“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.

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