How I Resolved To Help Friends Dealing With Death

Photographed by Lianna Tarantin.

By Gabrielle Birkner
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I just finished writing a condolence note that I should have sent off some three months ago. I should know better; I do know better. After all, I am the co-founder of Modern Loss, a site about navigating life after loss. And, I've seen firsthand how much cards and letters can mean to those who are grieving.
In my closet, there’s an alphabetized accordion folder (labeled “Correspondences 2004") full of the notes I received in the days and weeks after my father and stepmother were killed. I kept every last one. After we moved to a new neighborhood last year, I nearly had a panic attack when — for a few hours — I thought the folder might have gotten lost in the transition.
Still, today I sat searching for the right words to comfort a friend who has suffered an unimaginable loss, and kicking myself for not searching for those words so much sooner. Because knowing better and doing better are two different things. In 2015, I resolve to do better. To that end, here are five New Year’s resolutions. And, since “help others” is among Americans' most popular resolutions, these are also suggestions for anyone who wants to do more to help the grieving people in their lives.
1). Set up alerts on a Google calendar.
Don’t rely on good intentions and a good memory to remember to check in with a grieving friend on difficult days. Instead, set online calendar alerts — the deceased’s birthday, “deathiversary,” or the week before Thanksgiving, say — as reminders to call, write, or make plans with the friend.
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2). Ask for (and offer) specifics.
One phrase a grieving person is almost certain to hear again and again is: “Let me know if you need anything.” But, few take advantage of that offer. Because it’s not always clear if it’s earnest or boilerplate. Because loss can be so disorienting that the person who just experienced it might not know what they need. So, don’t let yourself off the hook (and place the onus on the grief-stricken) with some vague offer to help. Instead, ask that person what their favorite takeout restaurant is, and buy a gift certificate. Say you’re headed to the supermarket later in the week and would like to pick up some groceries for them. Offer to connect them with others who have experienced a similar loss and, of course, follow through.
3). Make a memorial donation; then, make another.
After my father and stepmother were killed, many people sent memorial donations (and planted trees in Israel) in their honor. But, a few close friends donated to a scholarship fund set up in their name (or to a non-profit that supports family members of homicide victims) to acknowledge their birthdays, even years on — or to mark a special occasion in my life. When I gave birth last year, a dear friend gave to the scholarship fund (which, let’s be honest, was so much more meaningful than another bamboo burp cloth).
4). Remember: A social media condolence is only a starting point.
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In the age of social sharing, it’s easy to let just about everyone in your life know about a loss in the family. It’s just as easy to post a few quick words of sympathy on someone’s Facebook page. And, I know from experience that each comment and “like” can provide a modicum of comfort on “deathiversaries.” For me, what proved even more comforting was when a friend, reminded on Facebook about the difficulty of the day, came through with a phone call or an email in which they shared an anecdote about my dad or an invitation to come over and watch reality TV over Chinese takeout. The bottom line: Let social media be the impetus for more meaningful action.
The best advice on social media condolences comes from Meg Tansey, who writes Modern Loss' advice column. She put it this way: “My first rule of grief is that the worst thing you can do is nothing. So, at the risk of horrifying both grandmothers and etiquette experts everywhere, I think you are correct that if someone posts about a loss in their life on Facebook, you are not in the wrong to respond on Facebook. There are two main reasons for this. One: I generally feel that you should follow the grieving person’s lead as much as possible (i.e. talk about the person if they want to talk about the person, don’t if they don’t). Two: I think a medium like Facebook can be a great way to provide someone with a much-needed, real-time jolt of sympathy and community. And, community support, both in real life and increasingly online, is an important part of the mourning process. That being said, is a Facebook comment sufficient for a friend mourning his mother? Of course not. A more thoughtful follow-up, whether it’s a note or a call or an e-mail, is in order.” Read what else Meg had to say on the topic here.
5). Hand-write that letter and send it (sooner, not later).
We put off condolence notes for many reasons, but often it’s because we can’t seem to find the right words. But, here’s the thing: There’s nothing anyone can say that will make a grieving person’s hurt go away. So, let go of finding the perfect words, and just be honest. Remind them that they are loved. Share a cherished memory of the deceased. Just don’t put it off. Because these things are better late than never, but they are also better sooner than later. And, as How To Say It author Rosalie Maggio says in her sympathy-note primer: Keep your focus on the bereaved. You can apologize for the delay in getting the card out, but don’t make excuses. They don’t need to know that your kid has had recurrent pink eye or that your sister is in the middle of a divorce; it’s not relevant, and it’s not about you.
Modern Loss is a place to share the unspeakably taboo, unbelievably hilarious, and unexpectedly beautiful terrain of navigating your life after a death. We serve up candid personal essays and timely resources with no judgments. Beginners welcome.
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