Tongue Tied: What to say when a friend or family member faces a crisis or loss?

It was similar to having several windows open simultaneously on a computer screen when in the course of a few months, a childhood friend called to tell me her husband was having major surgery, another long-time friend told me her spouse had a sudden fatal heart attack, and a former neighbor called crying to share that her husband walked out on her and was filing for divorce.

How do you react when someone you are close to faces a crisis? Ignore it because you don’t want to feel that you’re being intrusive? Offer help? And what does help exactly mean?

My first thought when I hear someone I care about is suffering is to ask: What can I do? I immediately want to provide comfort and warmth to a friend or family member whose world has been rocked. It’s my conditioning as the eldest of four kids and a woman–I am a classic caretaker: How can I make it better?

But I no longer simply say it out loud any longer. Rather, I think to myself, what can I do? One answer is to express genuine sympathy: “I am so sorry; there really aren’t words at a time like this,” or “I can’t begin to imagine the pain you’re in.” These reactions acknowledge that their grief is unique to them. No pressure to respond. No judgment. No advice.

How did I get so smart? I’ve been in the shoes of someone who has experienced multiple losses in the span of a few years. The toughest was when I lost Nolan, my spouse of 42 years, after a protracted illness of five years. I remember all too well the steady steam of questions and offers I had to process that were gliding along the bottom of my mind like the tickertape on CNN. I was paralyzed with grief. I wanted to stay in bed with the comforter pulled up to my chin and never emerge again. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, much less answer questions often in a barrage, which was meant to show interest. And I certainly didn’t have the energy or clear head to tell people what they could do. There were some days when I didn’t want to live and remember driving down the highway one morning and wishing a car would hit me head on and end my excruciating pain.

That negative thinking changed over time, lots of time, plus therapy and my joining a grief support group for those who have lost a spouse. In retrospect, here are some of the things I wish people would have said and some did say and did do that really helped me survive and embark on a healthy, happy second chapter of my life, different yet still joyful. It doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten, hardly. But the searing pain is less most days. And I definitely learned not to tell people I would do something if I had no intention or got busy and preoccupied. I learned to take the time. More of how I coped appears in the upcoming book I have co-authored with Barbara Ballinger, “Suddenly Single After 50,” to be released this July (Roman and Littlefield).

What People Did and Said That Most Pleased and Consoled Me

A group of friends and neighbors hosted the Shiva after the funeral, organizing all the food purchases, setting all out, cleaning all up, and putting leftovers in the fridge with labels.

  • One couple did a home wine tasting with my kids and their friends with great wines. from their cellar and brought along their special glasses for all types of wine
  • One friend took my son to baseball games and kept giving him tickets.
  • One couple invited all of us for Passover.
  • One couple brought dinner, lunch and more on a regular basis.
  • One friend sent flowers on the first anniversary we missed sharing.
  • One couple took me out for dinner and invited me to plays and concerts.
  • One friend gave me a pedicure to a favorite special spa.
  • Another couple found my favorite wines and shared them with me in my darkest moments, either at my home or a nearby restaurant.
  • One organized a gathering at my home where symphony musicians came and played gratis for Mother’s Day.
  • One musician from the St. Louis Symphony, who had gone to my husband’s hospital room and played a cello solo to soothe him while ill, came and played at his funeral.
  • One sister drove me around when I was in too much a daze to do so myself.
  • One friend made calls for me to help with all the repair work that needed to be done and with making changes on credit cards, etc.
  • One of my sisters wrote some of my thank-you condolence notes alongside me.
  • One gardening friend planted flowers the spring Nolan died since he loved gardening. Another planted vines in honor of his love of wine.
  • One friend started helping me clean out my house and organizing all to take and sell.
  • One sister accompanied me to buy the gravestone and approved the copy I wrote for his obituary and epitaph.
  • Many of my closest friends call each year on our anniversary, his birthday and day of his death.
  • Many never let me be alone on major holidays and New Year’s, even though they’re focused on their families.
  • Many periodically tell me, “You look terrific,” sometimes maybe when I don’t.
  • One neighbor offered to mow my lawn on a regular basis when I put the house on the market.
  • Another neighbor offered to keep an eye on Nolan during the day when I was at work, to get the mail, newspaper and to let the dog out periodically.
  • A childhood friend made my favorite cookies and dropped them off at my door.
  • Many of my girlfriends with handy husbands or some of my guy friends and family pitched in and fixed things in the house and when I moved to my condo, hanged some of my paintings.
  • Another guy friend came and sat in my apartment the day I moved and told the movers where to put everything and how to arrange the furniture.

What I Wish People Would Have Said After My Husband Died

  • When running into someone at the grocery store say: I’m so glad to see you; when can we get together; how about this weekend you come over, share a good bottle of wine, and we can talk if you’re ready to do so.
  • Would you like to join us; we’re going to dinner, a concert, a ballgame and would love to have your company.
  • Let me know when you are ready to talk, and I’ll be there for you, or we can just get together.
  • Do you need help around the house; I like to organize stuff and can be there tomorrow or the next day.
  • Can we run some errands together; I know you like to go to the book store, and it would be fun to have you go along with me.
  • Would you like to take a walk; I have time this afternoon or any afternoon this week.
  • Would you just like to be left alone; if so, let me know your favorite thing to read or to eat and I’ll drop it at your door.
  • I’m sure you hate walking into an empty house; let me meet you the first couple weeks at the front door and make sure you’re safe.
  • May I walk your dog for you if you don’t feel OK to leave the house; I’ll feed him, too, or take him out to play at the park.
  • How are your parents doing; I’m going to send a card or give them a call to make sure they’re OK; I’d also like to write Nolan’s mom even though she didn’t know me well.
  • Can I have you over with your parents and Nolan’s mom some time.
  • I know I don’t know how you’re feeling but it must be so tough.
  • What can I do for the kids; I’d like to send each of them a note or something special.
  • Here’s my cell so you can call or text me any time, any day or night if you need.
  • Sent me a note or photo about Nolan and how they met him, what they shared with him, or some activity they spent together.

For a couple of years after Nolan died, I couldn’t bear to talk about him or even look at photos. Now I can talk with ease about what I miss most. Many who knew Nolan keep sharing stories about him—all his strengths and his wonderful quirks. They help me keep his memory alive.

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