Rebecca Stark is the author of The Good Portion: God, the second title in The Good Portion series, a series written to encourage women to immerse themselves in the depths of Christian doctrine.

The Good Portion — God explores what Scripture teaches about God in hopes that readers will see his perfection, worth, magnificence, and beauty as they study his triune nature, infinite attributes, and wondrous works. 

Rebecca also blogs at Out of the Ordinary.


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What to Do When Someone You Know Dies

This is a redo of a post I wrote eight years ago. I’ve added items and changed some others because I’ve thought a bit more about this subject over the years.

Yesterday I had to buy a sympathy card because someone I know has died. I didn’t know him well and I don’t know his widow at all, but he helped us out when we needed it, so I am sending a card. I’ve set aside some time this afternoon to compose a note to go with it. 

Since I’ve been on the receiving end of sympathy cards and other kind gestures a few times, I know how important these things are. Sometimes people wonder what they should do, and even if they should do anything at all, thinking it really doesn’t matter a whole lot; but, believe me, it does.

If you hear the news of a death and you wonder for even a second if you should do something, the answer is yes. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t know the deceased well. If you have even a small connection, your thoughtfulness will be appreciated. It’s the kindnesses shown, even by those they hardly know, that get the family through the difficult first days after a death. Until you’ve experienced it, you have no idea how much these little things help. 

Here are ten suggestions for things you can do what to do when someone you know dies. 

  1. Send a card or letter. Just a signed card is fine, but a card with a short personal note is better. Write down what you admired about the deceased or how they encouraged you. If you didn’t know the person well, you can always write something like one note I received that said something like this: “I didn’t know him well, but when I saw him, he was always smiling and friendly.” Chances are, the family will go through those cards again and again for a few weeks, and the visiting relatives will want to see them, too. People who have never been interested in cards, even their own birthday cards, will be comforted by sympathy cards and notes. 

    Keep the family’s religious beliefs in mind when you pick out a card. I don’t mean you have to go against your own beliefs, just that you should try to chose a card that won’t be offensive to them. (And for goodness sake, don’t choose one of the silly ones that say, “Our prayers go out to you.” What good is that?)

  2. Send flowers. Yes, they may get too many, but not necessarily. In some circles there is a reluctance to spend money on something as impractical as flowers, but the family will need some for the funeral or memorial service. If nobody sends flowers, they may end up having to purchase them. If you are worried there will be too many bouquets, send one carefully chosen flower or a small spray. The family can always give extra bouquets as thank you gifts to people who do big favours for them.

  3. Give food. It doesn’t have to be a whole meal, or even a main course. Bake buns or a loaf of bread or a batch of cookies. Take over a frozen pizza or a bowl of fresh fruit. Make a pot of soup or chili. If you have no time for cooking, buy a deli meat and cheese tray. Chances are, they will have visitors to feed, and your contribution, whatever it is, will help. You can also put your food offering in a disposable freezer container and suggest that they freeze it for later if they need to. 

  4. Give to a good cause in the deceased person’s name and let the family know of your gift. If they died of a particular disease, you can  give to a charitable organization that helps people with that disease. If they had a particular cause they cared about, give to that cause in their name. If there is a memorial fund, you can donate there. If the family is Christian, you can place Bibles in their name through the Gideons. Gideon Bible donations work particularly well if you can only give a small amount. You can just write on your card to the family that you donated 2 (or however many) Bibles in the deceased’s name. 

  5. Visit. Or at least call to see if you can make a brief visit. A short visit will let them know that you aren’t scared to be around them and that you won’t be avoiding them because of their grief. (And you shouldn’t be scared to be around them. Most likely they won’t break down during the few minutes you’re there.) Be yourself and don’t worry about choking up or crying a little. 

  6. Tell them your memories of their loved one. Stories are good, but doesn’t have to be a story. It might be just a remembrance of what they liked to put on their hot dogs, or how they used to walk to school in the winter without a hat or mittens. They will be hungry for details at this time, so whatever you’ve got, they’ll want to hear it, even if they’ve heard it all before. 

  7. Offer to do something specific for them. Think about what chores they need done and ask if you can do one or two of them. Perhaps you could take the children to the Dairy Queen or walk the dog. They’ll need groceries; can they give you a list of items to pick up? 

  8. Go to the funeral or memorial service. You don’t have to stay around after the service, and you don’t have to go through a receiving line, although it’s better if you do. You can just attend and sign the guest book so they know you were there. Once again, you shouldn’t worry that you were not close enough to the deceased or to the family to be there. Just attend the service and know that it will be appreciated. If you are worried that you won’t know anyone, you can ask a friend to go with you for moral support.

  9. Invite the family or spouse of the deceased over for coffee or out for a walk a couple of weeks after the death. It may be hard for them to go out in public, yet they may be tired of being cooped up at home. You will be helping them make the transition back to regular life. 

  10. Pray for them. Pray that they will be comforted; pray that God will give them joy in sorrow and strength to carry on. Pray that they will see God’s hand in their circumstances. Pray that he will give them everything they need. And be sure tell them that you are praying for them and, better yet, what you are praying for them. Knowing you are praying will bring comfort.

The most important thing to remember is that exactly what you do isn’t as important as that you do something to acknowledge the death. If you’ve procrastinated until you’re afraid it’s too late, take heart; it’s not. A month later or half a year later, your gesture will still be appreciated. Who knows, it might even be more appreciated, because by then the dust has settled and reality has set in.

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Reader Comments (4)

When I don't have time to take food, I've sometimes taken a grocery sack full of paper goods like Kleenex, paper towels, paper plates, etc. It's always appreciated, since usually people have more company than usual. It's an idea I got from my mother, who remembers how helpful those things were when my brother-in-law died.

February 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStaci Eastin

Amen and amen. This is a great list, Rebecca.

February 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLisa notes

Great idea, Staci.

February 16, 2012 | Registered Commenterrebecca

I just recently discovered your website and look forward to reading more from you in the days ahead.

Thank you for your wise and thought-filled counsel in this post. I have shared it with the people in my world ...

February 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Stoll

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