Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What To Say When Someone Dies

This is not very well thought out but I do want to just put out a little post on this. As you may or may not know, my mom passed away 4 years ago, on May 7th. She had breast cancer that spread to her bones. No cure. Painful. Yet, time to process and mourn. She was 52 and I was 6 months pregnant with Kai. She said she would be there for his birth but missed it by 3 months. I did tell her what his name would be, just in case she didn't make it. I made her let me tell her that I was having a boy and I was so glad I did. My mom was amazing and I'm so thankful that I had her in my life. I'll be honest that it has gotten easier over time. I think it helps that I have my own kiddos to love with all my heart and also that I have 4 sisters who are able to support and encourage me when I need it. I guess I should point out that my dad and Joanne aren't bad either:)

When you have a friend that has lost someone, what do you do? I'll tell you what I appreciated and if anyone else has experience with loss, please add to it! I'm not doing this to tell people that they did it wrong, I just want to let you know what I learned from it. If you ever have a friend that loses someone they love, maybe this will come in handy....

1. Say something. Anything. You might be too scared to say the wrong thing or just too nervous that you'll make the person cry but just acknowledge it. `I'm so sorry, it must be so hard', `I can't even imagine how you must be feeling', `I'm praying for you' (my dad doesn't like this one, but I do), `Your________ was an amazing person' `I remember your ________ did____________'. You don't even have to say it verbally, you can email it. Then, if they talk...just listen. Listen. Listen. Listen.

2. Do practical things. Make a meal and drop it off (thank you to all those that did!!). Take the kids to the park. Clean a bathroom. Help scan pictures for the memorial. Mow the lawn. Give a box of Kleenexes with a note attached (Ali, you did that and I loved it). Give them flowers to brighten up their home. I know it's so easy to say, `Let me know if I can do anything!'. I would say that most people would not ask for help, or even know what to ask for. If you know that person would ask you for something specific, then say that. If they are like me (for the most part), I don't like asking for help but I sure like getting it (I'm learning). Cookies, those are easy! Oh ya, I also really appreciated that friends came to my mom's memorial as support for me. I can still see their faces smiling at me as I was up front speaking and I will never forget that.

3. Remember and Acknowledge. Once the memorial is over, things get tough. You kind of get through the day but then reality sets in. It's important to remember that if the person lost their father, then Father's Day will be tough. The first Christmas will be tough. The first thanksgiving will be tough. Their birthday will be tough. A wedding in the family will be tough. The birth of a baby will be tough. Celebrations are just tough. They do get better (for me anyway) but just saying (via words or email), `thinking of you today!', it helps. Also, if you ever have any pictures or stories of the loved one that has passed away, please share it! I REALLY want information about my mother mothering us as kids. Breastfeeding, sleeping, feeding etc. I know I was breastfed but have no idea how long. No idea when I slept through the night. No idea when I walked. That's really one of the reasons why I record every single thing with my kids:) If they start talking about their loved ones, listen. It is so therapeutic for me to talk about my mom and my memories of keeps those memories alive.

4. Invite them out. This is a tricky one but I truly appreciated being `busy'. Going for walks and having conversation. Playing a sport. Just being active and conversing with others helps you to start being a little bit more normal. It would be easy to just sit at home and think and think and think. It's healthy to mourn and process but it's also healthy to get some fresh air, exercise and stay part of the real world.

5. Be sensitive. Whenever someone said the word `cancer', `mom', `death', or `grandma' I had a little dagger stab my heart..especially the first year. Imagine how I felt when I was in labour with Kai and just got off the phone with my sister and the doctor, who knew my mom had passed away, asked if I was talking to my mom and if she was coming. Time does make it better...I can see grandma's with their grandkids and the pain in my heart is present but very small. If someone lost their mom, please don't complain to them that your mom doesn't watch your kids enough. If you catch yourself saying something that might hurt the other person, acknowledge it. So awkward, but maybe say, `Wow, I'm sorry, that wasn't very sensitive'. I mean, obviously you have to use those words, but just be aware of the presence of pain with them.

Okay, it's time for bed but I did just want to get it out there. If you have any ideas of what to add, please do! I'm no expert and everyone is so different. Maybe you need to ask the person, `Would you like to talk about your ____? I would love to talk about _________ anytime you like. ___________ sounds like an amazing person'. And finally, if you have lost someone and I have sucked and not said anything, I'm sorry.

Love, Louise


  1. Louise,

    Thanks for sharing this. My friends lost their baby two years ago and they appreciated the same things. They said it was very therapeutic to be able to talk about their experience. They are continually grieving as they each "would-be" milestone. I cannot imagine how difficult it is.

    I love hearing about your mother. I never knew her, but the love you have for her is evident. She must have been a wonderful woman. I enjoy hearing your memories of her and appreciate hearing you struggles.

    Thank you for sharing with us.


  2. Lou,
    Thank you for saying that. I am one of those 'don't know' people. I also want to get better at just doing vs. saying "tell me if there's anything I can do...". This is good - I think we all want to help but rarely know how.

    Related to this article, but more general...
    My heart goes out to you every time I see a posting about your mom. You guys were so close. I'm sorry to see you hurt. I find I too am trying to write down more for Riley after seeing how you wanted to know the details of your youth... just in case.

    Thank you for sharing.

  3. Thanks for the post, Louise. It will help us help our friends a bit better if any of them have to go through what you did.

  4. Thanks for the post, Louise. It will help me be a better friend and hopefully a more sensitive person. And thank you for speaking up that time that we were out for coffee with the girls and weren't very sensitive to you when the topic of moms came up. I still feel bad about that.

    Your Mom does sound like an amazingly special person!

  5. I do remember mom saying she breastfed Reech for 3-4 months, but the rest of us longer ;) ... and she'd make a big pot of soup on Sundays so we could have left-overs during the week.
    Someone recently told me her husband died a couple years ago when her son was only 2...I had a pang in my heart, and thought I'd start crying just imagining her pain, so I just stayed silent (she probably thought I was awkward/weird). Anyway. It's tough for everyone - to know what to/not say, or even dealing with grief. I think (although not all may agree), even though death is 'normal', it's still difficult to encounter, and that closeness/circumstances are factors which affect one's degree of grief.
    Anyway...thanks for being one of my pseudo-mothers! You're role of bigger sister has changed in the past four years. I like seeing how you/Reech (and now Jon!) mother your kids, and seeing little bits of mom in there ;) (like exploring the outdoors, walking, biking...and she did like baseball, but none of us really got into that!). Anyway. Bonne temps.

  6. Great post, Louise. This is very helpful. I've come to believe that our (N. American) culture doesn't know how to deal with loss very well. We need good examples of it with tips on how to act/what to say. When some dear friends in Seattle lost their teenage son in January, I was amazed by the amount of support they received and how they dealt with their loss in a healthy way by openly talking about it, sharing stories, posting video/pictures... And I learned a lot from observing how they were cared for by others - not only in the early days but in the several months following.

  7. Perfect Louise.
    I work with dying people and cringe so often when I hear the way others try to comfort or optimize the situation.
    Your words are true and wise...I just hate that you had to learn them by losing your precious mom.
    I am so sorry Louise...
    I loved hearing more of your story.