Grief Support: How to Help

The Four Percent


Q: I live in a close-knit Upper East Side rental building, where neighbors trade phone numbers and collect one another’s packages. The woman who lives below me lost her husband in August after an illness. Since then, I’ve heard her wailing, talking and cursing to herself, clearly in despair. The neighbor below her also can hear the noises, but we don’t know how to approach this. I have offered the widow help with errands when I see her, so she knows we’re here for her, but she declines, and I don’t think that would really help anyway. Any advice on how we can handle this?

A: Grief can be a long, lonely process, made lonelier by a pandemic that has denied us opportunities to spend time with the people we love. At another time, your neighbor may have had more sources of comfort than she does now. Or, she may have a strong support network now, and just needs the space to grieve alone at home.

But you don’t know if she’s OK, and as a concerned neighbor you could certainly offer your support. Even if she has support, she may need more.

You were kind to offer help with her errands, but as you suspected, that may not be what she needs. “People don’t need help, they need company,” said Dr. Katherine Shear, founder and director of the Center for Complicated Grief at the Columbia School of Social Work. “Offering to do some errands or get things, that’s a very reasonable thing to do, but it’s not quite the same.”

Stop by her apartment to let her know that she’s been in your thoughts. Ask if she is OK, and if she has friends and family nearby who spend time with her. Remind her that she is not alone in the building. Ask if she might want some company. The flowers are blooming, the days are getting warmer — suggest taking a walk or sitting outside together.

People who are grieving “are not good company themselves, but they just need the presence of someone” who is willing “to share this very human experience,” said Dr. Shear, a psychiatrist.

Your neighbor may rebuff your initial request, but you can keep trying. The other concerned neighbor could follow up with a similar offer. If you run into her in the lobby, remind her that the offer still stands. “Gentle persistence is what I would call it,” Dr. Shear said. “Let your compassion be your guide.”

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