Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: My neighbor, “John,” died a few weeks ago. Earlier, I had guessed from the volume of visitors that he was sick and stopped by to ask his wife, “Alice,” if there was anything we could do. She, of course, said no (because nobody keeps a list around of things for friendly neighbors to do in times of crisis), and I couldn’t really think of anything concrete that would be useful.
A day or two before his funeral, his son-in-law, who lives in the area, saw me and my wife working in our yard and asked us to keep an eye on Alice, to let him know how she’s doing, if she can keep up with the house, etc. We exchanged contact info. and promised to be in touch.
We knew John and Alice in a neighborly, talking-across-the-fence kind of way, we would help them clear their driveway after snowstorms and the like, but we don’t really know Alice well enough to know what we can do to help her out. She had regular visitors for the past couple weeks, but they’re starting to taper off, so it seems like it would be a good time to offer some sort of comfort. I can’t imagine living alone after being married for so long.
Do you have any suggestions that would be helpful without being intrusive?
When you’re doing X home-care project (cutting the grass, cleaning the gutters, raking leaves, etc.), stop by to see if Alice would like you to do X for her too, while you’re at it. When you’re cooking something that’s easy to reheat, double the batch and bring one over to Alice. If you see Alice outside when you’re on the way to the grocery store, ask if you can get a couple of things for her while you’re there. Basically just assume a little bit of the load for her.
But, this is important, make your offers specific. Almost no one feels comfortable responding to a general “If there’s anything I can do…” with something specific.
It’s great that you’re looking for ways to help.
Re: Helping: As someone who visited an elderly neighbor like that, the start-up can seem like the most awkward part. It feels weird to knock and chat with someone you never have before. I started by bringing over small things I was pretty sure she’d like — “I had a couple of tomatoes and thought you might enjoy them”; “I made too much banana bread; have some.” After two or three times, you’ll be able to knock without a “reason” — just to say hi — without feeling as uncomfortable.
For some reason this choked me up, thank you.
For those who have trouble clearing the awkwardness hurdle — I’m not judging, I’m in that camp too — think of it this way: It’s hard, but the alternative is to do your small part to allow a grieving survivor to feel forgotten. So, you grab your tomatoes and go. If you will.
Email Carolyn at email@example.com, follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at washingtonpost.com.