People, and I think Mormons in particular, respond to the news of death in two primary ways: service, and food. Not necessarily in that order. In the days following my mom's death, it became borderline comical how many people said to me and those in my family something along the lines of, "Let me know if there's anything at all I can do." I almost kept a tally. That isn't to say I didn't appreciate the sentiment - I very much did - it's just that everyone said it.
There are several articles making the rounds on the internet about what to say and not to say to someone who has lost a loved one. "Let me know if I can help," is often on the "what not to say" list. I didn't mind it so much. It's people's way of processing sensitive, unexpected, devastating information and expressing solidarity with those closest to the center. However, I do like the idea of rather than saying, "How can I help?" just finding a way to help. It's true that someone grieving often doesn't know what they need, or have the energy to ask even if they do. Also, I'm more willing than most to ask for help or call on those willing to do something, but there were plenty of moments when there wasn't anything to help with. What I needed was my family and time to heal.
If you're thinking, "I'd like to help, but don't know how," let me let you in on a little secret. The "how" doesn't matter. Seriously. Couldn't matter less. Just do something. A very dear friend of mine has some experience dealing with death in her family. She's got it down to a science. She happens to be single and between jobs, so she became our family's personal assistant for nearly two weeks. She babysat, made sure we were drinking enough water, provided rides and distractions, kept us well-stocked on coca-cola, reminded us to nap and get priesthood blessings, prepared snack packs for between the funeral and the cemetery, brought french fries to the cemetery, organized boutonniere pinning, gathered whatever we left behind at the church, etc. etc. etc. If you are able to be that person for someone else, you will be a god-send. If not, you can still help out. Our situation was a little different because we had to wait a full two weeks before having a funeral because of the repatriation process. Regardless, here are some other things that people did for me or my family that we found helpful or comforting:
My best friend brought over my favorite kind of chocolate milk. Later she also made me my favorite comfort food (mac & cheese) for lunch.
My sister-in-law is training for the Boston Marathon and a friend of hers offered to watch her kids while she did the long runs in her training schedule.
My brother was planning on moving to a new apartment and some friends packed his apartment and moved it while we were dealing with viewings and funerals out of town. That included an old piano that weighs about 1,000 pounds.
A friend of mine who is a very talented designer and florist made our boutonnieres using some of my mom's jewelry.
So many people brought food of one kind or another. So. Many. People. I'm not necessarily discouraging food. If you're going to bring food, however, here's a tip - bring something healthy. Grieving people are going to get plenty of treats. Also, you cannot go wrong with homemade bread. Unless those you're taking food to are weird gluten-intolerant people. Also, most people bring dinner. Breakfast is nice once in a while. Lastly, bring food in disposable containers. Don't make the mourners return your Tupperware.
My dad's neighbor was out buying fertilizer for his lawn and bought extra to do my dad's lawn.
A friend offered to go to a thrift store and buy a bunch of plates for us to go out into the mountains and break. (We ended up not taking her up on the offer, but I think it was a fantastic offer.)
My family went to lunch at a favorite lunch spot and the owner paid for our meals.
A friend of mine came over just to sit with me. That same friend took charge of moving my car on street cleaning days while I was out of town, and had my car cleaned while she was at it.
Another friend watched my sister's baby so we could all go out to dinner and a movie. While watching the baby, she cleaned my sister's house and started some laundry.
Friends and neighbors of my parents opened their homes to our rather large extended family who had to travel for the funeral.
Various professionals - photographers, designers, massage therapists, hair stylists, nail artists, grief counselors, offered their services free of charge. If you're in a position to offer some sort of professional service, that's a great way to contribute.
Along with standard flowers and cards, some of our favorite things we got were: Tylenol PM, tissues (especially the kind with lotion), sleepytime tea, coloring books, babysitting services, massages, freezer meals, disposable plates/cups/utensils (especially forks), one-time-use freezer containers, coolers of assorted beverages. You might also give garbage bags, diapers, airport rides, parking passes, oil changes, buddy passes, pet food if appropriate, and any number of other daily necessities.
As of the publishing date of this post, my mom passed away almost a month ago. In the days following the return to "normal life" one of the most helpful things has been small check-ins and message of love or humor from friends. A text, a picture, a phone call etc. Don't forget about people. Months later we're still figuring our our new normal and may need a shoulder or a friend to buy us ice cream.
Again, what you give, or how you help does not matter. Use your imagination.
And a huge, and deeply heart-felt "Thank You!" to anyone who helped or offered to help in any way.