The 12 things you can do for someone who has experienced a tragedy

When someone experiences a tragedy we automatically ask –  “What can I do?” “How can I help?” “What should I say?”

Seeing I have been on the other side of this equation; as a wife of someone with cancer, a widow and also myself being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease I thought it was time to list some practical ideas that helped me. In addition my three children, aged 11, 13, 15 who lost their father, have contributed their wisdom to this list.

1) Do not expect the person experiencing the tragedy to delegate tasks. It is an all consuming time that requires someone else to respectfully take charge. Questions like ‘what can I do?’ or ‘let me know if I can help‘ are hard to answer because making any sort of decisions at this time is overwhelming. There is a fine line between taking over, being too controlling, and helping but I guess the skill is finding the balance. Everyone needs a hero to come to their aid in a gallant and courteous manner every now and then.

2) Do not wait to be asked to cook a meal. Cook appropriate meals for that person. If the person has a family, cook family friendly meals, snacks for lunches and little treats. Leaving them at the door with a note is a lovely way to give the family some space. A gorgeous friend always tied her meals or treats with a beautiful ribbon and for some reason this just brightened the day for me. Disposable containers with a note ‘keep the container‘ was also a lovely idea. Even the idea of returning containers can be overwhelming at this time. My friends organised a roster and dinner was left at my door at 6pm in time for dinner – I really enjoyed eating freshly cooked meals. One Sunday night at 6pm a friend dropped in pork belly with an array of heavenly vegetables. You don’t always need to be fancy but I will never forget the pure decadence of eating this delicious restaurant quality meal. My children say they loved the mince, the curries, roasts, crumbed veal, chicken cacciatore and all the lunchbox snacks and treats. It was also lovely to have a fresh salad and garlic bread to accompany the meal. As everyone will agree, most meals that you don’t have to cook yourself just taste better.

3) Think about what the person enjoys. I love books so absolutely loved it when a book would appear in the letterbox. It was always an inspiring, uplifting book that usually just jumped out at the person buying it. It might even be a book that someone found helpful themselves. I liked it when people would add a post-it to a page that really spoke to them. I have to admit some books helped and some didn’t but I loved the thought process behind each and every one of them. I also love journal writing so adored when I was given a beautiful journal to record my feelings in. I have also heard of someone placing a beautiful handkerchief in a card and I thought this was absolutely delightful. As you can imagine I received a large amount of flowers and really appreciated the potted ones or ones in their own vase already.

4) Don’t feel as though you need to relate to the person. Death, grief and tragedy is personal to each individual. I am always sympathetic to everyone but I will never relate my story to someone else because I understand that it is about their story not mine. I did not find it helpful when people compared and contrasted my story with theirs. When my husband was alive it was surprising how many people felt it was necessary to tell him their sad Cancer story about someone they knew. Sometimes the story ended in death and sometimes the story ended well but no matter how it ended it was not his story it was theirs. As a widow I was the only one married to this amazing man and only I know how my grief feels so I would not even attempt to compare myself to another widow. We all have our own stories.

5) Do not give advice. I was not going to add this one because I thought it was obvious but it possibly still requires some explanation. Giving advice can be alright if it is worded properly. However do not tell me to lie down and rest when I really just need someone to talk to, do not tell me to keep my chin up or look on the bright side – these are conclusions you really need to find within yourself. Unless you feel the person is in a harmful situation let them be – in life we have to find our own way in our own time.


6) Be mindful if you are acting needy. This may surprise many but when my husband was diagnosed with Cancer he had people in his life who seemed to require his guidance and support. They found the news so difficult that they were ringing telling him they were so upset, couldn’t sleep, just so devastated. It is lovely to hear how concerned you are, but please remember that it is nothing in comparison to the person experiencing the tragedy. So express your sadness but don’t rely on the person in the tragedy to help you cope.

