As I mentioned before, death has been on my mind a lot lately. And I’m not the only one. It seems like too many of my friends and family have been dealing with loss these days.

My grandma died this summer. She was 90 years old and we knew she didn’t have much longer, so it wasn’t a huge surprise. But even when the deceased is elderly or sick, death is so permanent that it can still leave us unprepared. I wanted to share some things that have been helpful to me as I’ve been thinking about death. Some of them have to do with the practical side of things (the Head) and some have to with the emotional aspect (the Heart). Let’s talk about the Heart.


Looking back, I wish we’d recorded more conversations with my grandma. I interviewed her and my grandpa for a high school project about WWII.* And I think we probably have a few other recordings from over the years, but I wish I’d taken the time to ask specific questions about her life and family and so much more.

Storycorps is a project and podcast that facilitates interviews between friends or family members. Their mission is “to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.” They’ve put together a list of interview questions for all kinds of topics ranging from family heritage to war to love and relationships. They also have an app that records interviews on your phone and you can use these questions or write your own prompts. I wish I’d used these resources with my grandma, but it’s not too late to use them with other friends and family!


when breath becomes air

I also highly recommend reading When Breath Becomes Air. As he was dying from stage four lung cancer, Paul Kalanithi, a 36 year old neurosurgeon in training, asked: “What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away?” His memoir is so beautifully written as he reflects on these questions. And I think this book is a good opportunity to reflect on death and dying and ultimately life.



Aside from all the logistical details of death and dying, the most obvious burden is the emotional one. There’s no easy way to process it. Sometimes you know it’s going to happen, especially when a loved one receives hospice care. Nora McInerny lost her husband to brain cancer and she has a podcast called Terrible, Thanks For Asking (TTFA): “a funny/sad/uncomfortable podcast about talking honestly about our pain, our awkwardness, and our humanness, which is not an actual word.” Her episode called The Middle Place is about this time before a loved one dies. I definitely recommend listening at least to the first half. Nora talks to a hospice nurse who is able to see death as beautiful and holy as she is there with families and the people “who are transitioning from this world to whatever comes next.”

ttfa (1)


No matter how it happens, death is traumatic. Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook and author of Lean In, tragically lost her husband in 2015. She and psychologist Adam Grant wrote a book about it called Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy. Oprah interviewed Sheryl Sandberg on her Super Soul Sunday show which is now also available as a podcast.** Their discussion was emotional and insightful and should be required listening for everyone. They talked about how to support loved ones when they are experiencing loss and it was very similar to the extremely helpful ideas Emily McDowell has shared about empathy.

As with any big idea, the concepts of gratitude, acknowledging, and listening were made more powerful and easier to understand because they were told through the lens of Sheryl Sandberg’s specific experience.

sheryl oprah

Pleeeease listen to the whole podcast. But for those that refuse to take my advice (kidding!), here are some of the ways you can be there for a friend who is grieving:

ACKNOWLEDGE IT. Don’t be afraid to bring it up. There’s nothing anyone can do to remind them of their loss. It’s not like they have forgotten. They are likely feeling alone and it’s better to just acknowledge the elephant in the room. If you’re close to the person, when you acknowledge it, say we. Make sure they know they are not alone.

There’s something so powerful about acknowledging. Not everyone wants to talk all the time, but you can always say to someone, I know you’re hurting and I’m here. We can talk about it. We can not talk about it. But I know you are in pain.

Rather than not saying anything, because you’re going to remind them, say something and say we. We will get through this. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I know you don’t know what’s going to happen…but WE. I will be there for you.

— Sheryl Sandberg on Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations

ASK QUESTIONS. Asking “How are you?” can be too overwhelming for someone to answer honestly. Try “How are you today?” And really listen. Ask what’s best for them and live by Sheryl Sandberg’s Platinum Rule (vs. the Golden Rule):

Ask What’s better for you? Every morning should I say “How are you today?” and acknowledge? Or would you rather I not say anything while you’re at work? ASK. And then really listen.

— Sheryl Sandberg on Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations

DO SOMETHING SPECIFIC. Don’t ask how you can help. Choose something specific and do it (with permission). 

The other thing I learned was power of just doing something specific. So, before Dave died, if someone was having a hard time, I would say, “Is there anything I can do?” And I meant that, kindly. But when people asked me that question…the answers that popped into my mind are not doable. Well, can you make sure my kids and I are never alone on the holidays? Can you make Father’s Day disappear?

— Sheryl Sandberg on Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations

Rather than offer to do something, it’s often better to do anything. Just do something specific. My wonderful friends … tragically lost a son and they spent many months in a hospital before that. And one of his friends texted him and said, “What do you not want on a burger?” Not, “Do you want dinner?” Another friend texted and said, “I’m in the lobby of your hospital for an hour for a hug whether you come down or not.” Just show up.

Now, there’s no one way to grieve and not everyone will want the same thing. So the best approach is really ask people. Say, “I know you’re going through something terrible. I’m coming over with dinner tonight. Is that OK?”

Sheryl Sandberg on NPR’s All Things Considered

BE ENCOURAGING AT WORK. Some people may want to take time off, understandably. But others may need to get back to work out of necessity or in order to “get back to normal.” If this is the case, don’t try to convince them to take more time off because it can make them feel inadequate or useless. When they are at work, point out their important contributions (even if they are having a bad day).

So now, when someone’s struggling with something personal, I always say “Do you want time off? We have great policies. Do you want things taken off you?” But I also will say… “Hey, do you want to do this? Only if you want to, but you’re still the best person for this.”

— Sheryl Sandberg on Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations

Sheryl and Oprah also talked about building resilience and finding joy after loss. I think I’ll share those insights in another post, perhaps. Besides, my copy of Option B is arriving today so I’m sure I’ll have more to say on the subject soon. In the meantime, in addition to the interview(s), you can get tons of resources on the Option B website. It’s way more than just a website for a book. Check it out.

Oh, and if you’re looking for a good card for a friend who is grieving, here are some that I recommend from Emily McDowell, Ink Meets Paper, Moglea, The Good Twin, Off Switch, and Odd Daughter.


You can also see even more cards for tough times here.

*Full disclosure: I did this project for my 10th grade World History class…taught by my father.

**Sheryl Sandberg has been interviewed all over the place, of course. I also recommend her conversation on NPR’s All Things Considered.

One thought on “Death and Dying: The Heart

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