April 12, 2013

What to Say When You Don't Know What to Say

By Tracy
Introduced by Amy

Tracy is my second cousin, friend, and fellow art nerd.  I love her so much.  We met at college in an art class and became friends before we knew we were cousins.  Crazy, huh?  We went separate ways, but stayed in touch through facebook.  She got married, I served a mission, she had a baby, I got married, then she had another baby.  This baby was born with health problems.  I ached for her as she shared updates in the days after his birth.  He was born with Trisomy 18, which is like Down Syndrome, but with a different chromosome missing.  She started a blog to keep friends and family in touch with the progress of their sweet little babe.  I bawled as I read each beautiful and loving post.  They had such courage, as did sweet little Peter!  He lived 7 weeks, and touched the lives of many people.  In the future, Tracy plans on sharing his story with us here on S.O.M.   (Read about Peter on her blog) But, for today, she agreed to share this post--which I love.

You know when a good friend or family member is going through a really difficult time, whether it be a serious illness, loss of a loved one, etc--it can be SO hard to know what to say.  Sometimes, this has even kept me from reaching out to the people I love, because I'm afraid.  But then I think to myself, "Doofus!  Giving no support has gotta be worse than giving clumsy support!"  Anyway, I appreciate the perspective that Tracy has on this subject, since she has been on the receiving end of service and love after a very difficult trial: the death of a child.  Her ideas are super practical and common sense, which is nice when you want to help, but you don't know how.  I hope you find this as helpful as I did!  Thank you, Tracy! :)

With my son, Peter.

I got a bunch of pamphlets from the funeral home when Zach and I started making arrangements for Peter's funeral. I thought they were all well written and helpful. I thought this one in particular was really good. "What to say when you don't know what to say" is exactly what everyone wants to know at some point in their lives. If you haven't been there yet, you will at some point in time. Even when dealing with something difficult that isn't a death, these guidelines are a great place to start for comforting and helping anyone who is going through a difficult time or trial in their life.

 Even before I had read this information I had been thinking about the topic and contemplating what I have learned from this experience. What is the most helpful to someone who is going through a hard time. Here are some of my thoughts on the topic from the loving and generous examples of those around me.

1. Lots of boxes of LOTION kleenex 
Whether a death in the family, throwing up, or just a sickness with a runny nose, they will always wish they had more lotion kleenex because if they are crying or runny nose-ing for more than one nose wipe, they will be in dire need of lotion kleenex. Otherwise, after two wipes, their faces and noses will be red, dry, and sore. You can never have too many boxes of lotion kleenex.

2. Food 
A staple in grief support, food is always welcome, but here are some insights I've gained.

 - Space it out.
Most meals are more than enough for one meal, and some can even last up to four days. Instead of bringing meals every day, space them out to every-other day so that their fridge doesn't get filled up with too many leftovers. Not everyone is blessed with a deep-freeze freezer in the garage.

- Bring it two weeks later.
When someone has a new baby, or a surgery, etc. people are usually ready and eager to help out at the beginning. That is helpful. It is also a pleasant surprise and much appreciated respite to have someone bring you a meal a few weeks later, when things have died down but you still haven't fully recovered.

- Gift cards/basket If you live far away from the person you wish to comfort, gift cards to local restaurants or a gift basket can show you care and are thinking of them. And who doesn't love getting real mail?

 3. Massage
A gift certificate for a massage from a professional masseuse. So needed. A great way to feel like you are actually helping relieve some of the tension from grief and stress. Who doesn't need one?

Probably something they need- but wouldn't ever buy for themselves.

 4. Suggestions 
When offering to help saying "just let me know if I can ever do anything to help" isn't the most effective. Part of the problem is that the person who needs help isn't always sure what you are able, or comfortable, doing. What they might really need is someone to clean their bathroom, but what you had in mind was more like giving them a ride. Or maybe they need someone to watch their children, but you work during the day when they need the help.

When offering to help, give lots of suggestion of what you are comfortable helping with, that way they know that they can come to you in that circumstance. For most people it is uncomfortable asking others for favors, so it definitely helps to know what the other person will agree to before you ask. Specifics help.

Some examples: "I would love to help by: ..."
- Coming over and spending the evening with you while your husband is working (or day)
- Taking your child for the day so you can make funeral arrangements (or whatever)
- Giving you a ride to church, the hospital, etc (or your teenager, or kids)
- Having you over for dinner on Wednesday night (be specific)
- Making burial clothes

Nobody wants to ask you to clean their bathroom, but that might be what they really need. Offer anything you are willing, able, and comfortable doing.

Peter's burial shoes made by a dear friend as a favor.
5. Offer again 
 Another problem with offering help is that the person usually isn't looking for help at the exact instant you offer it. Whether they are just starting to deal with the grief or a tragedy and can't think about it right now, or they just don't need anything right now, or they are a new mother and don't know what they will need because they have never done it before. Offer again.

Make sure they know your offer is sincere by offering multiple times. Sometimes someone would offer to help me with something and I would say that I didn't need it then, only to need it later but didn't want to ask. It's a blessing when the person feels the promptings from the spirit and acts on it, and makes the offer again. It is a lot easier to accept an offer than ask for it.

Something that would be really helpful would be your phone number on a card with a list of things you are ready to do to help. Put it on a sticky note, the back of your business card, or anything handy. That way they will be able to remember who offered what, and how to get a hold of them when they need help.

One thing I noticed since Peter is that my sense of time and my mental faculties were seriously messed up from lack of sleep, stress, and dealing with the situation. Writing things down is very helpful later when trying to remember things.

