First of all, I want to thank you for being part of Niki’s Village. She will need each of us in the days, weeks, months and years (yes, I said years!) ahead. In case you’ve never supported someone who’s grieving before, I wanted to share some thoughts on how you can be there for her– and for her children– in a meaningful, truly helpful way.
Since this is a big village, and I don’t know everyone, let me start by introducing myself: I’m Joanne Fink, one of Niki’s friends from the craft industry. I’m also a widow advocate, author of When You Lose Someone You Love, and founder of WhenYouLoseSomeone.com and Zenspirations.com.
Niki has just begun the journey I embarked upon seven years ago, when my husband died of a heart attack. He was 53, and our children were 11 and 16; similar in age to Gigi and Maxx. I want to share things you can do to make a difference for the family now, in the next year or two, and further into the future. Since I have a lot of information to share, I’m going to break this into at several different sections:
IT TAKES A VILLAGE: PROVIDING PRACTICAL ASSISTANCE
WHAT TO SAY AND DO WHEN YOU HAVE NO CLUE
UNDERSTANDING GRIEF AND ITS IMPACT
CREATING A COMPASSIONATE SUPPORT CIRCLE
BUILDING AN ADVISORY TEAM: LEGAL, MEDICAL & FINANCIAL
HELPING NIKI ESTABLISH A NEW NORMAL
HOW TO HELP THE KIDS GRIEVE
UNDERSTANDING SECONDARY LOSSES
KEEPING GARY’S LEGACY ALIVE
AFTER THE FIRST YEAR: THE ART OF ONGOING SUPPORT
I never had the privilege of meeting Gary, but from everything I’ve read he seems like a wonderful man. My heart goes out to all of Gary’s friends and family. I made this piece to help keep his memory alive. The saying is one I originally wrote for my husband:
The measure of a life well lived is the legacy of love and treasured memories
imprinted upon the hearts of those who share the loss.
So let’s dive in to the first section:
IT TAKES A VILLAGE: PROVIDING PRACTICAL ASSISTANCE
When you lose someone you love every aspect of your life is seriously impacted: it’s like a bomb went off, and there are physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual consequences. Niki is a strong lady, but she shouldn’t have to worry about keeping things functional right now.
Some of what you can do to help depends on whether you live nearby, what talents and skills you can share, and how close you are to Niki, Gigi and Maxx. These suggestions are directed at Niki’s close friends who live nearby:
- Figure out Niki’s immediate needs, and enlist help from other ‘Village Volunteers’. For example, someone may need to buy the kids appropriate clothes to wear to the funeral. Someone needs to go with Niki to the funeral home, and may need to help her figure out how to pay for the funeral. (Andy’s funeral was more than $15,000, and the funeral home wanted the money up front. I didn’t have that much room on my credit card and will be forever grateful to my brother-in-law for lending me the money.) The funeral home can order copies of the death certificates, which will be needed. (I ordered 3 long forms and 6 short forms, which was enough).
- Notifications. Someone needs to take care of notifying the kids’ schools, talking to their teachers, calling people who aren’t on Facebook, etc. People who are coming in from out of town may need transportation and hotel or home hospitality. People need to be fed; these are all tasks that someone other than Niki can handle. People want to do something to show they care; let them. Keep a list of who is doing what so they can be thanked at some point down the road.
- Help Niki apply IMMEDIATELY for social security. As the custodial parent of a minor child, Niki is entitled to social security benefits, which she will receive until Gigi turns 16. Gigi and Maxx are entitled to benefits until they turn 18. It isn’t retro-active, so if she doesn’t apply in January she’ll miss January’s payment, and won’t ever see those funds. (I would not have known to do this if a friend hadn’t told me about it, and I’m so glad she did).
- Find a good estate attorney (if Niki doesn’t already have one). She’ll need to figure out probate, set up guardianships for the kids, as well as healthcare surrogates, etc. These are things best done with legal guidance.
- Look around the house to see what needs to be done and then do it! Does the grass need to be mowed? The trash taken out? The laundry done? Library books returned? Don’t ask— just do whatever needs to be done.
