Thanks For The Offer, But I Don’t Know What I Need!

We’ve all heard it before, from the well-meaning, tilted-head friends at the funeral and in the weeks to follow: “Let me know what you need.”  It is, of course, a kind and often well-intentioned offer, but there is one fatal flaw: it assumes you know what you need.  To be fair, on the surface, this isn’t an unreasonable expectation.  If a person hasn’t experienced the depths of grief or some other pit of despair, it can be hard to imagine that sometimes you are just so overwhelmed you can’t figure out what you need.

The reality is, no one can meet the needs that may be most pressing in your mind or give you the things you want the most. This is why you may find yourself internally screaming the response, “Yes, I need you to bring my loved one back!” or “Yes, I need you to take away this pain!” everytime someone asks you if there is anything you need or anything they can do.  Thinking about any other needs can feel impossible and overwhelming. You may find that you feel like you’re sinking, but it isn’t clear what help would help you come back up for air.

We want to talk about this basic but complex challenge: how do you figure out what you need when you have no idea what you need?

First, remember your needs might not all look directly like grief needs.  When you lose someone, your life is shattered.  One person disappears and it can feel like everything else falls out of place.  We call those other things “secondary losses”.  Getting support from others is not always about that primary loss, often it is finding support for one of those secondary losses (learn more about secondary losses here).  In some cases, it may be practical, logistical support you need.

When you’re feeling completely overwhelmed, it can be helpful to consider that you have needs in all the different areas of loss you are going through.  In others, it may be emotional support – someone to let you cry, remember and listen without judgment.  Finally, it may be just support related to your general well-being — things and people who will help boost your mood and reconnect with yourself.  As with many things in grief, it is helpful to take it step by step.

Each day we encourage you to increase your awareness around your greatest “pain points”.  These don’t have to be grief specific. Anything in your life that is a stressor may be part of your grief or making it more difficult to cope with your grief, so it is important to consider any needs that can ease your overall suffering in a given day.  To do this, you will need to become aware of the moments in your day that cause the most pain, bring up complex emotions, are the most physically taxing, the most mentally taxing, and create the most stress.  Write them down during the day, either on your phone or on a sheet of paper.  If it is helpful, you may want to look at your needs in three categories:

  1. Practical/logistical needs:  Whether it is childcare, grocery shopping, filing taxes, mowing the lawn, etc, there are often countless concrete needs we have.  Knowing what these are can make it easier to ask people in your support system for the help or take them up an offer.
  2. Grief needs: Though all needs may be connected to grief, some are certainly more explicitly so.  You may realize your need is for people who you can share memories with, or someone to be comfortable with your tears.  You may need someone who wants to help you memorialize your loved one or join you in advocacy work.  Whatever the case, you may realize you are feeling very alone in honoring and remembering and it is time to reach out to others.
  3. Well-being needs:  These needs fall somewhere outside of just the grief experience, and are things that simply help with our overall well-being.  This can be anything from needing that push to get off the gym to needing someone to be social with (or at the very least, grab a coffee).  It can be anything from painting to writing to photography that you know would boost your mood and well-being, but that you keep avoiding.

These are just a few small examples. We realize your needs may look very different.  The important thing is to slowly begin increasing your daily self-awareness about what is difficult.  At moments that you feel stressed or overwhelmed, make a note of what is creating that experience.  At the end of a day, rather than just saying “this day is terrible,” instead outline what has made it so challenging.  As you do this over time, you may see trends emerging, areas big and small where some small help from others could make your days just a little bit earlier.

Others are unable to provide support if you can’t tell them what you need, so just knowing your needs is the first step to receiving support.  The chart below is basic, but you can print it out and use it to help you to first become more aware of your needs and second, identify who might help you meet those needs.

Whether your support system can or will meet these needs is impossible to predict, but identifying the need and asking for help is the first step. To figure out who the best person to help you, check out this post on considering the strengths of those in your support system here.  If you’re having difficulty navigating your support system, asking for help, feeling failed by your support system, or giving feedback, you can check out the recording of our webinar on Navigating Your Support System After a Loss.  It is full of ideas for understanding how your support system can best help you meet your needs (once you know what they are, of course!), and how to handle it when they don’t.

Navigating Your Support System After a Loss: [Webinar Recording]

As always, leave a comment to share your perspective!  

