Sunday, December 15, 2013

How to help the newly bereaved

The death of Superman Sam has had me thinking. Although my own Sam has only been gone 56 days, or maybe because he's only been gone 56 days, I feel like I can offer some advice to those that love and want to support the Sommer family.

I don't have advice on what to say. I haven't figured that out yet. I do know that it does not help to talk about G-d's plan, heaven, angels, being in a better place, etc. There is nothing you can say that will make them feel better. There is nothing you can say that will make them feel better. Just be with them. Hold hands. Tell them you love them. Say his name.

Here you go-thoughts on paper (or a screen. Whatever):

Do not ask, "Is there anything I can do?" "Is there anything you need?" The bereaved parent will likely answer, "No." Unless you can bring the dead back to life or build a time machine, these open-ended questions are not helpful.

Just offer to do something. Guess at what they might need and offer to do it. Don't say, "Can I...?" Or "When would be a good time for me to...?" A better approach would be to say, " I would like to...(insert helpful thing here). Is...(insert day/time here)a good time?" 

Here's a list of things every family might need at one time or another, depending on where they live or the time of year:

Shovel snow 
Mow lawn
Clean bathroom
Feed and care for pets
Drive kids to activities
Buy groceries
Take out trash
Return library books

So you might say, "Phyllis, I would like to come over and do your laundry. Is tomorrow at 10am a good time?" Now she might say, "No thanks," because maybe her mom is there and handling that aspect of running the house. At this point I would suggest that you either offer to do something else right away or that you let her know that you'll check in with her in a few days to make the same offer. 

Here's another way to approach helping-When Sam was on hospice (almost 5 months), I had a few friends who with regularity would text me when they were out shopping. "Hi! I'm at Costco (Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Albertson's). Do you need anything?" This is a great way to offer help. I would be reluctant to hand someone my whole list, but if we're out of toilet paper or bread or eggs, I can accept this small gesture.

Offer to visit when visitors might be thinning, like after Shiva. Don't say, "Call me when you're ready for a visit." You call or text and offer. And if they say no, call next week, and the week after, and the week after. And if you call and they don't answer, leave a message. I could not talk to people in the early days, but I did listen to messages. Texting is easier.

If you are far away and can't be there to help, donate to their St. Baldrick's campaign, or the MACC Fund. Send a card, especially after a few weeks when they stop coming. Use his name-"Sam had the best laugh." It will be appreciated. I promise.

You know Michael and Phyllis, and so I'm betting you know what they need. Trust your gut.


  1. My mom has worked at a local Jewish cemetery (selling property & funerals - at the cemetery where Sam will be buried today) my entire life...and even though i've heard these stories many many times, this is very helpful information!! I will be at Sam Sommers funeral today and you will be in my thoughts and prayers. Wishing I could turn back time for you & the Sommer family....

  2. This is spot-on. I've just posted it on FB. As the wife of a rabbi, I give this sort of advice all the time, but you've articulated it so well that I'll just forward people this post from now on :)

    I've been following your blog from Phyllis's, who linked to it a while ago. I am so sorry for the loss of your beautiful Sam. I am unable to be at Superman Sam's funeral or shiva, but as I keep the Sommer's in my thoughts at 1pm today, I'll also be thinking about you and your family and your beloved Sam.

  3. Outside of a phone call to express condolences, What can be done to help by those of us who live a significant distance away and can't do a grocery run or laundry or shovel snow?

    1. I know friends and family who live far away felt particularly helpless in the early days, and maybe still do. My cousin managed to participate in our Meal Train from 3,000 miles away by placing an order for a meal over the phone at a local (to us) restaurant and paying by credit card. It was such a delightful surprise. With the internet as your sidekick, your imagination is the limit, I would imagine.

  4. Might I add one more thing from my own experience? Allow the family to TALK about Sam. Our loved ones live on in our hearts when we can reminisce the fond memories. Let them talk and be good listeners, too. Sabrina, there is no right way to grieve, and no time limit on it either. Keep sharing Sammy with us through your writing!