36 Things To Do For Those In Grief
I made a list when it happened to me…
Today is my baby son’s six month birthday. It’s also, the six month anniversary of his death.
I wrote about the experience here, and the subsequent grief here.
I had never experienced grief before. Broken hearts, horniness, hunger… yes. But grief, with it’s goddam infinite burst of sadness, the disconnection and lethargy… I had never experienced that before Rowan (that’s his name).
So I kept notes throughout the process… As people brought us things, sent us things, wrote us things, I kept notes on how they felt.
Because, I had absolutely no idea what I’d do if this happened to someone I loved. Their baby died in labor, after nine months of vitamins and hot flashes and carrying and choosing cribs and colors for the nursery and buying baby wraps and diapers… after all that their baby died… so what card am I going to choose here at Safeway while I pick up dinner for my family?
I kept notes because I couldn’t fathom what I’d do. I also kept notes because there really were things people did that helped. Here’s my list.
Get a candle that burns the first 7–30 days. Send a card with some instructions for lighting it. Do the same thing at your house. Every once in a while send a text or email about how you lit yours and we shouldn’t forget to light ours.
Set calendar events for anniversaries. 1 month, 2 month, 3 month, 6 month, 1 year, 2 years, 3… Call, email, write, schedule little gifts for each of these moments when the memories will hit your friends, when they’re trying so hard to remember the one who’s missing without losing the path of their own life.
When you remind us in tiny ways that you are also there — of course not in the same way, but there regardless — it makes us feel less alone… and that’s the best feeling we can get.
“All afternoon my brothers and I have worked in the orchard, Digging this hole, laying you into it, carefully packing the soil.” (src) Sending an email or txt or note on an anniversary reminds us we don’t lay our boy down into the ground alone.
A fund for the future. Fizzle (my company) did this for us. A bunch of them got together and put in about $20 each and now we have some money (and an excuse) to take our living son to Disneyland.
Money is curious to me in these situations. By all accounts a small and meaningful gift from someone who knows you well can be far more meaningful. But there are many who want to support us and feel deeply for us but don’t know us well. Teaming up with several others, organizing it, that adds a good deal of heart to money as a gift.
Organize the first 30 days of meals. Realize how goddam horrible it is to try to think about what to make for dinner when dealing with the slough of grief… Prepare one meal, or, even better, be the one who organizes others to make some meals. Maybe only one large casserole a week. (Thanks Emily N.!)
Baked goods drop offs. Fucking scones!? Awesome!
If there’s a child in the picture try to help out in a way that’s natural for you. Play. Bring over a new book. Get the kid out of the house. Find a museum or park or Lego land to take the kid to nearby. (Thanks mom and dad.)
Understand that there will be a lot of flowers. The big bouquets felt alien in my little house so I pulled out a few flowers from each batch and made my own bouquets since they’re such dear gifts. I also grabbed a flower from each to hang upside down and dry out. I pinned them to the wall with a thumb tack because i’m incredibly classy. We’ve since moved from that house. I still have those dried flowers and I’m so glad most are still in tact.
Orchids seem to be the most resilient of all the flowers… they last the longest. I cut one little flower off with about 2 inches of stem, put it in a tiny little jar we had by the window. It stayed alive for weeks. Looked at it every time I did the dishes.
Tell them not to buy a car or a house or something like that. The momentum within me to do that was huge. I wanted a big life change, something dramatic, a new project that would consume me. This is not the way.
When Rowan died we were living in Oakland, CA. We had moved there about 7 months prior to be closer to my family with the new baby. I was never really at home there and always wondering if we shouldn’t have stayed up in Portland (where we had lived for the previous 8 years). So when Rowan died I knew it would be a question for both of us… I knew we’d want to start deciding and planning if we were going to go back… so I made a rule: no talking about any big life changes for 1.5 months. I wanted it to be enough time for us to feel and flow and go in and out of the grief feelings, but not so much time that we’d stagnate in life… delicate balance, that.
