of the same things – meals/snacks, and an offer to help in areas that you know would be helpful to her.

  5. So glad this gave you ideas of how to show love to your friend! I’m thinking of my sister today, as we have all gone home, and she is alone. Lots of prayers going up for her!

  6. Thank you. A good friend and mentor of mine just lost her husband. Funeral is tomorrow and there is a lot of family here now. I helped with food, but didn’t know what else I can do. I was thinking about after the relatives leave — now I have ideas. Thanks again.

  7. Thank you so much for this post. A dear friend of mine is going through a very hard time and her father isn’t expected to live much longer. So sorry about the loss of your brother-in-law!


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