(A version of this article appeared in the March 1999 issue of Working Mother.)

On May 18, Chris Farthing took her 12-year-old son, Drew, to the doctor because he had a cold. "The doctor decided to do a blood test for mono," Chris says, "because he thought Drew seemed sluggish." At 4 p.m. initial test results "showed leukemia cells. That’s when Drew’s world, and mine, turned upside down." Mother and son went directly to Childrens’ Hospital in Denver where specialists began running more tests.

Chris, a single mom, is a maintenance engineer at Lucent Technology. "I couldn’t call my office until the next day to even tell everyone where I was," she says. "Your first priority is Drew," one associate responded, "don’t worry about your caseload. We’ll redistribute it." "What can we do?," asked another. "Please keep us informed." said a third.

Tests confirmed Drew has AML leukemia. Treatment started immediately. Chris and Drew now spend five or six grueling weeks in the hospital for his chemotherapy; then, when his white cell count recovers enough, they return home for several weeks until he’s well enough to start the next round of treatments.

How have friends and work associates helped during these bad months? Chris says first of all, "By just being there. That’s the biggest thing." Then, she says, the office staff has taken on her workload; raised funds to get Drew toys, like Legos and games; one person brings Drew the new issues of "Thor" comic books; and people in her department "call every few days to see what I need. After each chemo, one of them gets whatever junk food Drew craves." Close friends, Chris says, have formed prayer chains; have placed notices on the Internet for sports memorabilia for Drew; and have teamed-up so one friend stays with Drew, while the other takes Chris out to lunch. Drew’s teacher from the Lutheran school he attends comes and visits, sometimes just to play Monopoly and be there.

What isn’t helpful? "People who share cancer stories."

When bad things happen to good friends and work associates we’re often at a loss to know what to do. Should we call? Should we stop by? Should we write a note? Send flowers? Take food?

Although Becky Carr, 38, earned her master’s degree in counseling at seminary, she learned first-hand that grief is an extremely lonely trip you can never be really prepared for. Becky, a magazine editor for pharmaceutical company Hoechst Marion Roussel’s employees’ publication, and her husband, The Rev. Dr. Steven Carr, 42, had planned a special trip for their son Joseph’s seventh birthday. "Joe wanted to go to Silver Dollar City in Branson" from their Kansas City home. The morning after arriving, October 11, 1997, Becky took Joe and Leah, 2, to breakfast, leaving Steve to get ready. When she and the children returned to their motel room, Steve was in a coma. He had brain surgery for a cancerous tumor on October 16, and died December 2. At the same time, Steve’s mother, for whom he was solely responsible, was in intensive care. She died October 23, never knowing of her son’s illness.

Steve had been supervisor of pastoral care at Research Medical Center in Kansas City, Missouri, where he taught people how to care for others in need. At home he’d been the major child care giver and the family’s emotional anchor. Becky’s world, after 18 wonderful years of marriage, came apart.

"I believe people are basically good," Becky says of the month before Steve died, "and it was comforting when people would ask, ‘Is it O.K. to talk about this?’" Co-workers who showed up and sat with Becky while Steve was having surgery; and a cousin came, who arrived after everyone had gone to her mother-in-law’s funeral, saying she’d packed to stay overnight, "’If it’s O.K.,’" helped cancel loneliness. Especially helpful, too, Becky says, was a family friend who called and said, "I’d like to borrow Joe for the evening." He started a practice of taking Joe on regular outings "to do Dad things."

There is no dressed rehearsal for grief. And maybe in our 12-step culture, we don’t understand that grief isn’t linear. It doesn’t have a timetable. It has a beginning, but not an end.

When it was apparent that Steve Carr’s illness was terminal, friends and former students began to send flowers and telephone. "They wanted to tell Steve how thankful they were for his contribution to their lives. I said to Steve, ‘This feels like you’re dead already. Is this bothering you?’ and he said, ‘No, it’s very gratifying.’"

Becky also remembers the comfort she received from the heart-felt notes people wrote; work associates who arrived on their lunch hour with baskets of treats for the children; and those who just came to be with her. "The specific offers of help," Becky says, were best, "because I could say yes or no, but beyond that I was over-taxed." She was thankful, too, for the prayers; her manager’s offer of a financial planner when she asked; and the 18 people from her department and their spouses who took a busy pre-Christmas Saturday and drove the three hours to attend Steve’s funeral. Then there were the two memorial services which were videotaped and saved to one day show the children.