 6. The written word
Some of the most touching things we received were handwritten notes, cards, and letters from family and friends. Reading the heartfelt words of those we love mean so much, and it is so nice having them written down so we can re-read them whenever we want to remember and think about Peter.

Share your own grief and happy memories of the person.

7. Pictures
You can't have enough pictures of the one you love, who is now gone. If you have some, make a copy for the family or friends who are grieving.

Readers, what ways did others reach out to you when you've experienced a trial that you found helpful?  What are other good things to say/do?  I am always looking for good ideas.

P.S. Wasn't that awesome!?  Here's another interesting article I read about what to say when you are trying to support someone experiencing a really difficult trial.  Also, I was talking to a friend recently who told me that after being devastated by a miscarriage, she just really wanted people to say, "Man, that sucks." instead of saying something like, "Well, at least you know you can get pregnant." or "It wasn't meant to be."  That made a lot of sense to me.  Cause, of course it's natural to try to say something to make it better--we don't like to see our loved one in pain.  But, just like she said, often the best thing to do is just listen to them, love them, and validate their pain.   It's ok to say, "That must be so hard.  I don't know what to say, but I love you and I am here for you."  Just be there for them.



  1. I'm so glad you included that LA Times article! I read it this past week too, and thought it was right on. I had never thought about it that way before, and loved the target visual.

    Here is the link for the pamphlet that I got at the funeral home that I found helpful too.


    1. Yeah, I loved it too! Wait, did you share it on facebook? If you did, that's probably how I saw it, haha!

    2. Actually, I linked it in the original article where I mentioned it. :)

  2. Thanks so much for writing this post, Tracy. I think a lot of the time people don't know what to do or say in these types of situations (including myself). In the past, I've written notes, brought meals, and made visits. Now that I read your post, I feel like I can be more effective in giving comfort to others.

    1. Thank you for your comment! You are definitely already on the right track. I hope you got some good ideas!

      PS. An idea that someone share in RS a few months ago was to give them a big package of disposable plates, utensils, etc. that way they won't have worry about doing dishes while going through a hard time. Also, to bring food in disposable foil pans or other dishes that they won't have to worry about remembering who to return it to.

    2. Disposable is brilliant! I never got a pyrex pan back from a lady with a newborn, but come on...like she doesn't have enough to worry about! I should have taken a foil pan!

    3. I love your suggestions Tracy. I'm a fellow cousin (Amy's sister) and wish I knew you :). Amy has told me alot about you and your family - your strength is inspiring.

      My first baby was stillborn and that helped me to better understand what is helpful when someone you love is grieving. Love the lotion Kleenex suggestion - definitely found that out :). It's so true about not saying "let me know" - isn't helpful when it puts the grieving person in charge of figuring out what you can do and setting it up. Very important to be specific, and ask a few times. I enjoyed receving notes, letters, calls, etc. weeks / months later. You're still hurting and knowing others are still thinking about you can mean so much. A lady in our ward I didn't even know well randomly brought me a bix box of icecream sandwiches a month later! Not your typical "I'm sorry" gesture, but I was so touched she had thought of me and was unique in showing it. I've made it a point to remember difficult dates for those I love and doing SOMETHING - a phone call, an e-mail, a letter, or a quick visit. You never want to feel forgotten. Also - I really appreciated when people asked me about it - seems strange, but when I felt people were ignoring the "elephant in the room", it made it more painful. I WANTED to talk about it, share about my beautiful baby, and let out some of the grief to those who were kind enough to ask. Some people would say later they didn't know if they should ask because they were afraid of bringing up painful feelings - the truth was the opposite. I never "forgot" about my pain until someone reminded me of it - it was always there and helped to relieve it when I was able to talk about it. Sometimes those conversations led to some tears, which might have made some uncomfortable, but that didn't stop those that truly cared about me and how I was doing.

      So thanks Tracy for the suggestions from someone who knows :).

    4. I look forward to meeting you some day! Cousin power!

      Thank you for your comment! Amy shared some of your experience with me when Peter died.

      I love how you put it, "let me know isn't helpful when it puts the grieving person in charge of figuring out what you can do and setting it up." Amen! One of my favorite quotes is:

      "Don't annoy a friend by asking what you can do. Think up something appropriate, and do it!"

      I totally agree that someone remembering your loss a year later, etc. is really meaningful. Some of the nurses from the NICU sent me flowers on mother's day knowing that it would be a hard day for me. I was so touched and surprised by their thoughtfulness.

      Another sister brought me a little grow kit with forget-me-not seeds in it a few months later, and it really touched me too. Her small act of kindness helped deepen our friendship, and made me realize that she accepted me into her circle of friends.

      I also love talking about Peter (and death in general) and love when people ask me about him, or bring him up- sharing their memories of him, or how our experience touched them or changed them. I love what you said about talking about your loss. I agree 100%. You also never want that missing child to be forgotten, so it helps to talk about them and share them with others.

    5. Thanks for your comments, folkies! Ice cream sandwiches...Those would be appreciated anytime. Yum. And, Tracy, I love that quote! Ha!

  3. What an awesome post! Sometimes it can be so hard to know what to say or do.

  4. This is so beautifully written! I've really struggled in my life know what to do in situations like this. I always want to help, but fear making it worse. This is a really great list of things to do! Thank you for sharing!!

  5. Great post! I was amazed by the ways people reached out to us when we lost our 12 yr old son in an accident. Doing SOMETHING was definitely better than doing nothing. xo


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