Five Things To DoWhen Someone Faces the Worst


The end of this month will mark the 17th anniversary of the day Richard, my first husband, died. We’d been married 23 years and were busy with the middle of our lives. One son in college, home for the summer, the other on hiatus from high school. Richard was looking forward to selling his business in a few years and spending more time on his art, once I got through the graduate program I was beginning the fall and got my counseling practice established. It was summertime, and life was scooting along as smoothly as a skiff on a mirror-surfaced lake.

Until the boat capsized, just like that. To be clear, it wasn’t a boating accident that killed Richard; that’s only a metaphor, an attempt to convey total upheaval. For reasons we’ll never entirely understand despite a full post-mortem, Richard’s heart chose that day to resign its job, without prior notice.

To say Richard died suddenly is a pallid descriptor. That morning, he and I went to the gym together. Then I stayed with the boys while he went to work. That afternoon, he came home early, feeling tired, so he and I took a nap together. He didn’t wake up. After the ambulance and the hospital, I stayed with the boys while he went to the morgue.

Here the word “sudden” reveals its inadequacy, its failure to capture the abrupt brutality of sudden cardiac arrest. But that’s what had happened to Richard, and there was no arguing with it, and so there we were, the boys and I, thrashing in the water, struggling to stay afloat.

Our friends and family were our lifeboats. Over the next days and weeks, people came through for us with selflessness and generosity. They arrived with food, with Kleenex, with hugs, with distractions, with prayers. Best of all, they simply showed up. In the midst of the worst time of our previously tranquil lives, those people with their hugs and hankies and casseroles demonstrated the power of love in the face of catastrophe.

It was a long time ago, now. After seventeen years I’m pretty sure I can get through July without responding to its sensory cues — the heat, the long days, the sulphurous whiffs from fireworks — without sinking into a funk. Life has moved on, the boys are happy and successful men with full lives, I’m married to a wonderful person who is my best friend, and if it were I who had gone first rather than Richard, I would wish precisely the same for him.

The lessons I learned from the people that kept me and my sons afloat through that time are ones I hope will never leave me. When you are called on, as you will be, to respond in the face of another’s deep loss, I offer you this:

If Possible, Show Up

Don’t wait for an invitation. If you live close by, just go. Arrive without expectation; if you’re turned away, accept it and depart with silent grace. Your willingness to be with someone in the presence of calamity will have meaning, whether they can take it in right then or not.

Hold Your Questions

You’ll no doubt have many. But now is not the time. Your bereft friend or relative is reeling and in no position to explain to you what happened, or how, or why. Nor should they have to. Your distress takes a distant back seat to theirs, and for the moment, all you need to know is that the loss has occurred. The bereaved may not be able to say a word, or they may need to talk. It will feel like you’re doing nothing while you merely sit, listening to their voice or their breathing. But it’s usually both the most difficult and powerful thing you can do.

Say This, Not That

Everybody struggles with this. What do you say to someone whose loved one has just died, or who has in some other way had their life upended and hollowed out? There are no words that will change it. In fact, that’s one of the things you can say: “There are no words.” Best delivered with a warm embrace, if the person is receptive.

Also acceptable:

“I wish this weren’t happening to you.”

“I love you and I’m here for you, whatever you need.” — but only if that is in fact true.

“I am so sorry.”

I know. None of those statements are original, and they may seem woefully inadequate, and none of them fix anything. But that’s exactly why they’re good things to say: they acknowledge the immensity of the person’s loss. And they express that, while you know the bereaved must bear a burden you have no power to lift, you’re willing to shoulder what you can.

The list of things not to say is, alas, much longer. It includes any kind of bromide meant to somehow make the disaster less than it is: the good die young, this too shall pass, God has a plan, God never sends you more than you can bear, or anything else that intimates you have some special placating wisdom or magic for such a situation, because trust me, you don’t.

