When I was in my twenties my best friend decided I needed a shirt that read, “Is there anything I can do?” It was an inside joke because this was my automatic response when anyone told me something painful had befallen them. Obsessively driven by a literal translation of the word compassion “to suffer with”, my instinct was to jump in as fast as I could. Whenever someone lost a person to death, I hastily cooked up a storm, delivering a five-course meal before day’s end. Years later I chuckle at my impetuousness.
It is instinctive to respond with compassion when we hear someone we know has lost a friend or family member to death. Surely, the question, “what can I do?” is a good one, but I had a change of heart when I first realized how it could feel on the other end of this question. When a death has just occurred, we want to show support as soon as we can and consequently, we rush to do anything feasible to ease the pain. But for those experiencing a loss, the shock and confusion that death triggers, can leave them unable to identify what they need or even what has to be done. Unfortunately, it gives a grieving person one more decision to make when you ask them to determine what you can do. Most bereaved individuals are polite responding, “Nothing right now”, “I don’t know” or “If I think of something, I’ll let you know.” Out of pure frustration, one honest soul I know, turned to the umpteenth person who asked her what they could do and said, “I don’t know, you figure it out yourself, I have enough to worry about.” (…ouch…)
I recently read an article examining the various stressors we unknowingly place on the bereaved. One take-a-away was an example I won’t soon forget. One woman’s solution to “what can I do?” is a shoe box with everything needed to clean and polish shoes. Whenever she hears of a person’s loss, she shows up with the box and says, “I am here to polish everyone’s shoes.” She reports it is very much appreciated. It’s brilliant: she’s doing something practical, something no one else is likely to do, something that needs to get done and she is showing her support. For the household that has received too many meals, this must be a welcomed change.
When in need, some people have little trouble identifying or stating what we can do for them, but most people need time to get their emotional bearings before organizing the copious tasks associated with the death of a loved one. It is common to have a problem identifying what is needed next. While it is perfectly okay to ask how what we can do, before we ask, we might consider the many ways we could help. Surely, the one-size-fits all method, like sending a meal or shining shoes, is valid. Another approach is to wait a bit and see how things develop, then determine what to offer. Maybe you can take a person for a walk in a quiet, pastoral setting, go shopping with them, do an airport pickup or run an errand. Whatever you offer should meet a need, be well timed and reflect the nature of your relationship.
If you have difficulty determining how to support someone, especially when a death has just occurred, make a list of everything you had to do when you were faced with the same situation. Ask yourself, “What was the best thing someone did for me when I was grieving?” Figure out which of the things on your list you can do, and which the grieving person would likely appreciate, and then go for it.
“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”
― Charles Dickens