In the face of grief (updated)

8 Nov

Update: I received some feedback on this post so I added another suggestion: Food (longer term) and Errands (respite).  Respite is the biggest way to help caregivers.  That can vary between people (see below).

I’ve written before about grief and poems that I give to people or that I found comforting after a death. 

I just got back from visiting a friend whose father is dying. Family members are flying in from around the world to say goodbye as this man dies at home. She and her siblings and mother are taking shifts sitting and lying with him around the clock.  This was my first time in a dying-caregiving situation, rather than someone dying unexpectedly. So I thought I’d process it a bit via blog.

Note: I just wrote an article about caregiving. I also visited Chicago for a friend’s wedding last weekend and another friend told me that in her research, there wasn’t anything proven to help caregivers besides respite. Therapy, groups, etc. might work for individuals, but the only guaranteed way to help a caregiver is by giving them a break.

Tips for visiting a caregiver or grieving family, from my personal experience:

  • If possible, come. Just showing up means the world, even if all you do is sit. I remember my friends visiting after my dad died, it meant everything to me. My brother’s best friend sat on his couch for hours. It was great.
  • If you can’t come, reach out. Say SOMETHING. Even better: assure then that you don’t need a response, you just want them to know you’re thinking of them.
  • If you come and can, bring food. I brought a bunch of casseroles and an instant pot-full of ga kho and cooked rice when I got to their house. Then I bought some frozen pie crusts, a bag of frozen broccoli, a bag of diced ham, shredded cheese and eggs. I microwaved the broccoli, whisked 8 eggs with a cup of milk, then piled cheese, ham and broccoli in the pie crusts. Poured in the eggs, topped with more cheese, and baked at 350 for 45 minutes or so. My cousin brought quiche when my dad died and it was the perfect food to have in the fridge.
  • Food: close caregivers may forget to eat or be too busy to eat. Fixing a plate with a small amount of food (like a hearty snack) and putting it in their hands with a fork can help. We fed my friend’s mother a lot of small meals. When I walked in I scrambled some eggs and made toast and gave her a single egg + one piece of toast, and it was a lot for her. I remember spooning chao (congee/rice soup) into my mom’s mouth the day after my dad died.
  • More food: fruit is good. Food with vegetables baked in (a veggie lasagna, a quiche, etc.) are good. No one is thinking of healthy food but if you’re caring for a caregiver you can do that! Bananas, cut up apples or oranges, berries… the less effort required to eat, the better.
  • Food (longer term): In my visit case, it was an acute and immediate situation.  Lots of caregivers are in long-term chronic situations.  Frozen food that keeps well is great! When we had our first baby, a friend made a HUGE casserole of mac and cheese that we bagged into individual portions and froze.  My aunt made hundreds of egg rolls and froze them when my dad died.  Dumplings, lasagnas, casseroles, enchiladas, soups- all good.
  • Make coffee. (I didn’t do this but it was necessary and someone did it.) Top off coffee mugs, collect them and wash them.
  • Chores: do dishes! Wash dishes, load and unload dishwashers, clean and cook.
  • Take out trash, recycling, bust out a vacuum if you see one.  If possible ask a non-main caregiver on where these things are. Laundry is helpful too.
  • Errands: if people are coming in from out of town and staying, see if you can help solve problems. I helped unwrap and place some mattresses, and ran to the store to get sheets (and aforementioned quiche ingredients).
  • Errands (respite): For longer-term care, giving the caregiver a break so they can go grocery shopping in peace or sit at a coffee shop and zone out or buy a towel from Target may be more valuable than running the errands yourself.  Ask! A friend watched my newborn for an hour so I could go get a postnatal massage and it remains one of the greatest gifts I have ever received.
  • Care: if there are kids or animals around, offer to take care of them. Walk the dogs, walk the kids or take them to a park or play with them. I sang a bunch of songs to an 18 month old.
  • If possible, encourage caregiver to exercise. Take them on walks, lead them in mild yoga. My best friend walked me in laps around the hospital after I had my first baby.
  • Encourage naps. Even asking gently “when’s the last time you slept?” can shake caregiver into realizing. Or if you’re close like that you can command them to nap. My spouse did this to me in both newborn periods.
  • Check in often and for a long time. Even months later- in the throes of grief it felt like I had stopped and the world had gone on and it wasn’t fair, just knowing a friend remembered that I had loved someone once and now they were gone helped.

This remains one of my favorite grief poems. I joined a grief poetry group years ago and this was in my email box, by Susan Florence:

I think I am letting him go.
It is not that my love is diminished
or that I miss him less.
It is only that the sun is up
and there is no milk
in the refrigerator
and the bunny got out
of the cage
and is eating my red geraniums.
I think I am letting him go.
But sometimes at night
before I go to sleep
I feel the tears
fill up my eyes
and run down my cheeks.
I do not think I will ever
let him go.
But he is gone.


Another note: when my dad died I told one friend. He ran into a mutual friend and told him, who then told our friend group and I received a bunch of calls and emails and texts. I was so happy to get those. I’m not great at sharing sad things in my life and I was so pleased that my friends knew me enough to share for me. I think a lot of people aren’t good at reaching out for help but would take it happily.


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