- Plan for Gigi and Maxx’s future. What will they need? If college isn’t already covered, think about setting up a Go Fund Me that will help cover those costs. Realistically, now is when Gary and Niki’s friends are most likely to want to contribute to something like this; if it is set up now it can announced at the memorial service. This is something I wish someone had done for my kids.
- Don’t say ‘call me if you need anything’. People who are grieving are often disoriented and have trouble remembering things. They may not even remember that you offered to help, and even if they do remember, they probably won’t want to impose on you. Instead, call and say, “I’m on my way to the supermarket and am bringing you bread, eggs and milk– what else do you need?”
These suggestions are directed at everyone in Niki’s Village:
- Make a commitment to be there in the future. Niki and the kids will have a lot of support the first few weeks, so they will need support more in a month or two (and in a year or two!) when everyone has gone back to their own lives, and they are still trying to figure out which end is up. People who are grieving often feel alone; abandoned by the person who died as well as those they thought would be there to support them; but we can make sure that doesn’t happen to Niki. Put a reminder in your calendar to reach out on a regular, ongoing basis. My friend Vicki Schreiner sent me a card every few weeks for six months after Andy died. They weren’t sympathy cards– just Thinking of You notes. Those cards meant the world to me because every time I got one I knew that there was at least one person who realized that I was still trying to pick up the pieces of my shattered life. If we all follow Vicki’s lead and do this for Niki, the community support will make her journey more bearable. So call, send a card, an e-mail, a text, a care-package, a funny Facebook message– just let her know you are thinking about her.
- Understand that you can’t fix this. There isn’t anything you can say or do to bring Gary back. It’s best to acknowledge that this is a life-shattering loss, and offer a hug and a shoulder to cry on. Having someone who is willing to walk beside you (literally or figuratively) while you are grieving really helps.
- Remember special dates. Birthdays (both of the person who died and the person you are supporting) and anniversaries are major milestones— and are often emotional triggers. So are holidays; Valentine’s Day is around the corner– and Mother’s Day and Father’s Day will be difficult, especially the first year or two. Put these dates– and the date of death– in your calendar so you can let Niki know you are thinking about her. If you knew Gary, it would be nice to reach out to his family, too. Knowing that someone (besides your immediate family) remembers your loved one makes more of a difference than you can possibly imagine.
UPDATE: A Go Fund Me has been set up by family friends. Click here if you’d like to make a donation. And, I’ve thought of a few additional time-critical things that someone in Niki’s inner circle should address.
- Have someone record the memorial service so Niki and the kids can listen to it later.
- Have one or more journals (and pens!) available that day, and ask people to share stories about Gary. Those journals will be treasured by the kids in the years ahead.
- Ask the officiant to let the attendees know about the journal project, the Go Fund Me, and the Dropbox Niki set up for people to share photos.
- Collect copies of the eulogies and service program. (I would probably gift them to Niki on Gary’s first ‘angel-versary’).
- REALLY IMPORTANT: Make sure that Niki and the kids still have health insurance. I didn’t think about this earlier because Andy and I were in business together; but some of the widows I mentor have had their insurance benefits immediately terminated by the company which employed their husband, so it’s best to check with the Human Resource department to see what they can do to help.
If you’d like to get more of these tips, you can subscribe to my newsletter at WhenYouLoseSomeone.com.
The life our friend Niki has been living ended when Gary died; her life will never be the same. So it’s up to us– Niki’s Village– to help her create a new life after this devastating loss. As part of Niki’s Village, I feel I can best help by sharing what I’ve learned on my journey, and alert you to some of the things Niki will need to deal with in the weeks and months ahead. I am happy to answer questions and brainstorm ways that we can all show ongoing support. You can e-mail me at [email protected], or leave a comment on the blog and I’ll get back to you.
You are NOT alone,
This post is so full of wisdom. The only things I would add is:
Keep reaching out and trusting that Niki may not be responsive to your reaching out. If that’s the case, don’t take it personally and don’t give up. Keep leaving messages so that she know you care…she will reach out when she’s ready.