“What can we do to help?” friends asked me as my husband lay dying and soon after he passed. At first I didn’t know how to answer.

I’m still feeling my way through early stage-grief from the inside out. At first I didn’t know what I needed, but others sometimes recognized a need and offered specific help. Or just showed up with it. Sometimes my head was clear enough to ask. Sometimes not.

I previously wrote about helpful things to say to a person going through a loss. But it’s not all about words. Support comes in words and actions.

Jerry lapsed into unconsciousness only a day after he was admitted to hospice. He died the day after that. My children and I were in shock at the suddenness of his approaching death. When the hospice asked me to name a funeral home, I couldn’t bear to think about it while Jerry was still alive. I told two friends what services I would need; they did some quick research and brought me comparative information that saved over $2,000.

On Jerry’s last day a group of friends sat vigil in the waiting room, just to be near us if we needed something. A workmate drove my daughter from their office to the hospice. A couple brought supper to my children and me as we waited at Jerry’s bedside for the end.

Church friends took over all the details of the memorial service I had outlined. I invited the speakers and chose the music and readings. They did the rest: creating the programs, serving as musicians, acting as ushers, choosing a caterer and menu, and buying and arranging flowers and photos.

Those were practical things I needed right away. As time passes – almost a month now – other kinds of needs are bubbling to the surface.

I’ve frequently been told I’m a “strong” woman, but I’m suddenly feeling very vulnerable. At first I didn’t want to be alone. My children and a sister took turns spending the night with me for the first weeks. A son-in-law ordered me a medical alert device.

Visitors come. Friends invite me to dinner. I’m letting myself be cared for, a new experience for me. The simple presence of others is a great comfort while I’m feeling my way into a new life.

Here’s the takeaway: If you want to help newly bereaved friends, look for their practical needs in the moment (transportation, food, shelter for out-of-town guests) and their emotional needs long term (simple presence, an invitation to a meal or a movie). Compassionate communication isn’t limited to words.

Carolyn Miller Parr has a passion for peacemaking with families, churches, nonprofits, and businesses. A former judge, she now helps clients resolve problems without going to court. She co-authored husband Jerry's memoir, "In The Secret Service" (Tyndale). A new book (working title: Love's Way: How Families Can Live in Peace as Parents Age) is due out in January 2019. She's a founding member of Joseph's House (a hospice for homeless men), Mediators Beyond Borders, and The Servant Leadership School in DC. Writing has appeared in USA Today, Ready Magazine, Faith Happenings, Age in Place, and Redbud Post.
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