Our community has lost another young adult who was, and always will be, a bright and shining star. People in our community, like in most communities, are desperate to know how to help the grieving family. I will share the ways in which our family was helped. What helped and comforted us might not work for everyone, but at least it’s a start. Let me also say that I was almost completely unaware of all that was being done for us until days or even weeks later. The family is not asking for anyone to do these things, but people, in their heartfelt desire to help, might want to do these things.
A lot of people are in and out of the home, so food, drinks, ice, paper goods, etc are all helpful. Several people made cash contributions to help pay for the staple items. Giving the family freedom to focus on visitors rather than the details of food and drink is extremely helpful. The only word of caution would be to find out who is coordinating the food contributions or too much food might be brought and go to waste. If no one is coordinating it, and organization is your gift, then offer to be the coordinator.
Have someone answering the phones and taking messages from well wishers. It will become clear which calls need to be given directly to the family. Most can be written down and shared with the family later in the day or another day.
Protect the family. The number of people coming by can be overwhelming. At times, the family might need to go off to a bedroom to rest. Encourage the family members to drink water by bringing them a glass or bottle on occasion. They won’t be thinking about drinking, but they will be doing a lot of crying and talking which dehydrates them quickly. Encourage them to eat, even if it’s just a small bite of food now and then. I can still hear my friend saying, “Eat a bean, Sandy. Eat a bean.” She knew I needed nourishment but could hardly eat at all. I had a plate of food in front of me, but the only thing I could imagine eating were the green beans, which were easy on my stomach.
Write down a sweet memory of the one who has died and give it to the family to read and cherish at a later date, but also share uplifting memories directly. It will bless the family to hear how others love the one who is gone. But those verbal stories might be forgotten, so follow them up with a written one.
Where it seems appropriate, and if the family desires it, offer to help with funeral arrangements and burial or cremation. Our close friend asked what kind of place I’d like for Jacob’s ashes to be stored. He went out and found the most wonderful location at a local cemetery. We didn’t have a place picked out yet since we never imagined our son would be dying.
That same friend, along with a friend of ours who is a lawyer, dealt with the insurance matters, coming to us only to sign papers or ask some specific questions. We could not think clearly enough to deal with those legal details.
When it came to dealing with the funeral home, once again, our friends stepped in. We didn’t need as many funeral home services as most people since we never held a viewing or visitation and planned to hold the memorial service at our own church, but there were still the issues of transporting Jacob’s body and arranging for the cremation, in addition to a trip to the cemetery to have Jacob’s ashes placed at the columbarium. Our friend made all of those arrangements for us. He consulted us as necessary, but we had very little to do with those details. When it came to signing the awful papers for the funeral home, two kind women came to our home with the papers. We NEVER entered the funeral home for ANY details.
Offer to pick people up from the airport who are coming into town. Many of our family members were arriving for the funeral at an airport over an hour away. Some of the people from out of town rented cars, but a few needed transportation.
As the funeral approaches, videos will need to be put together and music arranged. If you can offer your services in these areas, do so. Someone will have to collect pictures for the video, which might require a little input from the family, but gather as much as possible without having to ask the family to select all of the pictures. Looking at pictures can be very painful. Go to the young people who are always taking pictures and ask them to contribute any special pictures they might have. Ask the family and friends of the young person who died what some of his/her favorite songs were. Clear the song list with the family before the actual service.
People offered to cut and color my hair. I didn’t opt for the cut, but a precious friend actually took the time to color my hair right at my home. It felt extremely indulgent and selfish to have my hair colored, but I was already a week or so late for having it done. Silly as it may sound, I wanted to look reasonable for Jacob’s sake.
Offer to help select clothes for the funeral. It’s a horrible thing to be looking in your closet to decide what you’re going to where to your child’s funeral.
If the family is planning to speak at the memorial service, offer to help write out what they’d like to say. It’s hard to focus when your mind is draped in grief and you are still in shock.
People volunteered to answer our phone and clean our home while we were at the memorial service. The thought had never crossed my mind, but we were told it was good to have people in our home at that time. A few dark-minded people actually look at obituaries to find the time of funerals in order to rob the home of the family while they are gone. I don’t think anyone would have done that in our community, but it’s possible.
Some people were generous beyond our comprehension. They flew their own planes or had other pilots fly planes to transport our immediate family to Athens the night of the accident and to bring us back home. But others continued to offer their planes by flying some of Jacob’s friends home for the memorial service and having them flown back to campus afterward. We couldn’t even fathom such generosity. We will always be grateful for those incredible gifts of airplane flights.
If you are creative and computer savvy, offer to make a memorial page for the family. You can do that for free on Facebook. When it comes to a young person dying, there is usually a group created within the first few days on Facebook by one of the young friends. You can get a little fancier by creating a memorial website online. There is usually a small fee involved. I created one for Jacob that was a few dollars a month or $100 for a membership that lasted forever. You can check out that memorial site at http://jacobnyenhuis.memory-of.com if you’d like.
One young girl who never even met Jacob but had a knack for making videos created a simple memorial video and posted it at YouTube. She was able to get a lot of the pictures off the memorial website and had read enough information to know which songs would be special to us. That was one of the sweetest acts of love and kindness I had experienced.
We had dinner delivered to our home for weeks on end. It was a blessing to not have to worry about cooking. We’d often have leftovers for lunch the next day. The people that delivered food were very respectful of our time. They’d usually come in and chat with us for a few minutes and leave. Dishes that need to be returned should be clearly marked.
Once my husband started going back to work, there was a schedule of women who visited with me each day–just one person for about an hour or two per day. It forced me to get up and out of bed. Sometimes I was still in my pajamas, but usually I was dressed. This was a wonderful gift. Even though there were days when I didn’t really want anyone to come over, it proved to be helpful. The people who came usually just let me talk about Jacob. I desperately needed to speak his name.
Many people brought us books that dealt with grief and death. I consumed those books, but friends of mine have said they couldn’t read anything for weeks or even months after the death of their child. Granted, I needed to read and reread pages many times, but I found comfort in reading.
Our associate pastor visited once or twice a week for over a month. It gave my husband and I a chance to ask those deep, spiritual questions and vent our (my) anger toward God for allowing our son to die. We were trying to make sense of something that made no sense. To this day, I’m not sure I understand it much better than I did back in those early days, but it was a blessing to talk to our pastor about it.
Thank you cards are difficult to write, especially when hundreds of them need to be sent. Some of our creative-minded friends designed a special thank you card that was sent to those who attended the funeral, sent cards or flowers, made meals, etc. People volunteered to help address the envelopes as well. I’m sure some cards were never sent that should have been, but all of the help made it possible for most of the thank you cards to get out.
Keep sending cards and notes, even months or years later. We had a few people who sent cards faithfully to let us know they were praying for us. It meant so much to know people had not forgotten. The pain doesn’t stop when the people go away and the cards stop coming in the mail. In fact, it gets worse. Your words of encouragement can give a sense of hope and love on a day when it is needed more than you can possibly imagine.
Speak the name of the one who died. My son didn’t just disappear from my memory, but it killed me when it felt like he disappeared from other people’s thoughts and memories. Keep speaking the name. I love to hear the name of my son. While I might cry, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t mention him. I need to know that he lives on in your heart.