When Death Visits a Home

by Petey Prater

Coping with death is one of life’s most difficult tasks. All of us will have a friend or family member who will need our support as they deal with the death of someone they love. Though we feel inadequate and vulnerable, there are several practical and emotional ways to help another when death knocks at the door.

Practical support

Clean the house. Dust; vacuum; scour the bathrooms; wash and fold the laundry; change the beds. Go back daily to tidy up: Wash and replace used towels; scrape the leftover breakfast eggs into the garbage; keep the coffee pot going.

Organize funeral food and family meals. Favorite foods comfort. Record arriving food for later thank you’s. Are names on dishes for return? Get recipes if anyone has food allergies.

Loan what is needed. Could a bedroom at your home sleep visiting relatives? Families arriving by plane would be delighted to use your extra car. (Your insurance agent will provide coverage for a few days.) Do you have folding chairs for extra seating, a 30-cup coffee pot, high chairs, or port-a-cribs if there are infants? Would your teenager cooperate if you loaned him or her to baby-sit?

Answer the phone. Your friend will then be free to deal with the myriad details of funeral and estate planning. Notify relatives, friends, church, and organizations as needed. Keep the phone line open; empathize, but be brief.

Run errands. Return dishes; provide transportation from the airport/bus station; shop for groceries; drop off cleaning; purchase stamps and stationery. Be like the cement company whose motto is “We find a need and fill it.” You’ll be loved for your thoughtful intrusion.

Emotional support

Use your spiritual resources. Pray for the bereaved and their families. Ask God to guide your efforts to meet emotional and practical needs. Should the church prayer chain be activated?

Give the gift of your presence. None of us feels adequate; not one of us has words that will make the pain go away. But we all have two arms to hug and hold with; we all have shoulders to support the staggering survivors. Sit with them; cry with them; listen to the poured-out grief; listen to the silence. True friends share pain as well as pleasure.

Share words. Inspirational books, music tapes, poems, and scripture verses all extend your visit and say “I care” in the dark hours when the sorrowing are alone. Do you write poetry? Write them a poem. Do you have a word of hope? Speak it. Does a verse of scripture come to mind? Include it in one of the sympathy cards you send.

Don’t judge the brokenhearted. Crisis exposes our deficits, our family and individual dysfunction, our secrets. Individuals respond differently to death. Some people withdraw; some act out inappropriately; some get angry. As outsiders in the home we must not expose failures, but encourage, accept, and cover in love. Pastors, doctors, and counselors can provide any long-term help needed.

Stepping past our comfort zones to meet the needs of the bereaved can be scary, but it can also be rewarding — for the helper and the helped. Be who you are, give what you have; that will be enough.