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Q: My heart is breaking for a friend of mine who has recently lost her son. He died in a tragic accident and I am at a loss on how to support her. Our families are not extremely close, but our kids went to school together and of course this has all of us pretty shaken. I pull my kids in close at the end of the day and try to imagine how difficult it would be to lose any of them, and then how I would want others to show me kindness. Any advice would sure be great.

Thank you.

Brandy M.

Brandy, I am sorry to learn of the sudden death of your friend’s son. It is natural and understandable that you and your own family are feeling unsettled. Death is never easy, and when a death occurs unexpectedly due to tragic circumstances, especially to a young person or child with a full life ahead, it is challenging for survivors to come to terms with this sudden change. We all dread receiving a phone call in the middle of the night telling us someone has died. Even when someone is ill we are often not prepared for their death. Those closest to the person who died are in disbelief and shock; acquaintances are shaken up, and many people feel ill-prepared to help families after a sudden death.

You are not alone if you do not know how to respond when a death occurs; many of us wonder if we should stop by the family home or just send a card. We wonder if we should attend the funeral, and question if and how children should be told about the death. We want to be supportive but don’t know what to do or say.

Listed are tips for supporting families who have experienced a sudden death with emphasis on what to do, what to say, and how to support grieving families over time.

What to do

When a death occurs, the initial response is often to call or visit in person and share hugs and tears together; this response is greatly appreciated. The support of others helps grieving family members get through both the initial days, and following days, after the death.

Bringing food is helpful, especially if the family is expecting the food and is not overwhelmed with multiple meals arriving at the same time. Grieving people often do not have much of an appetite, but it is helpful to have healthy food choices available. A thoughtful approach is to deliver food in disposable containers and/or label dishes so they can be returned appropriately.

After an initial outpouring of support, many families can enter the second, third, or fourth weeks feeling lonely for compassion. It is important to recognize that the need for nourishing meals continues for many days and months after the death, so don’t be afraid to offer meals many weeks later. Consider sending food from a restaurant or a gift certificate for use in the future.

What to say

It is best to keep your words to grieving individuals simple: “I’m sorry” or “I’m so sorry to learn of Timmy’s death” is often enough. Feel free to share a memory of the person who died, for example: “I will always remember how kind Timmy was to my own son when he was the new kid in the class.”

Don’t be afraid of tears as what you say may bring tears, but expressing emotions can be healing. Sharing memories of the person who died is often very helpful.

Provide specific offers of help; saying “call me if you need anything” is not as helpful as “I can pick up and bring home your daughter from soccer practice next week,” or “I am available next Wednesday to do whatever you need.”

Grieving parents often need respite from day to day responsibilities, but may be reluctant to let their other children out of sight. Offer to stay with children for an hour or two, maybe suggest a short trip to the library or playground. Grieving children need the support of caring adults while maintaining their daily routines.

Support over time

It is important to recognize that grieving families need support over many weeks and months, even years. The gift of presence provides benefits for both those who are grieving after a sudden death and those who are brave enough to join them on this unplanned journey.

Given that we all make human connections it is inevitable that these connections will someday be broken due to death. Bereavement, which is a term used to describe someone who has experienced the death of a beloved person, is a universal human experience.

Supporting each other through unplanned challenges provides opportunities to strengthen human connections with each other. Finally, it is important to remember that grief is a journey, not a singular event. Holidays, birthdays, and special occasions can be other times when families may need support many months or years after the death occurred.

D. “Dale” M. Mayer, Ph.D., RN, is a faculty member at Montana State University College of Nursing and serves on the Board of Directors for Tamarack Grief Resource Center. She can be reached at dmayer@montana.edu Mayer is speaking at Community Conversations on Death and Dying this Thursday from 6 - 8 p.m. at the Loft of Missoula, 119 W. Main. If you would like to submit a question for Life’s End, please email: maurikaw@hospiceofmissoula.com and we will respond in this column or via email.

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