Gifts for the Bereaved - Beyond Sympathy Gifts

by Polly Giantonio

 OneWorld Memorials Sympathy Gifts

Image: by BK *

Grief is a natural, accepted response to loss – this observation inundates us daily through social media, news and popular culture. But the experience of personal grief cannot be normalized in the moments, days, sleepless nights, and months following a significant loss. When someone we love is deeply grieving, we might fumble for adequate words.

Other than baking a casserole or sending a sympathy gift, what else can we do? What can we give? Often the bereaved receive more food than they can eat, and more flowers than a windowsill can hold.

Thoughtful Memorial Gifts

What does a grieving person need? For answers, I turned to Robert Neimeyer, Ph.D., who is renowned for his work in grief. He is a professor of psychology at the University of Memphis where he maintains a clinical practice. He also responds to questions concerning the loss of a loved one at The full interview with Dr. Neimeyer can be read in our blog posted on March 16, 2016.

I asked Dr. Neimeyer what to say to someone in grief. His thoughts include:

  • A grieving friend or family member doesn’t need me to cheer her up.
  • What I’m willing to hear matters more than what I say to the grieving person.
  • The bereaved often appreciate an audience to listen to stories about the lost loved one.
  • Most often a simple question of, “How are you today?” - which might be very different than yesterday – can set the stage for the bereaved to share stories.

Sometimes a catalyst is helpful to transition an encounter. Consider a memory box for your grieving friend or family member. And use the idea as an invitation to spark stories about the lost loved one. Sit and be the audience she needs. Share stories, and look at photos and small keepsakes that can be stored in the box.

Our earlier blog, “The Good Death,” discusses renewed visions of our perception of mortality and death. The idea of “unhiding” death prepares us better to understand and engage with the bereaved.

When I asked Dr. Neimeyer what to do for a grieving person, he responded:

We can compassionately enter the reality of their world that has been shattered by loss, and join them, and ask ourselves what we might need in this situation. Our research shows that this type of support [assisting with daily tasks] can be more meaningful than any words of consolation we say. Through our gestures of kindness, sometimes backed by words and a willingness to listen, we convey that we are there for people.

Being a servant to your grieving friend or family lets her know that you care and that she’s important. She might be too tired to do simple chores, or too sleep deprived to think clearly. Below are a few ideas of how to help.

  • clean up the dishes, the kitchen, the house
  • run errands
  • go with the griever or take the griever somewhere
  • make needed phone calls
  • help with paperwork or mail
  • help care for pets
  • offer to do lawn or garden care
  • assist with children if needed
  • assist the griever to find avenues of support – this might require research that includes finding professionals to help, e.g. financial and management professionals, grieving professionals or support groups if it appears the situation calls for this.

Sympathy gifts also convey our love and concern. A choice such as a memorial keepsake or cremation necklace will be appreciated more and more as time goes by.

It is often said that someone remembers how you make them feel more than what you say. Actions of service speak volumes. And gifts that carry a special meaning resonate for a long time.


Polly Giantonio has developed and co-facilitated workshops and classes on creativity and poetry. She has taught students of all ages, and mentored in a volunteered capacity. Her greatest daily wish is to be kind and to experience life as a gift. Her poems and interviews have appeared in various journals and magazines.

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