Help Carefully

At a time like this, wanting to be helpful is understandable. Proceed with caution, however: make sure the help you wish to offer is what is actually needed, not something to make you feel better. Your helping should be as quiet as possible and entirely unheralded. Fold the laundry. Unclog the toilet if it backs up. Feed the cat. Just don’t make a big deal about it.

Above all, don’t keep asking what you can do. The hurting person has zero bandwidth or energy for that. If you’re a decent cook, by all means bring food. Just don’t pester anybody about what to bring or how they like it fixed, and make sure it’s ready to serve when you arrive. It will get eaten, or it won’t. Pack it in a dish you don’t have to get back.

Go to the Funeral

If there’s a funeral or a memorial, attend, even if such occasions make you feel squeamish. You don’t have to march past the open coffin, should there be one and if it creeps you out. Just be there, and make sure to sign the guest book. This falls under the general heading of showing up, and again, it’s more important than it seems.

If there is no service, don’t ask why not. Send a card or a letter. Say something personal and sincere about the departed.

In all of this, keep your ego firmly in check. At the same time, go easy on yourself. We all feel puny and helpless at such times. When it comes to confronting death, we are at a loss; we are at sea.

But it helps to know we are all in the same boat.


  1. Very moving post and helpful advice! I am sorry for your loss two decades ago. It is courageous of you to write about your experiences with loss and grief here.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Hannah. It’s never easy to know what to say to someone about loss, so I really do appreciate it.

  2. A beautiful testimony to grief interlaced with many words of wisdom. As you rightly note the “what not to say” list is longer than the “what can I say?” list. I would just add one other phrase which however kindly meant is truly jarring to a grieving person “I know how you feel” No you don’t.

    • Agreed, that’s not a great thing to say. I was the recipient of some real humdingers, which I decided not to include in the post because I didn’t want to be that snarky and I also don’t want to discourage people from reaching out to the bereaved. The absolute worst was a woman whom I knew had lost her husband to murder, decades previously, and who approached me at a public function where I had to speak, put her hand on my shoulder and said, “They tell you it gets better. But it never does.” Luckily, she was wrong.

  3. What a powerful and moving post, Jan. I am so sorry for the loss of your first husband. The tips you give us are sensitive, practical, and useful. Most of us (me included) are completely at a loss for what to do or say when disaster strikes. The advice to keep one’s ego in check is perfect. That goes a long way to help.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Laurie. I too struggle with what to say. I do think the spirit with which you say something is more important than the actual words, however. Intention is key in hard times.

  4. Very good points. I think the note to remove your own ego is of prime importance. And I remember well when you were there – and I’m so happy for you that you are now here.

  5. Full of wisdom and grace you are … Yoda
    Ok, Yoda, really didn’t say that … but if he had read post that is EXACTLY what he would have said!

  6. Thank you for sharing your story here, Jan. How difficult this time must have been for you. I am glad you had good people around you to help. Your advice is excellent and needed. Take care.

  7. I’m a recent Medium subscriber and found your post.
    It is, if course, perfect 😁 Thank you.
    I would offer that perhaps, for some, the greivng process does not ever end. They cannot allow themselves to acknowledge their loss. The reality that nothing “after” will be there same as “before” is incomprehensible to them. They can’t manage the trauma.
    They cannot say “it” out loud.

    • Paul, I’m glad the post resonated with you. Based on the time I spent back then exploring online grief groups, it did seem there were those who were having extreme trouble moving through the process, or seemed unwilling to move through it at all, and some who I got the sense had rebuilt their whole identities around it. I hope that doesn’t sound judgmental, as there should be no external timeline imposed on anyone who is reeling from loss. And I’m not sure there’s really an “end” to the process; for me, it’s been more of an integration. But I definitely wanted to find joy in life again.

      • Resilient you are, Jan. Not judgemental at all. Thank you for the notion of integration. It’s a powerful thought. PS my wife passed way in 2017. Integration is a process!!

        • Indeed it is. I truly, deeply salute you as you negotiate this passage, Paul.

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