Grief Is Messy and Complicated

How you support a friend in the midst of it doesn’t have to be.

Uber Eats gift cards, greeting cards, photo album, shark cat bed, tea variety box, succulents in planters.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Uber, Best Paper Greetings, Pioneer Photo Albums, Likedog, Plants for Pets, T4U, and Taylors of Harrogate.

Read more from Slate’s Helping Others Heal package. Find out how to support loved ones in the wake of job loss, divorce, or a traumatic birth.

The shark pet bed made me cry.

I was having a particularly rough day. It had been maybe three months since my mother had committed suicide, and I found myself in that no man’s land of grief: the period when my loss was—with good reason!—no longer top of mind for most people, but took up all of the real estate of my own, making the most normal tasks a struggle. I limped from hour to hour. Then, in the late afternoon, a colleague stopped by my desk in Washington with a surprise delivery from a dear co-worker in New York: the shark cat bed. It was bizarre, delightful, just what I needed, and gratitude and sadness and laughter swirled through me. I felt seen, as the kids say. It was as if my friend, who had experienced the loss of a parent a few months before I did, was telling me: I know you’re still hurting. I know that a silly cat bed won’t fix everything. But it’ll give you a bit of joy now and every time your ridiculous cats crawl into it.

My mother was a brilliant, funny, loving woman, but she had been mentally ill for close to 20 years. She led such a life of isolation that many people I’m close to had met her only briefly or not at all. I was fascinated by how they responded to her death: There were those who went above and beyond by offering to help clean up her home, and those at the other end of the spectrum who distanced themselves, unable to extend sympathy in any form.

I didn’t blame those who were at a loss for what to say or do. It’s hard to know what’s appropriate if you aren’t particularly close to someone who loses a loved one (and even harder when the cause of death is something particularly fraught, like suicide). As a result, people often become paralyzed, and then consequently feel guilty. But that doesn’t need to be the case.

I’m relatively Type A by nature, and one way I channeled my grief after my mother died was by mentally cataloging people’s shows of support, developing a sort of personal hierarchy of condolences. If someone you love or like or work with has experienced loss recently, perhaps my observations will offer some framework for how to respond. They aren’t meant to be prescriptive—there’s no one kind of response that’s acceptable. But my firsthand perspective may help you, as you consider whether you’re truly trying to help someone muddle through grief or just trying to check “send condolences” off your to-do list with a quick Facebook message. As with exercise, something is always better than nothing. The holidays can be a particularly rough time to grieve, so don’t be shy about reaching out.

From best to worst, it goes:

A gift of service: My mother left behind a cat, Cassie, whom neither my brothers nor I was able to take in. My childhood friend, a vet, picked up Cassie and brought her back to the office, where she spent days in a big, comfy cage in the waiting room. She met lots of clients, until one decided to take her home. Having that burden lifted was incredible. You could also take a friend’s kids for a couple of hours (I remember my mother’s friends doing this with my siblings and me when my father passed away) to give her a few hours to herself. Another place where help can be extremely useful is in the agonizing red tape of death. For instance, you might help sort and donate clothes that belonged to the person who died or handle locking down her social media.

A gift of time: Coming to the funeral, or even just trying to. (I found out after my mother’s funeral that two high school friends had spent a fair bit of time trying to track down the time of the service, which I, in my infinite wisdom, had forgotten to share with most people. They were unsuccessful, but the effort they put forth touched me.) Getting coffee or a meal or going for a walk was wonderful, particularly when people didn’t insist on it happening two weeks after her death, when I barely had the energy to get through work. An open invitation to hang out, with no pressure, was a blessing. Don’t enter the conversation with an agenda to unpack all of someone’s emotional baggage. Give her a hug (if she’s a hugger), say again how sorry you are, and see if it looks like she wants to talk about it. If not, move on to discussing The Good Place or sharing some gossip.

A thoughtful gift: The shark cat bed. A funny tchotchke. (I bought a pair of cat leggings to cheer myself up.) One idea I’ve put in my back pocket: So many of us have digital pictures of one another—if you have a bunch of pictures of someone’s spouse or parent or close friend who died, you could get them printed in a physical photo book. If you already have prints, you could put them in an old-fashioned album.

A card with a long note: Letters with happy memories of my mother, maybe with some acknowledgment of how hard the last 20 years had been, touched me. Even if people didn’t know my mother at all, they could reflect on what they knew about me and my mother. If I felt too sad to read a card in the moment, I saved it for later. A 2016 New York Times piece offers some very helpful tips on how to construct a message.

Some months after she died, after reflecting on how much those notes had meant to me, for the first time in my adult life I picked up a box of blank greeting cards. They have watercolor designs—peacock feathers, cacti, flowers. They’re pretty and innocuous, and I use them regularly now.

Food: After my mom died, one friend sent me a box of homemade cookies, while some colleagues sent an amazing box of rugelach and babka from Zabar’s. Another group of co-workers found, from 200 miles away, a restaurant near my brother’s house, where my family had congregated. They ordered a huge lunch, with lots of leftovers.

When someone dies (or someone is born or moves), I like to send Grubhub or Uber Eats gift cards, which is really the gift of letting your loved one say one evening, “I’m too tired to cook. I’m going to order pizza.” (I ordered a lot of pizza after my mother died. Well, I order a lot of pizza always.) A big box of tea would be thoughtful, too, for those long nights when your loved one has trouble sleeping.

I consider flowers sort of food-adjacent, so I’ll mention them here: It was sad to me to see flowers die. But some low-maintenance succulents in cheerful planters could be a nice alternative.

A greeting card with a simple “Much love”: You cared enough to track down my address, buy a card, find a stamp, mail it. I was floored by some of the people in my life who took the time to send a card, like a co-worker I’ve always liked but didn’t feel close to.

An email: It doesn’t have to be much. One of the best condolence notes I got was from a work friend I see quite infrequently: “Dude, that fucking sucks.” Dude, it did suck! She was right! It was validating! (Someone on Etsy even makes a physical greeting card with the same sentiment.)

A text message: You thought about me for a few minutes, maybe opened the door to a conversation if I wanted to have one. Not terrible.

A Facebook message: I’m not a big Facebook user, but a thoughtful message waiting for me when I logged in was much appreciated, especially from people I’m not close to.

A Facebook wall post: Sure, I’ll take it.

Zilch: I know you still love me. I know it may have been uncomfortable, and then you waited so long that you worried it’d be weird. I’ve done it, too. (I once sent a condolence note a year after somebody’s death. It was embarrassing, but I was glad I did it.) If you’ve been putting off sending someone condolences, even if it’s been years, think about doing it now. Don’t apologize over and over until they feel obligated to make you feel better. Acknowledge that you know it’s been a while, but you recently thought about their loss and wanted them to know you were thinking of them.

This list obviously reflects my experience. You know your loved ones and the circumstances of their grief, and my recommendations may not be quite appropriate. But your goal should be to spend a minute thinking about how they feel, to help you avoid the temptation to dash off a Facebook note and then think, “Well, I took care of that.” If you spend a half-hour considering their loss, instead of five minutes, it can bring a lot of joy and comfort to people in their time of need, and it can be an investment in your future relationship.

Today, my cats still use that shark pet bed regularly. I suppose that when I look at them crawling into that wide, gaping, hilarious mouth, I could be reminded of the worst time in my life. But instead I remember the friend who spent a little time and a few bucks to try to cheer me up, and I feel loved.