There are a lot of things they don’t tell you about the days after someone dies. There’s just no way to be prepared for the paperwork, the decisions, and planning, the endless phone calls and questions, the offers to help. All of these questions that need answering while you’re trying to process grief and emotions—it’s hard to explain how your head spins in this new world you’ve just been thrust into.
I’ve been caught unprepared twice.
The first time, my father died of a heart attack at just 50 years old. It was completely unexpected. I was in my early 20s, and I jumped headfirst into the role he would have taken if it had been one of us. Contacting insurance companies, arranging for his transportation from one state to another, breaking the news to family, and looking up his longtime friends in the yellow pages. There was an orchestration of arrangements to be made, with family filling our house to gather photos, design a program, plan a wake.
The funeral home overflowed with people coming to share memories of my dad and flowers lined the front, arriving from all over the world.
I don’t remember much about the days that followed, the exhaustion from 10 days of adrenaline catching up to me, but I do remember the flowers, the giant arrangements keeping us company long after the guests had left.
I remember the sadness we felt each time we said goodbye to one of the arrangements, but there was still the buzz of visiting family to keep us company.
The second time was different.
I was 8-months pregnant with my first child, ultrasound sweeping my enormous belly, when my doctor said the words I’m sorry, there’s no heartbeat. There is nothing that prepares you for that moment. They don’t exactly tell women that 1 in 160 pregnancies end in stillbirth, and even if they did, rational knowledge and emotional comprehension of carrying a baby to term, only to have them die of unexplained causes before they take a breath — it’s hard to grasp the enormity of that moment until you live it.
The next day, I gave birth to our 6lb, 9oz daughter, and my husband and I spent hours curled up with her, counting fingers and toes and telling her all the stories we had planned to tell her over her life. We told her how loved she was, wrapped her in one of my father’s T-shirts, and took photos I’d stare at in the long days to come.
Those special moments we tried to preserve were punctuated with the same paperwork I had been through seven years prior — did we want an autopsy? A funeral? Did we have a mortuary to call? Did we want family to come? My head pounded and this wasn’t like my dad’s arrangements at all. I had just given birth and was still trying to process the last 48 hours.
I was wheeled out of the hospital in the middle of the night, holding only a pillow, and my husband tucked me into bed where I’d remain for most of the next week, unable to speak to anyone.
My husband, however, had to speak to many people, answering the door nearly every hour and triaging phone calls from family who were grieving alongside us and wanting to know how to help. The stream of deliveries was constant. Meals, cards, gifts — and flowers. So many flowers. At first, my husband arranged them in our bedroom, creating makeshift tables as more arrived.
Eventually, we ran out of space in the bedroom and I was coerced into moving to the couch. We added each beautiful bouquet to a shelf, or the mantle, or a table, or wherever we could put them. They brought color and life to days that were utterly colorless, and they carried messages of love from those who cared so deeply for us. I happen to love flowers and cherished each one of these beautiful signs that we were loved, and our daughter was celebrated.
But surely you know what happens next. If you’ve ever brought a bouquet of flowers into your home, you know. After just a day or two, the water starts to turn brown and needs changing. Then a few stems go bad, and you want to pull those out, trim the other stems, freshen the water again. Maybe you take them all out, wash the vase, and rearrange the ones that are left. Now multiply that effort by fifty. That’s what we were faced with. Vases full of flowers in water that needed changing, day after day after day.
When you’re grieving, standing up and getting a glass of water takes all of the effort you have, and the idea of changing the water in all those vases is unrealistic. It’s daunting.
And so you see those beautiful, thoughtful, expensive flowers, wilt. The water turns brown and smelly, and the whole vase gets turned upside down in the yard waste bin, a sea of lilies and dahlias looking too beautiful for mulch. You’re reminded, again, of the fragility and temporary nature of life, another thing too beautiful and gone too soon.
So I implore you, when you are wondering how you could possibly help your friend through their darkest moments. Whether they’ve lost their parent, their partner, their child, their loved one or friend. When you go to visit and bring that hot meal, when you ring their doorbell and say “I’m so sorry,” don’t ask what you can do — tell them you’d like to change the water in their flowers. You’ll be the first one that thought of it, and you might stretch that color and beauty for a few more days. Yours will be the gift of fifty bouquets that get to live on. And that will be both unexpected, and welcome.
Originally published on Medium