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Helping Others

Sometimes it’s difficult to know just how to help someone who has lost their partner. It can be difficult to find the right words – although a hug and a listening ear is always better than an empty platitude. All too often, widows and widowers find that friends and colleagues cross the road to avoid a potentially embarrassing conversation. Sympathetic phone calls and social invitations start to dry up after a while as people get on with their busy lives. Friends and family imagine that a widow or widower might be “over it” in a few months or a year – and are surprised when they aren't.

Grieving is a long, slow process – it can take months or even years before someone returns to their normal self. And it can be frustrating for friends and family to watch a person they love plunged into the depths of despair.

WAY’s former Chairman Caroline Doughty has written a book called “If there’s anything I can do... How to help someone who has been bereaved”, which is full of practical and sensible advice for anyone with a close friend or family member who’s lost a partner. What Caroline discovered after her husband died was that lots of people wanted to help her, but very few people knew what to do or say.

One of the best tips she has for someone who has just lost their partner is this: write down a list of things that need to be done and put them on sticky labels on your fridge. If anyone asks you that all too familiar question “if there’s anything I can do...”, direct them to your fridge and ask them to choose one of the sticky labels. From mowing the lawn to fixing a puncture, any practical help you can offer in the early days of bereavement will be welcomed with open arms.

Caroline’s book describes in painful detail what it’s like to lose your partner when you’re under 40 with two young daughters, and it lays out exactly how friends and family can offer practical and emotional support to someone who’s been newly bereaved. Thanks to Caroline for letting us share some of the suggestions from her book:

Write a letter

When someone you care about loses their partner, an email or a text message just isn't enough. It’s one of those times when you really need to put pen to paper and write a proper letter. If you can take some time to write a personal letter including some of your favourite memories of the person who’s died, or even a photograph, all the better. Your widowed friend will be able to read, and re-read the letter, at a time that suits them. And it will probably mean much more to them than a bunch of flowers that will wilt after a few days.

Don’t cross the road – talk!

Talking is an important part of the grieving process, so don’t cross the road to avoid a potentially embarrassing conversation. Let your friend talk about the person who has died and don’t be embarrassed by their tears. Offer them a listening ear, a hug and a tissue.

Talk about their partner. Don’t think you’ll upset them – they are already more upset than you can imagine.

Many bereaved people say that they find it hurtful if their loved one is not mentioned, almost as if they had never existed. It’s important to share happy memories, remember some of the funny things they said, and maybe to look through old photographs together. Helping to keep the memories alive can be a great source of comfort.

Be there for the long haul

Keep in regular contact so you know how things really are with your widowed friend. If you only phone every few months, you’ll end up with a skewed version of how they’re doing.

It’s particularly important to keep up with visits, phone calls and letters, particularly as the weeks and months go by. Often support starts to drift away in the months after a bereavement, but this is exactly the time when your widowed friend can be at their most vulnerable. Six months can be a particularly difficult time, as the reality of the loss begins to hit home just as friends and relatives start to assume the worst is over.

Continue to acknowledge special days – not necessarily the anniversary of the death, but perhaps a birthday or wedding anniversary.

And continue to invite your friend to events and functions. They can always say no if they don’t feel up to it.

Offer practical help

The little things in life can be overwhelming for someone who’s newly bereaved. They may be faced with things they've never had to worry about before – like fixing the car or mending a puncture.

Instead of just popping round for a chat and a cup of tea – offer to sort some washing while you’re there, help put clean clothes away or do some ironing. Stack or empty the dishwasher. Mow the lawn...

Here are some helpful suggestions to make sure your friend is eating properly in the first few weeks and months of bereavement:

  • Bring food
  • Meet for lunch rather than coffee – and make sure your friend eats something
  • Ring when you’re going to the supermarket and ask if there’s anything they need
  • Offer to go round to cook dinner. Take the ingredients, cook the meal then clear up afterwards
  • Offer to feed the children. Turn up at 4.30pm, cook for the kids, get them to eat, make it fun, then clear up
  • Be aware that, although shopping does get easier, eating alone never gets more fun.

Helping with kids

When someone’s been widowed at a young age, people often say “Be kind to yourself. Get some rest.” But that’s easier said than done if they have a house to run, kids to look after and a living to earn. Where once your friend might have been sharing all the responsibilities with their partner, now they are doing everything on their own. Helping with the kids is one practical and invaluable thing that friend and family can do. Here are some suggestions:

  • Give your friend as many breaks as possible. Don’t just turn up after the kids have gone to bed. Go round before tea time and help to feed them. Do this once at week, and keep it up
  • Offer to help teenagers with homework, art projects and research
  • Ask if you can stay the night on a Friday or Saturday and get the children up in the morning. Give them breakfast and take them out for an hour so their mum or dad can have a lie-in
  • Offer to babysit – during the daytime as well as the evening
  • Share the school run
  • Go along with your friend to parents’ evening
  • If the children are young, make sure they have a present or card to give their mum or dad on their birthday, Mother’s or Father’s Day or Christmas

Make holidays fun

Holidays can be a really stressful time for someone who’s been newly bereaved. They are faced with the dilemma of holidaying on their own or staying at home and stewing. And they almost certainly won’t ask to come away on holiday with you, unless you invite them first. So why not invite your friend (and their kids) away for a few days? It will really help them to spend some time away from home and to see their kids having fun. And it will give them a break too. Having several trips away rather than one long holiday can help to relieve the relentless loneliness of being widowed. Here are some suggestions:

  • Invite your friend to join you for part of your holiday. That way you will still get to spend sometime with your own family, but your friend will feel loved
  • Offer to look after children so your friend can have a break
  • Offer to take children on day trips during school holidays
  • Offer to take your friend to an airport or train station, or to collect them
  • Be there when your friend returns from a trip: help with the luggage, deal with tired children. Make a cup of tea. Returning alone from a trip or holiday to an empty house can be traumatic
  • Be careful how you talk about your own holidays or family holiday plans – it can make bereaved people feel painfully aware of what they have lost.

Source: Is there anything I can do... How to help someone who has been bereaved by Caroline Doughty (White Ladder Press).

Useful links

Further reading

  • Is there anything I can do... How to help someone who has been bereaved by Caroline Doughty (White Ladder Press).
  • An article in The Guardian about Caroline Doughty’s book.
  • Care for the Family is a Christian organisation that offers bereavement support for people who've been widowed young. They've put together some helpful tips for friends and family here.
  • If I Should Die - this practical website includes some excellent advice on how to help someone who’s been bereaved.
  • The Journey by Mindy Wilsford – an article that many people in WAY have found very useful.
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