This is a list of some of the acts of kindness I received after Alvin died. I am writing them down both to cultivate gratitude and as a reminder to myself for the next time grief inevitably strikes someone around me. If you or someone you know has experienced grief, I would love it if you would comment on actions that have been helpful to you or them. I’d also love to hear thoughts or questions you have had as you seek to reach out in practical ways towards those around you who are grieving. I will phrase this list in terms of how these actions relate to me specifically, but I have a hunch that they would relate to many others who have experienced loss as well.
- Talking about the person who died. Although I always appreciate someone asking me how I am doing, the absolute best comment is for someone to say that they miss Alvin, or to share even a small memory of Alvin. The very best thing anyone can do is talk about Alvin. The very worst thing anyone can do is to never mention him.
- Freedom from expectations. In the early days after Alvin’s death, I felt that many relationships were one sided, with people sending cards, texts, gifts, and prayers and me often feeling too overwhelmed to respond. I know that most of those people didn’t expect a response from me, but I loved the times when people made sure to emphasize that to me: that they didn’t expect to hear back from me, or receive a thank you from me, or use the gifts that they gave me if I didn’t find them helpful.
- Flowers. Beautiful flowers are always appreciated. I also received two separate gifts of flower bulbs, paper whites and tulips, to grow indoors. The bouquets of flowers made me a little sad, because I knew when I received them they were at their peak and were starting to die. But watching the bulbs grow and become more and more beautiful and alive made me so happy.
- Food. The ultimate practical gift. I particularly appreciated healthy food with fruits and vegetables, because it made me feel like my friends were helping me take care of my body when I didn’t have much energy to give to it.
- Scheduled time with friends. In the beginning, I only wanted to spend time with Henry and Cooper. This was natural and healthy, but I knew that if I isolated myself from other people for too long I would fall apart. One friend asked if she could come over, bringing lunch, two days a month. Having this time scheduled in advance meant that I could anticipate it, and kept me from saying no to a spontaneous offer. I was always so glad after each of our visits that we had been able to connect.
- Creative expressions. A friend brought paper lanterns to release into the sky during one of our memorial events for Alvin. Side note: I appreciated that she asked before bringing them to the event. My sister ordered a memory card game for Henry with adorable photos of Henry and Alvin together. Before Alvin died we received other gifts that are even more special now: a wooden box with an “A” on it, a necklace with his name and Henry’s name, a canvas with a meaningful verse, a little wooden train that spells out the letters of his name. Most meaningful: a photographer acquaintance (not even a close friend!) volunteered to take pictures of our family at two different points during Alvin’s life. With everything going on with Alvin’s illness, I had no energy to initiate arranging for photography. This person approached us, and all I had to say was yes and find a date. Now of course the pictures are priceless. Even if you are not a photographer, maybe you could set this up for a friend if appropriate. One last note on gifts: this sounds silly, but everyone likes to remember and honor in their own way, and I think it can be helpful when giving a gift to communicate that you will not be hurt if the person doesn’t keep or display your gift as you intended them to. I sometimes need to remind myself that my motivation for giving someone a gift should be to make them feel loved, and how they use my gift doesn’t necessarily have any reflection on our relationship.
- Pictures. We sent out photo cards with a picture of Alvin and a favorite verse after he died, and seeing those pictures on the fridge or bulletin board when we go to houses of friends is the sweetest, most comforting feeling. It is a way that we feel reminded, even though not by words, that you haven’t forgotten. Side note: we still have many of those pictures that I would love to send to you or to anyone you know who knew or prayed for Alvin!
- Dates. Birthdays, anniversary of death. I could never remember those on my own; I put the birth date of a friend’s family member who died in my phone calendar. Go ahead and put it on repeat for the next decade.
- Texts. So simple, so easy. A college friend, who I hadn’t kept up with regularly, sent me many texts during Alvin’s life and after his death. Even if I didn’t respond she would continue to text me periodically. I appreciated each one. Some friends didn’t know what to say in person, so they sent their thoughts in a text. For me, that is absolutely all I need. It doesn’t matter the mode of communication, as long as you communicate.
- Attending memorial services. Prior to Alvin’s memorial, I might have thought that you only go to memorial services to support family members or close friends. I suspect other people our age might think the same. If you are able to go, then go. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t that close to the person, or if they don’t see you at the service. This week I met one of my grandmother’s friends, and she mentioned that she had been at Alvin’s service. I was so grateful. Cooper didn’t say so, but I know that he would have been so hurt if his coworkers hadn’t attended the service. During the reception after the service, one of his coworkers made sure to point out a whole table of them sitting together.
- Children’s artwork. We received several cards and paintings by young children, usually addressed to Henry, but I appreciated them greatly. Some of them included words or pictures that were not quite in tune with proper etiquette for a sympathy card, and these I appreciated the most for the way they made me laugh in weeks that were full of tears. Children’s artwork reminded me that death is both a simple, harsh reality and a confusing, spiritually complicated experience at the same time. It reminded me that most of us aren’t very eloquent in talking about death, and that a simple “I’m sorry” is always an excellent choice.
There are many other ways that we experienced, and continue to experience, the kindness and generosity of others. The most significant aspect of all these actions is that many of them were done by people who desired to love us because of their love for Jesus, and who would say, as a friend did when I thanked her, “thanks be to God for any and all overflow of Him in my life.” In the times when God feels distant or even cruel, I look back at the love given to us by people who have the Spirit of God active in their lives and my faith is steadied, even strengthened.