Some of you have written to me, asking me to write in response to the sadness that overwhelms, asking me to speak into what we can do to help when we don't know what to do. To all of us who are helpless but want to help someone grieving in our world, to those of us who are wordless but want to speak, stumbling over our own questions and unanswers, I give you what I know.
How To Help When You Don't Know What To Do
There are so many reasons to help and ways to dive in. As you decide how to help, try to identify why you want to help. Is it because you know this family well, you see a need, and you can fill it? Or is it because you feel overwhelming compassion—perhaps even a sense of guilt that your life hasn't fallen to pieces—and you simply must-must-must respond in a tangible way?
There is a difference between wanting to give to the one who is heartbroken, and wanting to give because your heart has broken. The motives are thinly veiled, and there is grace and space for both.
If you are giving to the heartbroken then just do. Don't say, "Let us know if there's anything you need." Please, just step in. Don't wait. It will mean the world.
If you are giving because you are heartbroken on their behalf, but you are not close enough to know what to do, then give in a spacious way: gift cards, notes, surprise gifts. It will mean the world.
If you don't know what to say, simply say, "I'm so sorry." Or even better, "I am so sad for you." Don't try to explain or offer a lofty word. There is no explanation, so free yourself from trying to find one. Please don't speak for God or speculate on what he has in mind. The truth is, you don't know. We only know he is near to the broken hearted, he is close to those who are crushed in spirit. Let him do what he does.
In my darkest valley, I personally needed acknowledgement that nothing was normal anymore; that everything has changed for me. I have needed a “free pass” from anything and everything on anyone's calendar. For a long time, I was not able to step into what was, sit at a table where Robb would have been, attend a party where he would have been a guest. I could not return phone calls or emails. I could not have anyone need from me.
Perhaps the best thing you can do is to be present and patient. When--and if—the wounded are ready to begin the journey of uncovering the tragedy, they may remember you were one who was present and patient. And they may trust you.
This journey brings along a monster named Burden. He whispers dark secrets that make the wounded think they're exhausting you and your resources. If you can give without waiting for a wish list, you can slay that dragon for the wounded and brokenhearted.
They may not know what they need, but they usually know what they don't want. Respect the word "no."
If you are one of the many wounded, who are stuck in the in-between, third culture of grief, please let me tell you what I have learned. The rules have changed.
If you are hurting, if you need help, say it. Others don't know what you need, but so many want to help. If you know what you need, say it. And if you know what you don't want, say it. Be honest, and don't let pride exhaust you. Save that energy for getting out of bed in the morning.
Be alone as long as you want, as much as you want. Isolation is normal, I have definitely learned. In other centuries and cultures, those with a broken heart and a ruptured world have been sent to live in seclusion for as long as they needed. Allow yourself the freedom to clear the calendar, to say no, to be alone.
Check your mailbox. And on the day the mailbox is empty, don't be deceived: It doesn't mean the world has forgotten about you or the one you love.
Give yourself a break on the thank-you notes. All the rules are different now, even the formalities of courtesy.
You can't always predict an emotional toll. What you fear with all your heart may come more easily than you expected. What you thought you could conquer may bring you to your knees. Go easy on yourself. Go to a party if you want, and leave five minutes later if you must. If laughter finds you, pull up a chair and invite her to stay. Don't worry about what others might think—tell them you're taking the day off from sadness.
And remember, healing comes in telling the story a thousand times. Tell your story to someone today. And if you're strong enough, tell it again tomorrow.