Leah’s pre-school made special arrangements to take care of her when Becky needed to go the hospital, make funeral arrangements, or take care of business. And both the children’s schools sent plants — a small pine tree for Joe — with the children’s names on them. At the funeral and the memorial services friends and relatives shared their memories of Steve. Those memories, Becky says, will always be cherished.

In January Becky returned to work full-time, but she couldn’t get organized, couldn’t concentrate, and suffered short-term memory loss. Co-workers stepped in and helped her set up a system of sharing vital information and posting reminders. "For those first three months, I said, ‘I can handle this.’" But then, she says, although she’d lived in the area all her life, and in the same home for six years, "I’d get lost. I would know I was close to the house when I was driving, but I couldn’t remember how to get there."

Months later on a business trip, she says, she walked into a meeting and they brought out a wheelchair, which triggered memories of Steve during those weeks before his death, "and I couldn’t handle it. I had to leave the meeting. I even had to come home early.

"For a long time I felt like my home was booby trapped. I never knew what I would find that would upset me. I had a lot of medical supplies from when Steve had home health. I thought I’d gotten all those things out, but one day I found rolls of gauze in the closet, and I came unglued."

Do things get better? Yes, Becky says. She and the children have now moved closer to her parents, so the children can spend more time with them. The forgetfulness is better, "except in times of stress, like now I’m facing the first anniversary of Steve’s illness, and trying to plan for Joe’s birthday party."

The first step when someone is grieving is to accept the loss. "Acknowledge it," says Doreatha Lack, Ph.D., clinical psychologist in San Francisco. "I’m so sorry for your loss," is an honest start. "Or, "How are you doing?" Offer to do something concrete that needs to be done: "Can I screen your telephone calls?"

Don’t refrain from saying something because you’re afraid of hurting the person, she advises. Grief is painful, but pain isn’t the worst thing that can happen. Nor is embarrassment. Ignoring the loss, avoiding the person, is worse.

"There is no ‘right’ thing to say," says Lack. "Be available. And don’t try to move the mourner away from the primary experience. Let her go through it in her own way. Respect her belief system." Realize, she says, that the stages of grief — shock, depression, rage, denial, and resolution and acceptance — may not happen in any specific order, or on any timetable. "Sometimes people can be in all the stages in the same day." And remember that critical times of grief may occur much later.

"After several months," says Kimberly Foley, Bereavement Specialist at the Kansas City Hospice where grief counseling is offered, "the numbness of grief wears off." It’s often six months after the loss of a spouse, for example, when things are the worst. The rituals of the funeral and burial are over, and support from family and friends has often waned.

Both Lack and Jimmie C. Holland, M.D., Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, stress taking your cues from the grieving person, being available, and being a good listener. Continue to be supportive, they say, especially around the holidays, anniversaries, and for special days.

When bad things happen we have the best opportunity to demonstrate the very best of our humanity — to offer solace at life’s most difficult time.

When Someone You Know Is Suffering

Kimberly Foley, bereavement specialist at Kansas City Hospice, says, "The grieving process is very individual, so don’t have expectations." She and other experts offer some simple Don’ts and Do’s.

Don’t

  • Act like nothing has happened, or avoid the bereaved person.
  • Minimize grief, or trivialize it with statements like, "At least he didn’t have to suffer;" "He’s in a better place now;" or "At least you have your whole life ahead of you."
  • Offer cliche’s like, "Time heals all wounds," or "It’s God’s will."
  • Give advice like, "You should take two months off."

Do

  • Reach out and show you care and are concerned, acknowledging the loss, by saying something like, "I know you’ve lost your mother. I’m so sorry. How are you doing?" Then take your cues from the bereaved.
  • Be available: be there, be a good listener.
  • Make a concrete offer of help, something like "May I bring over a casserole tomorrow about four-thirty?"
  • Attend the funeral to show your support.
  • Write a personal note.

In the workplace, it may be helpful to:

  • Tell the staff immediately, giving details as appropriate, to prevent curiosity, speculation, and rumors.
  • Allow employees the opportunity to react to or comment on the loss, and organize support for the bereaved.
  • Keep communications open with the bereaved, and plan for potential absences, or a reduced ability to work. Coordinate to cover her workload. (Comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and employment laws.)
  • Because the bereaved will undoubtedly have reduced energy, it may be helpful to designate one or two people to communicate with her.
  • Provide the opportunity for staff to participate in the funeral.
  • Send personal notes.
  • Create a workplace memorial, if appropriate — a bulletin board, a special scholarship fund.

Copyright 1998. These articles are not to be reproduced or distributed in any form, manner, or medium without the express, written permission of the author.