March 29, 2018

18 responses on "Thanks For The Offer, But I Don't Know What I Need!"

  1. After reading some of these posts I realise how lucky I am. My husband, best friend and soul mate died 5 weeks ago suddenly of a heart attack, he was a firefighter, very fit and healthy (we thought), every day I have my daughters or sisters or mum, to talk to, my daughters stay with me sometimes because as you know the loneliness is horrendous. Today I went back to work, and am lucky enough to work for my daughter .
    I have become friendly with a neighbour who is the loveliest person, she is a Reiki master and offered to give me a session, she did this Tuesday and then offered other therapies the following week, she also made it clear she did not want paying. I have met so many amazing, lovely people since my husband died. He always told me there are lots of nice people in this world, I used to doubt it, not anymore.

  2. Saturday 24 February 2018, my mum got the phone call that my family had been involved in a car crash while on holiday in India. My cousins Raj and Neelam died on impact. Their mum Ram (my mums sister)and Raj’s daughter Sophie were also in the car but we didn’t know if they had survived or not. We dashed round to another aunts house to try and get all the facts, we started phoning hospitals in India to see if we could find my aunt and Sophie. Who knew British accents could cause hospitals to slam the phone down on you?!
    By mid afternoon, my dad and 2 other relatives had booked flights to India to make sure my cousins were bought home for a joint funeral and my aunt and Sophie got the best care possible and were bought home when ready. My aunt is a widow so uncle isn’t around to help.
    The days that commenced were chaos, some family members helped, some family members turned their backs on us and went to a wedding the day after the accident.
    The more we established the facts of the crash the more horrific the situation got. People filmed the crash site and shared the videos…yes I have seen my dead cousins in the crumpled car and have heard Sophie and my aunt screaming for help. The hired taxi driver who was driving my aunts car, caused the accident and ran away from the scene…he still hasn’t been caught and probably never will be or face justice.
    I wasn’t particularly close to Raj or Neelam but their loss has hit me hard. I don’t know what will help with the grief, I don’t know how people can help me, though there is a lot of support on offer….I don’t know what I need. My partner is trying to be supportive but I find myself pushing him away when he tries to hug me to offer comfort, I’ve stopped hugging my mum who I think could do with a hug….her sister has been through hell and my mum has lost a niece and nephew who she knew from birth.
    I’ve read a few posts on this site and they resonate and make sense! I’ve found something that is helping me understand this weird path I have been thrown onto.

  3. My darling partner, Doug, died May 5, 2018 after a short 3 month battle with cancer. We have been together for 16 years. He suffered so many indignities, surgeries, and procedures with so much strength and grace. I’m either weeping , moaning, or numb. Friends are being as helpful as they can be, but the thought of living my life without him is unbearable at times. A friend told me to only focus on 20 minutes at a time or less. Sometimes that is all I can manage. I’ve been down this road before with deaths of my family, friends, and divorce. My best friend of 42 years died September 2017. This is the worst. I feel raw, then numb, then the unbearable loss of how to deal with all of this desolation. 20 minutes.

    Sometimes I want to be with Doug. The future is not something I even want to think about or care about. I just want to sleep and escape the pain of it all. I know this grieving process has barely begun and it empties me of any hope that I’ll ever feel joy or happiness.
    again. Life feels dark and empty right now.

  4. I lost my son six months ago to a rare form of cancer. He was diagnosed at a tender age of 15 he had 4th stage at that time. He lived till 33. He was the strongest person I ever knew. Even thought he had many serious operations, radiation treatments, and chemo. he suffered so much. His attitude was amazing, he never complained. Even though he could have gone on social security he loved working, he loved life. When he died I knew he wasn’t suffering anymore but he didn’t want to die he begged the doctors to continue helping him. They told him there was nothing they could do for him. I witnessed so much sadness in his life, He never had a girl friend because he knew his destiny. I cursed God for allowing him to suffer like he did, my son had faith his entire life and I begged for his healing. He died in my presence in the hospital he was born in and he died suffering. I will never be able to be okay with his death, part of me died also. Sometimes and quite often I wish I were dead also. No one understands that. Many would say I am selfish to feel that way when I have two other children and so much to live for. Truth is none wants to hear about my grief or how I hurt inside. Not family not friends. It only brings them down.

