Almost immediately following the conclusion of the shiva period commemorating the tragic passing of my 33-year-old wife, I wrote an article titled, ‘Reflections on Shiva.’ The goal of that article was to share my personal reflections, of providing some rudimentary guidance to those seeking to comfort mourners during shiva. And, while those seven days are no doubt critical to the mourning process, they are but seven days. For our family, the medical and emotional challenges of the days and months prior to my wife’s passing were often equally (and sometimes significantly more) trying. Furthermore, under any circumstances, coping with the loss of a loved one continues well beyond the seven days of shiva.
Over the last few months of my wife’s life – and even more so since her passing – I have encountered many different people eager to help in many different ways. Some people try to help by volunteering to take care of logistical things (car pool, grocery shopping etc.). Others offer to provide tangible goods, like money or clothing. Most commonly, people try to help on an emotional level by extending words of comfort and support.
While my wife’s journey is certainly uncommon, it is not altogether unique, either. The unfortunate reality is that all our communities are subject to a near constant barrage of calamities and suffering. Time and again, we find ourselves thrust into the difficult and awkward position of trying to provide support to those dealing with life altering hardships. As such, I would like to share some suggestions – based on my own experience – on how to best support people dealing with illness, trauma and tragedy, both before and after death.
With the exception of family members and intimate friends, it is simply not realistic for an individual to expect to be able to provide the deep, essential emotional support needed to persevere through adversity. But that does not mean they cannot still provide real assistance and a sense of community for those suffering. After reflecting on the kind, caring gestures made towards myself and my family, I would like to share some thoughts on what I have learned about the best practices in mindfulness and consideration when it comes to caring for others.
Do More, Say Less
When dealing with a family tragedy, many typical daily chores become much more burdensome than they might otherwise be. The practical, day-to-day upkeep of a family and a home tend to become overwhelming and stressful. Taking daily chores off the family’s to-do list can be enormously helpful.
For instance, one Thursday, I received a text from a member of my community which read, “I am bringing you pizza for dinner at 5. Let me know if you want anything specific.” While this may seem overly assertive to some, the fact is that — under the circumstances — it was exactly the kind of help I needed. Aside from the practical favor itself, this woman understood that asking, “Can I bring dinner tonight?” was taxing on me because saying ‘yes’ meant asking for a favor. Stating that she was doing the favor (while obviously still allowing me the opportunity to say ‘no thanks’), made it much more effective and palatable. It meant crossing one more chore off my list at 10 AM; and while it didn’t fix our lives, it did make that moment ever so slightly more bearable.
There are countless practical ways to be helpful, and I would suggest that the following rule-of-thumb applies to most, if not all: Be specific and (reasonably) persistent. Instead of asking “Do you need me to do anything?” go with, “I am in Costco, do you need anything from here?” Instead of, “Can I be helpful with your kids?” try something like, “Taking my kids to Chucky Cheese at 12, can I take your kids, too?” Consider swapping, “Can I bring dinner one night this week?” with, “I am bringing over hot dogs and hamburgers Tuesday night. Let me know if that works.”
You can also get creative. For example, an acquaintance in our community realized that our cleaning lady comes to her house on Thursdays and our house on Fridays. She sent me a message after my wife passed away asking if she could be in touch with the cleaning lady on Thursdays to ensure that she was able to replenish the cleaning supplies she would need for my house on Fridays. That was really thoughtful and creative! This woman wanted to help and found a way — unique to her — to take another little thing off my to-do list.
A “No” Does Not Mean Never to Try Again
No one wants to be a nebuch. In order to avoid that label, people in difficult situations are often tentative to accept — or certainly ask for — help. Understandably, that behavior can be misinterpreted as a desire to be a “hero.” That is not the intent at all. Any hesitancy to accept assistance stems from a desire to preserve some degree of normalcy and self-sufficiency. It is simply an attempt to at least maintain the façade that everything is OK.
Therefore, at times, even a creative, thoughtful, specific offer of help will be rejected. In that moment, one should resist the well-intentioned temptation to persist or try to convince the individual to accept the help. But that doesn’t mean they should give up for good. Ask again next week if you can bring pizza on Thursday night. It may take a few weeks for the person to acquiesce (or the person may never accept that form of help), but do not stop trying, even after one, two, or three attempts.
For example, one high school girl and former student of my wife asked to come over on a Shabbos afternoon to play with our kids in order to give us a reprieve. We turned down the offer and said we were ‘O.K.’ Nonetheless, she asked every week, for about six straight weeks if she could come over—and each time we resisted the help. Finally, one week we accepted and, lo and behold, it was unbelievably helpful! Her weekly visits persisted through the final and most difficult months of my wife’s life and — amazingly — she has continued to come every Shabbos since my wife passed away. If not for her perseverance, we would have missed out entirely on what has proven to be a tremendous act of kindness on behalf of our family.
Say Less, More Frequently
One of the hardest facets of going through an illness or tragedy is the profound sense of loneliness that accompanies such tribulations. Even the oldest and closest of friends can never truly relate and thus, any social encounter entails an inherent sense of disconnect. This phenomenon may — often subconsciously — cause the sufferer to disengage from friends and act distant in general.
People are inevitably uncomfortable around them, nervous to say the wrong thing. They worry that they might bother the family by texting or calling. The result is that — despite all the meal trains, carpools and gestures of chessed — in many ways, the family is left feeling entirely alone.
In my experience, the best way to help that person/family feel less isolated is to reach out frequently, with very short messages. Even now, a few people text me every Friday to wish me a good Shabbos. Some friends call or text randomly just to let me know they are thinking of me. These simple messages, which take only a few seconds to send, can be extremely touching and powerful in combatting the loneliness.
On that note, it is important to point out that the absence of a response should not be interpreted as a lack of appreciation for the gesture. The unpredictability of the emotional and mental state of the grieving process means that sometimes one is simply not ‘in the mood’ to engage in conversation, even by responding to a text. However, the mere act of texting “thinking of you” is always meaningful and well-received. Please do not let the lack of response deter you from reaching out again. Similarly, every phone call – even those left unanswered – is sincerely appreciated, and even if the recipient does not pick up three tries in a row, each attempt represents a valuable expression of your care and concern.
Many of us feel a sense of helplessness when we learn of someone dealing with difficult personal issues. Despite our innate yearning to be there for one another, we feel paralyzed by the uncertainty of exactly how to help. Therefore, I am hoping this article can begin to shift our communal mentality regarding these dynamics away from, “If there is anything I can do for you, let me know,” towards a more delicately proactive approach. There is always something you can do, but the person suffering is rarely going to “let you know.”