But it worked out, felt like the right amount of time. It was hard to wait, but not too hard. Look for that same balance with your friends.
Teas and things to make teas. This is a time for sipping and thinking and talking.
Fire pits. Oh man, speaking of sipping and thinking and talking… you know that mode you get into around a fire pit? It’s dark, you’ve got a jacket on, feet up on the side of the fire pit, everyone just sort of staring into the fire, occasionally a “remember when…” story comes up… but even then no one really looks up from the fire. That would have been the perfect place for me. A handful of people there, in the moment, feeling or not feeling… doesn’t matter, just all of us there, no one looking for something better to do.
A short helpful book. Memoirs work well. It’s a time for being in not a time for learning. This one was great.
Smoothies! I’d just like one as I’m writing this so I wrote it.
Do the dishes. Clean the bathroom. Little shit like this builds up. We’re blind to it, but the state of our house effects us.
We need time alone too. Lots. It’s really comfortable for us to be alone. In some ways we feel isolated and that’s a bad thing… but in other ways it’s good. It’s quiet and still and a time for deep remembering. My wife felt this all so much differently than me… and I get to feel that a little when we’re alone.
Acknowledgement is vital. Do NOT come in here saying “sorry for your loss.” Come in saying, “I’m so sorry about Rowan’s death.” And if it’s true for you, say things like “I just love to ear his name. To see it written.” You can’t know the way that feels, to hear someone else say his name.
The ultimate wine gift. Buy two cases of wine, one for your house, one for ours. “We’ll open one bottle every two months on the anniversary of Rowan’s death. I’ll let you know when to open each. My wife and I will be doing it at our house as well, toasting with you.” Or you could do 3 bottles for 3 moments in the year, whatever. This would have been awesome.
Remember things with us. And not necessarily things about Rowan. Just things we did together. Say, “remember that time we watched the notebook and cried and cried? I remember that. Just writing you to say that and because I have really bad gas right now and remember when we did that sleep over and farted and farted all night and didn’t sleep? I love you so much.” Say those kinds of things because they’re sweet to remember. Almost like they connect us back to life, where things are still happening.
Help tend flowers. Dead flowers and rotten flower water get disgusting. Throw the dead away. Prune bottoms. Re arrange. Refill water. Hang and dry. So helpful.
If it’s a stillbirth get some No More Milk tea for mom. Holy shit is it painful for a woman’s body to go from “GET EVERYTHING READY FOR MOMMING!!!1!” to “hold the presses, go back to regular.” No More Milk tea was helpful. As was sage tea and cold-ass cabbage… We made a bunch of pre-formed cabbage cups, put them in a big bowl, filled it with water and placed it in the fridge.
Star donation. Some friends did this for us… you spend some money to name a star after someone. It sounded a little like a ponzi scheme to me, but has proven to be so helpful and lovely as a way to explain things about Rowan’s death to my 4 yo. We have a certificate. Our star, bitches.
Tree planting. I wish I could have done this. Didn’t know how or where to start or where we’d do it or much about trees in general (do they come in eggs??). But there’s a tree called a Rowan tree… if there was some place we could have planted that, a place we could visit every year, that would be so lovely… unless the fuckin’ tree died in which case I’d burn the fucking forest down.
A bottle of nice booze. Ok, this one is right up my ally. One of the favorite things anyone did for me during this time was get me a bottle of some kind of special booze. I was lucky enough to get two: Leopold’s gin and Rusty Blade gin. They’re unique. I love to pour a little for a friend who’s come over and say, “smell it, give it a little taste. Incredible, right!?” It’s something to bring out and talk about with someone. It’s nice to have something like this to talk about.
Monthly hand written letter or little gift. One a month for the first 6 month. Tell me some stories of when we were growing up. Send a CD mix, some special tea, whatever. Just anything to show you haven’t forgotten and then you’re still for us.