  5. Appreciate this article very much. I have served a number of people who have received lost a loved one and so many have commented on not knowing what to say when told to just call when they need something. The graphics and chart are very helpful. I suffered the loss of my mobility and aspects of my lifestyle due to a chronic pain disease, and this article applies to those losses as well. I’ll be sharing with my friends & clients in future.

  6. I also agree with , everyone says what can I do? But you can’t tell them, for 1 you really don’t know what they are willing to do. 2- I feel selfish, I feel they don’t really mean it. My daughter was killed in a motorcycle accident in September and I am still not sure what I am supposed to feel. I just sit around doing nothing, and cry at the drop of a hat. Anyway, thanks for letting me vent.

  7. Grief and all the emotions that come with it make people uncomfortable~ even family, even friends and even the people you thought of as friends. What do many people do when something is uncomfortable? They avoid it! Which results in the person that is grieving feeling disconnected and unsupported. People say things like “Call me anytime”, “Let me know if you need anything” ~ then they go back to their daily lives thinking they have been helpful. Or they don’t even make an effort to call the person grieving and rationalize that by telling themselves ” I don’t want to call at the wrong time” or “I don’t want to upset them”. Or they make Facebook posts thinking that is enough. Then there are those who think the standard comments of “God needed another angel”, “He/she/they are in a better place” , “God never gives us more than we can handle” will be helpful and comforting~they are NOT! Hearing “I’m praying for you” from some people feels like they have offered prayer so they have fulfilled an obligation. I think it is far more than a grieving person can handle to suggest that they make ‘charts’ to categorize their moments of grief, stressors, needs, who can help, how they can help, etc.. Some days the person that is grieving can’t even verbalize what they need. We live in the age of the internet and smart phones. A simple Google search for
    ” how to help someone who is grieving ” will result in meaningful ideas. Most important is to continue to reach out to the grieving person~ be it a text, a voicemail, a handwritten note. The words “I’m so sorry and I’m thinking of you” can be a comfort. Send a gift card to a restaurant near to where the person lives so they can get dinner to go. If you live nearby, leave some ‘basics’ on their doorstep~tissues, toilet paper, paper plates, and napkins. Send a text offering to pick up coffee from their favorite place and leave it at their front door or if you don’t live in the area send them a coffee gift card. Once you start thinking about it you will have your own ideas of ways you can let them know you care.~and that is what REALLY matters.

  8. I lost my Dad, Mother-in-law, Mom and husband within four year’s time. Sometimes it was hard to just put one foot in front of the other. But I have friends who were with me and let me cry openly and talk about my fears. Now, I work in a funeral home. I share with people who talk about not knowing what to do and I follow-up with the families we have served. To those who don’t know what to say or do, speak of the deceased, let the person know that you miss them too. Don’t say call me if you need something, call them, offer dinner out, or go see a movie together. To those grieving, try to say yes to invitations, you may not feel like going, but usually you’ll be glad you went after you are out. There is so much good grief work being done. Lot’s to read and follow.

  9. The cold hard truth is that people really do not want to help. They want their discomfort to go away, and saying “If you need anything, call” allows them to do that without feeling like they’re being cruel. The people who really want to help will do it. They’ll bring a casserole. They’ll share a memory. They’ll take on some of your work because they know you’re not all there. They’ll do it without you calling or asking. The rest of them? Forget it. If you give them a list of what you need, you are guaranteed to lose a friend. Because they are more likely to disappear once something is expected. When my husband died, a few friends stepped up to the plate and invited me to their holiday dinners, and since none of them had big families, it was pleasant to go. But others did nothing. And yet, sometimes help comes from the most unlikely places. Neighbors that I’d only “known” to wave to sent their kids to help clear snow for me for the two years before I moved. Those who want to help will. Those who don’t won’t, no matter what kind of list you give them.

