Editor’s note: at Wisdom of the Wounded, we share stories of people who have gone through a difficult time and wish to share lessons learned. Please enjoy this article from Hugh Hollowell, which is reprinted with permission.
A friend died, and I want to be helpful to his wife, but I’m not sure what to do. I told her that if she needed anything to let me know. Of course, she thanked me, but it’s been a few days now and she hasn’t asked for anything. I don’t think she will. I feel so helpless. What should I do?
Hey there, [Redacted]. Thanks for writing. I’m really glad your friend has you in her life.
I get it. Grief is a funny thing. It’s the time in our life when we most need help, and also the time when asking for help is so hard. Not because we are ashamed to ask for help, although that happens sometimes too. But mostly because our brain just sort of shuts down.
When my Dad died, I looked functional. But I wasn’t OK. Not at all. And when the news got out, the ton of people flooding me with calls, texts, and DM’s was overwhelming. I really couldn’t function. I sat on the swing in our yard and just stared into space. People called and asked what they could do to help. I had no idea.
“Well, anything you need at all, let me know, OK?”
They hung up. I stared into space some more.
I had no idea what to do. What I needed. I didn’t even know what to ask for.
Then a friend sent a text. This friend had met Dad once but didn’t really know him. But still, she knew I was hurting. I saw who it was and almost put the phone down without reading the text, but I saw the message and it stopped me:
Will you be home at 8:30 tonight?
What’s weird is this friend lives 12 hours away from me.
Yes, I replied.
10 minutes later, she said, “Instacart will be there at 8:30. Open the door for them.”
When Instacart showed up, they put two large bags of groceries on my porch. Frozen pizzas. Ice cream. Oreo cookies. Tinned soup. Stouffer’s lasagna. A gallon of milk. Like that. Things I could heat up if I needed a meal, or pig out on if I needed fat and sugar. Sometimes, you just need to eat half a box of Oreos.
Notice she didn’t ask if I needed any food. I would have said no. She just asked if I would be home.
Another friend, who lives out of town, asked Renee to name a restaurant near our house where we like to eat. There is a local chain near our house that is sort of a deli. When we eat supper there, we spend about $25. Renee told her the name of the place.
An hour later, there was a gift card in my inbox for $250. Yes, that is a lot of money, and I understand not everyone can do that. But the wonderful thing was that because it was enough for multiple meals, we didn’t try to save it for “the right time”. We ate there that night, and take out from there several times a week for the next month on nights when I just didn’t have the spoons to cook.
Both of those gift-givers knew something I didn’t know – that when you are grieving, you don’t want to make decisions. No, that’s not quite it: You can’t make decisions. You hit decision fatigue really fast.
So, I guess what I’m saying is, don’t ask grieving people to make big choices or decisions. “How can I help” is a big choice. But “Can I take the kids this afternoon so you can have some time to yourself” is a much smaller one. “Will you be home tonight?” is a small choice. “What restaurant do you like” is a small decision. Just showing up to cut their grass because you noticed it needed cutting is loads better than asking, “Do you want me to cut the grass?” Or, “I’m going to Target. What can I get you while I’m there?” is better than “Can I run any errands for you?”
It won’t always be like this. If you stick around, eventually they will surface and ways to be helpful will make themselves known. But in the first few days, especially, it helps to remove as many decisions from their plate as possible.
About the Author: This article was written by Hugh Hollowell and was originally published here, on his blog at hughlh.com. He has a weekly newsletter where he combats the ugliness of the world by hunting for beautiful things.