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25 Practical Ways to Help a Friend Through the Illness or Death of a Spouse

Because ‘Let me know if I can do anything’ isn’t as helpful as it sounds

Published on: November 20, 2019

friend comforting friend holding hands on a table

We all want to support our friends, colleagues and neighbors when their family is experiencing a life-threatening illness, or when someone has died. Our first impulse may be to bring food, and if we’re lucky, a “meal train” will be organized to make this happen in an orderly fashion.

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Often, people want to do more — but they are not sure how to be truly helpful. We may find it natural to say to a friend in crisis, “Let me know if I can do anything.” This is said, of course, with the best of intentions — the person speaking really does want to be helpful.

The problem with such a general offer is that it places the burden of determining what is needed on the recipient, and they are probably exhausted and overwhelmed, and may not know what they need. Worse, it requires them to reach out if they do think of something. Chances are, they won’t want to interrupt your life at that point to ask.

After experiencing the terminal illness and death of my 44-year-old husband, I learned firsthand that concrete offers of help are best in these types of situations. These are much easier to evaluate than an open-ended offer. You’d like to bring dinner Thursday? Yes, dinner Thursday would be great. Or: No, someone is already bringing dinner Thursday. How about next week?

With this in mind, here are 25 simple and practical ways you can help a friend experiencing a crisis or coping with a death in the family:

Take out their garbage cans on garbage day. And bring them back after pickup.

Take up a collection and hire a housekeeping service — once, or monthly.

See if their car needs servicing, make the arrangements, and take it in for them.

Drop a thoughtful card in the mail. Enclose a Starbucks gift card for a little self-care.

Mow their lawn.

Walk their dog.

Organize a fall or spring yard clean-up day.

Blow leaves off the walkway or roof.

Pick up their dirty laundry once or twice a week, and return it clean and folded.

Make space in their refrigerator and freezer for all the extra food that will be coming.

Include the kids in your carpool for school or sports.

Remind them of upcoming “special days” at school (e.g. Teacher Appreciation Week, Pajama Day, walkathon, etc.).

Text them from the grocery store and ask what they need.

Offer to watch their kids so they can get a break.

Offer to watch their kids overnight so they can get a break.

Send them a gift card for a massage.

Make arrangements for someone to fix whatever may be broken, leaking or in need of seasonal upkeep around their home.

Help them wrap holiday gifts.

Remind them of upcoming deadlines for sports, activities or summer camp registration.

Collect funds from those who want to help and deposit them into the kids’ school lunch accounts so the parent doesn’t have to plan and prepare lunches.

Check in and make sure they know about upcoming paperwork, forms and obligations at the kids’ schools.

Do some research to find a therapist in their insurance network.

Invite them to ride with you to a party or other event so they don’t have to show up alone — especially if it will be an event full of couples.

Shovel snow from their driveway and walkways.

Get your friend a holiday gift and secretly put it under their tree. Or organize a group of friends to chip in for several thoughtful gifts — because they may be buying their own gifts this year.

Grief and loss are part of life. As much as we wish we could help our friends by “fixing” the situation, this is impossible — there are no magic words that will change the facts when a loved one is seriously ill or dies.

However, a good ally can be there for their friend, and can ease their burden with practical support. The next time a crisis arises for someone in your life, pick one or more of the above tips that seem doable and appropriate to the situation, and be confident in knowing that you are helping your friend in their time of greatest need.

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