It’s a hard thing to know how or when to reach out after a loss. Arguably, the only protocol universally agreed upon is what to do after an elderly person dies a short, painless death. In this case, we know what to do. We plan a funeral. We send flowers and cards. But when illness or death strikes someone too young (be it pediatric cancer or breast cancer in a young mother) people tend to hover at the peripheries of things, asking those who know the afflicted “better” what they should do to help. We all do this. It is both understandable and compassionate. Concerned and polite. This discretion comes only from a good place.
But it is not necessarily the best way to help in a crisis.
Most of the time we are told not to pry into the affairs of others. We teach our children not to stare. And this is often excellent advice.
But as a bereaved mother, I am here to say – yes. Anyone is close enough to help.
A decade ago, I lost a son – he was stillborn. In that sudden loss, a number of things happened to me. I was so shocked that I fell so quickly into despair and had a very hard time being with anyone. I may have inadvertently hurt the feelings of those close to me. They attempted to reach out and I could not reach back – I was immobilized. I’ve never been able to describe the depth of loneliness and fear I felt then – something akin to a waking version of that nightmare where you scream but no sound comes out, no one hears you.
But the spaces that were created when I could not communicate with those closest to me were filled by the most wonderful of surprises. I received cards and flowers from people I would never have expected to reach out. The letter and cards from those most unexpected people – those who reached out when they could have stood back – understood that they did not have to find the right words to say, intuiting perhaps, that there are no right words. They understood somehow that their physical card stock manifestations of support gave me something to which I could hold fast.
I kept every card. I kept every letter.
So, consider reaching out when you hear about a sudden loss or illness. Efforts to help can seem slight – but they are not. I remember even my house cleaner refused to be paid for cleaning my house for the gathering after my son’s funeral. The point is a caring community forms a solid foundation from which the sick or the aggrieved can push up from. And in this case, the larger the communal fabric, the stronger the love.
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