A painting. If you know about art, maybe you could send a little print of something with a story about why it fits us.
Music. If you know about music, send over a link to a song that fits. A buddy sent over this song from Josh Garrels… holy shit did that hit hard. I’ve basically lived in Bon Iver’s self titled album since Rowan died happened… Crawling inside music like this, music that’s big enough, that I can fit in, feels like being understood.
A Poem. Jae sent Dover Beach. Scotia sent Planting a Sequoia. I liked reading these.
If it’s a stillborn, hold the baby if you can. I felt extremely uncomfortable with this, but my wife Mellisa really wanted me to do it, to help put on his clothes… even though “he” wasn’t there, really. But I’m so glad I did. And I’m so glad the two friends in the room did too. I’ll never, ever forget holding him and I’ll always, always see that in Sara and Moomer’s eyes.
At 4 weeks people start thinking we’re doing ok. Don’t assume too much. Don’t approach asking, “so are you guys feeling better yet?” Of course you’re worried about us and want us to move forward, of course none of our mourning or grief will bring back Rowan. But this will be the heaviest thing we may ever encounter in our lives. Our souls are moving like molasses. Let it be what it is and show us you’re with us wherever we are. That’s the healing.
Different gifts from different people. I noticed that when someone gave a gift that was uniquely THEM, something THEY really loved and wanted to give to us, those gifts felt really good. When an old friend sent me Leopold’s gin with a very simple note, because it was such a HIM thing it felt really good.
There’s also a sweetness to the grief. Oh Rowan. There’s something not just sad here. Something good and special still. Be open to that.
Food that freezes. That’s all I have to say about that.
We just don’t want to decide anything. We have no push of will. Like the final exercise of some workout routine, it feels too hard, an exhaustion of the mind. Frozen food. Don’t ask, Just deliver it.
Bring breakfast. It’s hard to put it on the table sometimes. Shit, it’s hard to get out of bed sometimes.
Write something like this. (thanks dad.)
Reliving through your emotions is good. Tell us where you were when you heard. What you felt. Emotion is good. My wife and I feel a good kind of stillness when you bring us into your story and emotions, like its true and honoring our son.
More than anything else… we just want to honor our son.
Look through the pictures, if there are some. Another thing I felt really weird about was taking pictures of Rowan. My wife pushed and so I did. I’m glad I did. They’re challenging, but real (too real, maybe). Some people are willing to see the pictures and some aren’t. We don’t really make a thing of it. But when my grandpa found out about the pictures, my stiff upper lip grandpa with a wit as dry as old canvas, when he heard about the pictures he pulled me aside and asked to look at them with me. It was heavy and wonderful that he would enter into this with me. Sometimes you look at the things even if they make you uncomfortable just because of what it means to the people you’re looking with.
Be yourself. Don’t force the feelings. We don’t need you to feel anything. We’re doing our own thing. We’re just glad you’re here. Your presence alone is valuable to us.
OF COURSE you don’t know how to be. We don’t know how the hell to be. But we know what feels easy and what’s hard. Small talk is hard. People looking to help to satisfy their own guilt or responsibility is hard. As Parker Palmer says, “disconnection may be hell, but it’s better than false connection.”
Don’t be afraid to be curious. If you care it might look like being curious about what happened, when we found out, what it felt like, etc. Don’t be afraid to ask. Don’t be afraid to “bring up too much” or something. I want you. It’s harder for us to maintain the veneer of our steady relationship than it is to chance the awkwardness of tears in some heavy, honest questions.
Because we do need you… We need you to come over and interrupt us. To add a new thing into the monotony. To fluff the pillows and flush the toilets and laugh about little shit. Little shit is far different than small talk when we sense your souls has made some room for us… or is trying at least.
I hope no one ever needs this list. But as the poem says: “the world, which seems To lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain…”
So my hope instead is that someone finds this when they need it, and can hold true to the first part of that quote: “Ah, love, let us be true to one another!”