  10. Thanks for this article. The Secondary Losses section was interesting to me as others don’t typically thing of those “other” losses when a death occurs. Personally, I can relate to all but 2 of them. I received some generalized offers of assistance after my son died. The usuals, “I am here for you”, “If there’s anything I can do for you…”, “let me know if you need anything….anything at all”, “I’ll give you a call”. Then, poof, as quickly as those general offers came, they disappeared, because so did the people who made those offers. People are uncomfortable with death, especially the death of a child. They don’t know what to say or do either. In my trememdous grief, did I seek out those people to let them know that I needed or wanted something? No, because I didn’t know what I needed. I didn’t know anything anymore. What did I need? Truth be told, I didn’t care about what I needed. I felt like my soul died when my child died. I was a dead person walking around in a live body. My son died and I didn’t know anyone who knew this kind of loss and pain. No one could relate. I didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin, with my own thoughts, with other people’s comments, my own family members actions and behaviors, in my own home/ my safe space, my own community, etc. My whole world was shattered to pieces and I felt like that 24/7. It was emotionally exhausting. Over time, the world expected me to “get better” and be who I used to be. I agree with the person who made the suggestion to “just do something” for the grieving friend or family member. Just do something to show you care because it’s very likely that the grieving person doesn’t know what they could possibly need beyond the presence of the one they loved that died. “I’d like to come by on Tuesday afternoon to bring you some of my baked chicken”, Joe wants Charlie to know not to worry about the yard work this week, he’ll take care of it”, “I thought you might like some company to sit with you this evening”, “I have some pictures and memories I want to share with you”, “I’m going for ice cream, let me come pick you up”.
    I’d like to see articles highlighting suggestions of simple gestures printed in local newspapers and magazines to inform the general public of what they might do for a friend or family members who is experiencing a grave loss. These are simple actions of caring for the person who doesn’t know what they need and they could make a wonderful difference for the griever.

  11. I almost want to laugh, in derision, because through all of my losses, no matter who, NO ONE even offered such a sentiment or platitude. I waited, and waited, but nothing. I actually had a good idea of some of the things I needed, like “just bring me a meal, please,” or “just let me TALK about how much pain I’m in, without judgement” and “please mention something, ANYTHING, about my loved one,” and the like. But no one even asked, even in this general way. Even when I asked for something specifically from another family member, I was denied for the most part. So I eventually gave up hoping for any real care and support from anyone in person. I had to find the bulk of my solace on grief boards instead.

    There were only two people who ended up DOING something that was meaningful, after several months’ time, and for that, I was SO very grateful. One bought me an Italian picture charm bracelet with the software to miniaturize more pictures of my choice, but had already glued on two of my favourite pictures which she already had in her possession. I still wear it every day. Another brought over a poem she had written, trying to capture some of my deep relationship with my loved one, which we later added an accompanying picture to, and framed it. (later damaged in a flood :,-( )

    Yet others (one of which had supplied one of the above gifts) would not gracefully ACCEPT my reluctance to attend certain events, and took offense, even if we showed up for awhile. One friendship ended upon this person sending me a story and poem the next Christmas about a “Christmas Miracle” where someone’s daughter had been SAVED at the last…very unlike my own loss! Then she called me a “miserable person” because I dared to speak my truth — that I couldn’t appreciate this poem, given my own loss ended in death. Another one ended simply because I didn’t feel up to attending a household goods party with strangers I didn’t know.

    So, support? Understanding? Providing what I needed? Not much of it out there, at least not for me.

  12. I am not one of those who is not good at asking for help, and the article is correct, I had no idea what to ask for when I lost my child 7 months ago. I just knew that I was lost and my heart was broken beyond all comprehension of someone who has not lost a child. Someone had told me, or perhaps I had read it, that when a person is suffering and does not know what they need, a friend, a relative, an acquaintance should step in and just DO something. Anything! I would have appreciated a meal (after the initial first week of meals coming in), someone coming by to take me to lunch, just a friend coming by to chat. I had so many friends who said “I am here for you,” yet I never saw them. If they were afraid they would intrude, then leave something on my door, even if it is just a flower or a note saying< "I am thinking of you." Then you hear that your friends are doing things and not inviting you, saying they knew you wouldn't go, but that is not the point. You are left feeling even more lonely and left out. Even when a person who is grieving doesn't know what he or she may need, my advice is to do SOMETHING, ANYTHING! Let them know you are thinking about them and that you are TRULY there for them.

