How Can I Help? 23 Ways to Support Someone Going Through a Tough Time

My husband died unexpectedly in February 2017. He was 32 years old. It was devastating, the kind of tragic loss that you can’t imagine ever bouncing back from. I’ll never forget having to deliver the news to family and friends, the disbelief and shock that we all felt. More a year later, that disbelief still persists.

Before long, the questions came: How can I help? What can I do?

I discovered two things pretty quickly. First, it’s hard to answer those questions when you’re in so much pain. “Um, can you bring my husband back to life?” was all I wanted to answer. Second, those questions — despite their kind intentions — wind up putting a lot of pressure on someone who’s already going through a lot.

Instead of asking, it’s better to just do something.

Some things are best done immediately, like bringing food over or making sure your friend has child/pet/house support in the early weeks. But a lot of the gestures of kindness I received were most meaningful because they occurred months and months after my husband’s death. There’s nothing quite like feeling all alone, only to be reminded that you’re loved thanks to a surprise package or unexpected text.

I thought I’d compile a list of some of the especially thoughtful, creative, and helpful things that friends did for me over the course of the past year. If you know someone going through a tough time, this can help you skip those dreaded questions and be a hero instead.

Chicken soup by mail. Forget Edible Arrangements. Chicken soup is some of the best comfort food out there, and receiving it on your doorstep is surprisingly delightful. I later sent this same soup to another friend who had lost a spouse, and he reported similar levels of surprise and delight.

Cards and notes. There is never a bad time to send a card or thoughtful letter. On the one-year anniversary of my husband’s death I received a sheepish note from a friend who apologized for her lateness; she said it took forever to figure out the right thing to say. You know what? I didn’t care! I thought getting a card one year later was lovely, and I totally understood that she struggled to find the right words. (Pro tip: Saying or writing “I don’t know what to say, except that I’m sorry,” is hugely comforting.) Try and avoid generic sympathy cards if you can — they make a depressing situation more depressing. Emily McDowell’s empathy cards are my favorite.

Random jokes. Early on a friend of mine texted me that he’s “not good with emotional stuff, but good at cheesy jokes.” So that’s what he did. Over the course of the year, he texted me random jokes at random times. There was no rhyme or reason to when they arrived, which was a treat. Those jokes always made me smile, even when they were pretty awful.

My favorite text joke. Be sure to leave some time before the “rolling” reveal.

Self care gifts. I got a lot of bath products. Lush Bath Bombs are always a good bet. Massage gift certificates are wonderful too, especially for someone who has lost a spouse. It’s one of the less-weird ways to help them cope with the loss of receiving regular touch.

Group care packages. If you’re working with a limited budget, but want to send something memorable, see if you can rally some friends to join you. I received a few packages filled with small items from several people — chocolate, coffee, face masks, books, even a blanket — and it was like getting a giant group hug through the mail.

Gifts that solve a problem. On a day when I got home late, I sad-posted to Instagram Stories about how hard it was to return to a house with no lights on. It was a fleeting thought, but a friend saw it, and within a few days I was surprised with lightbulbs that automatically turn on and off at sunset and sunrise. I never, ever would have thought to buy myself something like that, but they’ve made my life so much brighter — literally.

Fun socks. This is a small, simple and effective way to boost someone’s day. These guys and this pair make me smile.

Candles. I received a lot of candles, and appreciated every single one. They smell good, look nice, and can serve as a symbolic way to remember the person you lost.

No-strings-attached texts or messages. When there are a lot of people checking in on you, responding to everyone can get overwhelming. Some of my favorite messages were from people who said, “Don’t even worry about responding to this. I just want you to know I love you and I’m thinking about you.” For the same reason, texts can be better than phone calls. Picking up the phone can be especially tough for someone weighed down by grief.

Ditch white arrangements. The more colorful and cheerful the flowers, the better.

Flowers. Avoid lilies or other arrangements that are reminiscent of funeral homes, and don’t send flowers in the early weeks. (Others will send flowers, I promise. The pressure to care for too many flowers and plants at once can be overwhelming.) But receiving just-because flowers on an unexpected day? Nothing beats that. I especially loved the arrangements I received from Farmgirl Flowers and Bouqs.

Dinner. Like flowers, there will be an onslaught of meals early on. I appreciated meals in the later months so much more, and not only because I actually had an appetite. Grief can be especially difficult around holidays and other significant dates (birthdays, anniversaries, death milestones), and taking care of yourself on those days can be tough. Offer to bring by a meal during these times or, even better, suggest making dinner together. Company + a home-cooked meal = a definite win.

Pick up a tab — from afar. This is the coolest move ever. I didn’t even know it was possible! If you happen to find out that a friend is at a bar or planning to go to one later, you can call and pay for their tab. Someone who lives states away bought me a beer flight while I was at a brewery with friends, and I’m pretty sure it’s one of the smoothest things he’s done in his life.

Art. Slowly (or, for some people, quickly) changing your surroundings is a common way to respond to grief and accept change. Sending an art print or photograph to a friend can help them to kick-start that process.

I mean, who could resist buying something for this Very Good Boy?

Gifts for the other people and creatures they care for. Chances are, if someone is grieving, they’re worried that they’re not doing a good job taking care of the other responsibilities in their life. I don’t have kids, but appreciated when people sent me treats or toys for my dog. I didn’t tell him where they came from, and he thankfully still regards me as the best dog-mom out there.

Books about grief. At this point, I’ve lost track of how many grief books I’ve read. There are some not-so-great ones out there, but the good ones are a total godsend — finally! someone gets what I’m going through! I especially enjoyed “When Things Fall Apart,” “Love is a Mixtape,” “The Light of the World,” and “The Year of Magical Thinking.”

Books not about grief. I wasn’t able to read anything in the early months after my husband died, which seems pretty typical. But later on, I loved to fill my time with a good engrossing book. I was amazed that I could think about something besides death, and relieved to discover that my often-foggy brain was still working.

Coloring books. Irreverent coloring books can provide a low-stakes distraction when you can’t focus on much else. This gift is best paired with an offer to join in on the coloring action. Wine helps, too.

This book in particular. “Read This Till You Believe It” says all the things that you wish you had the words for. I keep it on my coffee table, and it’s helped me on many a dark day.

Sleep spray. Falling asleep can be a tough thing to achieve when you’re struggling with the loss of a loved one. A friend sent me this pillow mist, something I’d never buy myself, and I was surprised to discover how much the smell calms me down. It’s now hard for me to imagine sleeping without it.

I am now such a fan of good old-fashioned snail mail.

Music. I played this record on repeat so many times last year — the title song became a go-to mantra. I relished song recommendations from friends, either sad songs that captured the grief I was feeling, or hopeful songs that made me feel even the slightest bit optimistic. A custom playlist for a friend in need would be a really rad, thoughtful (and free!) gift.

Three months of nuts. This is one of the more unique grief gifts I received. It was completely unexpected and surprisingly delicious. I miss those monthly shipments.

Journals. Writing helped me process my grief. I loved this blank notebook, and also found this guided journal helpful.

Wine. Beer. Offers to drink wine and beer. Last year was pretty much awful, but I look back on the nights of drinking, crying, and talking with friends with a special fondness. You might want to bring a box of tissues, too.

Thank you to everyone who helped me get through the worst year of my life. The gifts, meals, cards, jokes and company sustained me. I couldn’t imagine surviving it without so much support and so many gestures of kindness.

p.s. I didn’t receive perks from any of the companies or products I linked to. I simply found these things helpful, and wanted to pass along the love.