7) Always mention the loved ones name and acknowledge the tragedy. When I am in a conversation with someone it sometimes feels like a time bomb waiting to go off until we get to the subject of the tragedy. Get rid of the elephant in the room and try and mention it straight up so the conversation can then flow.  If someone mentions my husband and is not aware of his death I feel worse for the poor person who feels embarrassed. I have never once been hurt by someone putting their foot in it and would prefer everyone be totally up front about the topic. My children believe this tip is the most important and find it more awkward when people try to avoid the topic. They like talking about their dad and think it is imperative to keep his memory alive.

8) Remember grief does not disappear with time. Don’t forget about the person when months or even years have passed. Even after three and a half years I still like being asked “how are you going?” Please, please, please do not say ‘time will heal all wounds‘. I find this rather infuriating, I think grief is a constant healing process and there is no moment when you say “ok I am over that’. I hope grief stays with me in some form forever because it has shaped the person I am today. I am grateful that it has taught me the true value in each and every moment.

time frame

Specifically for Widows

9) Widows are still human beings. I may be a widow but I still have the same emotions, passions and humour that every woman feels. If you are a male and want to ask a widow out – then do it. What is the worse thing that could happen – they say not right now? It is important to still feel feminine and alive.

Specifically for Widows

10) Don’t forget that a widow/widower is doing the job of  two people. A few weeks ago I was rostered to score for my sons cricket and my dad volunteered to do it for me. This was a lovely gift because in my life I do absolutely everything, so to have a job taken off me was pure bliss. I am reluctant to ask for help or let people help so you do need to be quite forceful. I can tell you that being both the mum and dad is a full-time job and any help is always appreciated. Just remember to never try to parent the children. They do not need another parent, just a friend.

11) Do not hide your own happiness or own life from the person. I want to hear about your marriage and relationships – good and bad. Sometimes I admit it is hard to hear someone constantly whinging about their partner or whinging about them being away for one night when mine is never coming home. Ultimately though, I always want people to be honest about their own lives. I want to hear your good news and celebrate with you. I want to hear about your next holiday or your romantic weekend. I don’t want to be left out of your lives.

12) Do not be afraid I am sure I personally say the wrong things to people because everyone is so individual on how they grieve or cope with tragedy and loss. I personally feel that I would rather say something then leave it unsaid. So I say ‘I am so sorry to hear about ……’, then hug them, ask them how they are feeling and give them my full attention to hear what they have to say. If it comes from your heart then it will always be accepted. When I first met a wonderful friend she said with a smile “so you are a widow and have MS, that must really suck” and I loved it – it was brutal but refreshingly honest. Sometimes the straightforward, authentic, real comments are the ones that really hit the spot.

Speak from heart

I hope these suggestions can help you navigate when assisting someone through a difficult situation. The best advice is don’t overthink it, just act straight from your loving heart.

My son says that “even the littlest things make the biggest difference” and I couldn’t agree more.

Let me know if you have any wonderful tips and I will add them to the list. Helping others is such a rewarding task; never underestimate the difference you can make to someones life.

Best wishes


8 Replies to “The 12 things you can do for someone who has experienced a tragedy”

  1. Thank you Melissa for such wonderful words of wisdom. I have found through helping a few families over the years it is much better to be specific in what help you offer and you have confirmed this. It is too vague to say “let me know if you need anything” or “let me know if the kids need a lift”, just offer a specific lift or a day where you will cook a meal etc and it will always be so gratefully accepted. I will also now wrap all my meals for people with a ribbon – this is such a lovely idea. Reading number 7 was very helpful – this is always a difficult subject but I really appreciate reading this from your point of view. Thanks again to you and your beautiful children for sharing these thoughts xo

  2. Thank you for this! This is the best list of this kind I have found!!
    I would add: Do not tell the grieving person to be strong. They are being strong just by surviving, but they do not need people to tell/urge/encourage them to be strong. So many people tell me “You have to be strong for your children.” Well, it’s infuriating and sort of unfair, too.

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