When someone dies it leaves us feeling overwhelmed, helpless and that things are out of control. A year ago my dad died of motor neurone disease and I am fortunate enough that this was the first time I truly experienced world-changing, heart-shattering grief. The last year of firsts without him seems to have passed mercifully quickly, but it has given me time to reflect on how we deal with death - or don’t, as it so often seems to be. So here is a sort of self-help guide of practical, useful shit you could do to help someone trying to cope with the death of someone loved.
As I’ve written before, it’s not helpful to just tell me you’re at the end of the phone (what the hell do you say when someone dies?). I’m not going to call, I’m gonna have a panic attack in my room by myself in the middle of the night and feel like I’m the only person for hundreds of miles.
Don’t suggest whatI should do - tell me what you’re going to do. Call me, come round to see me, bring me hot food, drive me to the supermarket or pet shop or beach, turn up with your dog and drag me for a walk, buy or make me some bath bombs and a candle to remind me to wash and look after myself. And when you turn up (unannounced is usually fine, but expect to be turned away sometimes)
BRING. YOUR. OWN. MUGS. When someones dies the family’s house becomes a visitor’s centre, and that involves a LOT of washing up, making tea, and emotionally supporting other family members and friends. That shit is tiring. Do the washing up, bring comforting food in disposable packaging (we’ll wrestle with our environmental impact at a later date; right now we just need to eat), offer to join us for dinner so that we are encouraged to actually eat, take out the bins, take our dog for a walk (or at least help wash off the fox poo she’s rolled in but we’re too busy and tired to remove), vacuum the house or sort out the dozens of vases of wilting flowers. If you come to stay overnight, please bring your own bedding and towels; this is not an AirB&B, this is a house of immeasurable sadness and chaos.
When someone dies there is a surprising amount of admin. Like, ‘why the fuck have I suddenly become a PA to my dead relative, I need a union’ amount. The death needs to be registered, the family may need to get probate, pensions might need to be accessed, wills assessed, banks need to be informed, social media sites must be closed, clothes and possessions need to be sorted (at a later date usually). These are all things that can be painful and seem staggeringly unachievable to the bereaved.
Offer to help. Take them to the council office to get a death certificate, and then take them for a coffee or better yet, a pub lunch; check if they’ve registered with ‘one call does it all’ (which it bloody doesn’t) so they don’t have to repeatedly tell the government departments and heating companies of the death. Help spread the word and be a ‘go-to’ for more distant friends or family if it’s appropriate.
I find funerals strange and kind of ironic. When I die I want to have the massive party before I go, not after. I want to be told how much people adore me while I can still hear them. I love throwing parties, so it seems sad that I’d miss one of the biggest ones of my life. Luckily for us my dad paid for his funeral before he died and let us know about the major things he wanted at his, like music choices and who would speak. Funerals are like really awkward parties with a very strict itinerary. I haven’t organised a wedding before but I imagine they’re kind of similar. If you are able to, offer to bring some food (hoards of grieving folk need to be fed and watered) or order the booze (VERY IMPORTANT), help collect the chairs or organise the furniture before people start to arrive. Pop to the local shop to buy five litres of tonic because even though it’s only been half an hour since the ceremony finished, everyone is on the gin. If, like our family, you have a solid track record of hosting parties, offer to help put up the marquee in the garden. Make labels for the food and identify dietary requirements, find B&Bs for distant relatives to stay at or offer up your sofa bed if you live nearby. Drive 11 miles to the nearest chippie and order fish and chips for 20+ drunk mourners partying in the front room at 10pm (shoutout to my bestie).
HELP TIDY UP. Because my family are awesome and bonkers, we accidentally-on-purpose had a wild party after my dad’s funeral. Like in the film Snatch but with marginally less fire and more gin. There were snoring bodies of uncles and Godparents and friends in every room, decorated with empty bottles and glasses, scorched remains of drinking games and cherished photo albums scattered everywhere. The place was a tip. But with a small army of hungover mourners we managed to get the marquee down and the place looking respectable by lunch time (ish). If ever there was a time to help tidy up after a party, this is it.
A few days after dad died a Tesco delivery van turned up at our house. We live in the middle of nowhere and assumed they were lost. No, “Keats” was on the delivery note. My sister’s best friends had ordered an online shop to our door. The poor driver didn’t know what was going on, but three grown women were ugly crying and trying to hug him as they rifled through the trays of shopping he bought to the door.
The wonderful care package contained:
A fancy candle
Tea bags and instant coffee
Wine. Lots of wine
Gin, and crates of tonic
A little book of sudoku
We unpacked that delivery in silence, which is rare in this house, and then sat together and had a little cry. We rang the girls to thank them, and I felt the first flicker of hope I’d experienced for a while. We were not alone, and even though our friends may be geographically distant, we are not doing this by ourselves.
There are of course less practical but by no means less important things that can be done when someone dies. Offering thoughtful gifts can be very comforting and healing for both those closest to the deceased and those delivering the present. Long-lasting memorials like trees or plants, jewellery, ornaments or symbolic gestures can mean the world to people, and allow them to have a private and tangible reminder of someone deeply loved. Death so easily makes us feel powerless and insignificant, but it should be a time for action. Let the grieving person know you’ve got their back (and front and sides) and that they’re not alone in this. It’s the least we can do when facing death.