  13. I am not one of those who is good at asking for help, and the article is correct, I had no idea what to ask for when I lost my child 7 months ago. I just knew that I was lost and my heart was broken beyond all comprehension of someone who has not lost a child. Someone had told me, or perhaps I had read it, that when a person is suffering and does not know what they need, a friend, a relative, an acquaintance should step in and just DO something. Anything! I would have appreciated a meal (after the initial first week of meals coming in), someone coming by to take me to lunch, just a friend coming by to chat. I had so many friends who said “I am here for you,” yet I never saw them. If they were afraid they would intrude, then leave something on my door, even if it is just a flower or a note saying< "I am thinking of you." Then you hear that your friends are doing things and not inviting you, saying they knew you wouldn't go, but that is not the point. You are left feeling even more lonely and left out. Even when a person who is grieving doesn't know what he or she may need, my advice is to do SOMETHING, ANYTHING! Let them know you are thinking about them and that you are TRULY there for them.

  14. I’m posting this just to be “heard” and not in any way to detract from the needs of those whose loved ones have died. — I am experiencing all of the losses shown in the diagram, but my primary loss is not a person who has died. I have slowly lost–and am continuing to lose– my husband due to dementia. I’ve done a lot of reading, including on the WYG website, about disenfranchised loss, and I decided to post so that such losses are not disenfranchised in this discussion. Most of the time, those of us who have lost loved ones to a chronic condition that dramatically changes and effectively takes away that person, aren’t even asked the problematic question of “What do you need?” And then, if friends or relatives do recognize our loss, it is hard for them–as it is for us!–to walk this path with us for months, years, even decades. Especially as the baby boomers age, more and more people/caregivers will find themselves in this status that has been referred to as “chronic sorrow.” Also, because the lost loved one is not dead but is still very much in need of care, a lot of resources, support groups, etc., focus on the practical approaches or community organizations that can help. Those are very valuable, of course–but in the process, the caregiver’s/family’s loss and grief usually go unaddressed. I had to search hard to find resources–one of which was the WYG post on disenfranchised grief. I would also like to suggest Eleanor Silverberg’s website ( http://www.eleanorsilverberg.com) which is built on previous research and her own work in the area of grief and “situational loss.”

  15. It is a great post. I lost my wife in 2017, and although this sounds a little self-serving, I miss my identity of her being my life cheerleader. She always had such a high opinion of everything I did, and me being a humble person, secretly liked her saying wonderful things about me, not things I would say to myself. She added an outside perspective of me. Yes, I was never much more than an average good person, I mean, I don’t know but a few bad people my whole life. She put me on a pedestal for helping her with all her physical problems, but I am a “better or worse” kind of guy, and would take on the challenge like virtually all other husbands. I am rambling here, but I am saying I lost part of my identity. I would like to be someone’s hero again although I see that it is not completely altruistic. One of the most important things can do for a grieving person, especially one who has been a caretaker, is to get them involved in helping someone meet the goals they desire. We older people have a lot of experience in life, and can use the wisdom of life to be involved in others’ goals. I am helping my son and his wife find a property to build a new home. They work full-time, and I can run down to the county office to talk to a planner about covenants and restrictions, the rural water supplier, the electric company, the engineer whom is needed to determine the size of the culvert needed for the driveway, etc. This is their dream, I just supply the legwork to get the job done. I have a new purpose, but also know when to step back and let them make decisions. This may be an unusual example, but the lesson is that one needs to find a new purpose and goal in life.

  16. My little sister on the West coast lost her husband early 2015 suddenly.. she was 45, with a 3 year old. Then in December we lost our mom, then she lost her job.
    I have tried to help her across the country, but not the easiest. I am thankful for all who knew how to support her, sad for those who stepped back and stepped out of her life. I remind myself everyday of how in any moment we are changed forever. It’s a sign of true friendship when someone walks with you through those unknown changes.

  17. Thank you for this amazing post! Add the trauma when a loved one is taken in a violent way and you can only imagine how one gets in a tremendous fog and can’t cope. You can’t even remember your name! Support is so very necessary to navigate through all your thoughts and feelings. It is a life long journey.

  18. Fabulous post! This can be one of the most awkward interactions for both the grieving and their friends and family after a death. One side just wants to help so much and the other side can barely organize their thoughts enough to get through the day let alone identify specific needs in the moment. I love your advice on how to figure out what your needs are! I would love to see a related post on people’s thoughts about what was the most helpful thing someone did for them after a death. (Maybe there already is one that I haven’t discovered yet).

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