I immediately called our bishop and then went to visit the family. I wondered what I could possibly say or do to provide comfort. I paused and said a prayer asking Heavenly Father to guide me.
Approaching the house, I thought about the other times I had been in similar situations and had felt nervous about what to say or do. Then I remembered that in each case I had been reminded of the same lesson—to simply be there for the person suffering.
I knocked on the door and the mother fell into my arms, weeping. As I sensed her deep pain and tried to fathom her overwhelming grief, the Spirit led me and helped me know what to do and say.
Dealing with Grief
The hardest times for many grieving people often come after the initial outpouring of sympathies. My mother, who endured the sudden loss of her father and later her husband, said the hardest part is after the funeral when friends go back to their own lives.
Sallie, whose father died of a heart attack, said it was a time of shock and unbearable sadness. Since he died on a Sunday, every Sunday for months was difficult. Her visiting teacher wrote her a note explaining how she had also lost her father and knew that Sundays would be a lonely time. For several Sundays she left flowers, brownies, or a card just to let her know she was thinking of her.
“These small, kind gestures helped sustain me during an emotionally traumatic time,” Sallie said. “Sometimes we don’t know what to say or do and end up doing nothing, which is the worst possible thing. People need to understand that when you are grieving, it consumes you. Every small gesture warms your heart when you are hurting.”
There are other traumatic events that bring about similar strong emotions. For example, the diagnosis of a terminal illness can cause feelings of fear and loneliness similar to those experienced after a death.
Candy lost her husband about four years ago to complications related to diabetes. Because she is a quiet, independent woman, it was difficult for her to ask for help.
“In his final year there were non-stop crises—hospitals, dialysis, and different health issues almost every day,” Candy said. “Looking back, I was numb and when someone asked what I needed, I never knew how to answer because I needed everything: a listening ear, a note in the mail, a phone call. I needed a helping hand around the house and company to sit with me during my long waits at the hospital. I was under so much stress that I couldn’t think of things others could do to help me.”
Candy said the best way to determine what kind of help someone needs is prayer. A Sunday School teacher in our ward once asked, “Why is it that we say with some resignation, ‘All I can do for so-and-so is pray for them?’ We say that as if it’s a small thing to pray for someone, when really it’s the most powerful thing we can do.”
Many people are afraid to help in difficult situations because they don’t know what to do or are afraid of doing the wrong thing. Lisa told the story of her friend Stacie who is suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“Many people who were friends with her before just stopped going to visit her when they knew she couldn’t talk anymore,” Lisa said. “They felt guilty about it but didn’t feel comfortable going.”
While unable to move or speak, Stacie types with a computer mouse attached to her forehead and the computer screen shows the letters in the alphabet. The mouse highlights letters individually and when the letter she wants lights up, she nudges the mouse, which selects the desired letter. In this painstaking way she communicates and has written a list to help people when they visit her.
In her list she tells everyone she wants them to understand she is not in pain. “I’ve just lost the ability to move or speak,” she said. “Everything else is just the same. The only thing wrong with me is that the signal from my brain to my muscles is broken.”
While many people may be intimidated by her illness and the care she needs, having a list of ways to help makes it easier for some people to understand what they can do and to feel more comfortable visiting her.
“The best thing to do is just to keep going,” Lisa said, learning from this situation and from caring for her mother while she was dying of lung cancer. “Force yourself to stick to it regularly—then it is familiar and not so scary.”
Simple Acts of Kindness
Stella, a mother of four children, recently died of colon cancer. The more I visited her, the more comfortable we became with each other and the more she shared about her needs. Sometimes she needed help walking around the hospital, sitting up, or telling something to the doctors or nurses. Other needs included massaging her swollen legs, emptying her trash can, or watering her flowers. Sometimes she needed someone to help her children with their homework or chores around the house. The key was consistently being there and being willing to help.
Stella had friends streaming in to visit her until the day she died. One friend softly sang to her and rubbed her swollen hands. Another checked on her children every day and stopped by the hospital to tell her about them.
Jane was a brave woman in our ward that recently died after a fifteen-year battle with a brain tumor. For many months before she died she was unable to do most things on her own. She spent most of her time in a wheelchair or in bed and was unable to speak. Many people served her family for all those years including taking her for strolls in her wheelchair, taking her to the swimming pool to cool her feet and legs in the water, and taking her to the temple. Others offered creative acts of service including giving pedicures and manicures, reading to her, painting her bedroom her favorite shade of pink, and making a collage of photos of her friends.
When I received my calling as Relief Society president, I was afraid of not knowing what to do or say, and I was intimidated at the thought of trying to help those in some situations. Through the course of my calling, though, I have learned they are among the richest spiritual experiences I have had. I have been able to see God in their lives and feel my own capacity increase as I have learned more about the blessings of simply being there for someone.