Monday, June 20, 2011

Not Another Casserole: Comforting a Grieving Parent

Please join me in welcoming author Madeline Sharples as the special guest blogger heremadelinesharples today as she makes a stop on her virtual book tour.

Madeline’s latest release is LEAVING THE HALL LIGHT ON: A MOTHER’S MEMOIR OF LIVING WITH HER SON’S BIPOLAR DISORDER AND SURVIVING HIS SUICIDE. Here’s a brief synopsis of it: LEAVING THE HALL LIGHT ON is about living after loss. It's about finding peace and balance and various ways the author, Madeline Sharples, brought herself together after feeling so helpless and out of control during her son Paul's seven-year struggle with bipolar disorder and after his suicide in September 1999. Sharples explains: "I write about the steps I took in living with the loss of my son, including making use of diversions to help ease my grief. LEAVING THE HALL LIGHT ON is also about the milestones I met toward living a full life without him: packing and giving away his clothes, demolishing and redoing the scene of his death, cataloging and packing away all his records and books, copying all of his original music compositions onto CDs, digitizing all of our family photos, and gutting his room and turning it into my office and sanctuary with a bay window that looks out toward a lush garden and a bubbling water fountain."

Dealing with loss of a family member is devastating. It is hard sometimes knowing what to say or how to comfort someone who has lost a loved one. Madeline joins us today to talk about this particular aspect of grieving. Her topic is ‘Not Another Casserole: Comforting a Grieving Parent.’

My greatest comfort after our son’s death came from my next-door neighbor Patty. My husband and I had her family over for dinner when they moved into their house, and we went out to dinner with her and her husband once in a while, but she and I were just a bit more than friendly acquaintances.

Yet she really came through after Paul died. She offered to put up out-of-town relatives, she brought over bagels and cream cheese in the morning, and she supplied the coffee for the open house after the funeral. She was just there in a very quiet nonintrusive way. The word “suicide” didn’t make her back off.

Before the first Thanksgiving after Paul’s death, Patty left a basket on my Hall Light On book covrdoorstep. Her note said that she dreaded the holidays after her mother died, so she gathered – “harvested” was the word she used – a few things to ease the holiday season for me. As I read her note and looked through the basket, I cried, not only out of the dread of being without Paul on Thanksgiving, Hanukah, and his New Year’s Eve birthday, but for the generosity and caring of a person I hardly knew. In such a quiet and unassuming way, she showed me real human compassion and understanding. She never asked me a lot of questions, and she didn’t intrude on my privacy. She just let me know she was there for me if I needed her.

Among the items inside – each one separately wrapped – was a poetry book about coping with the loss of a love – she knew I wrote poetry. She also included a journal, a sweet smelling candle, a box of absolutely delicious chocolate covered graham crackers, and a smooth gray stone.

This stone became my biggest comfort. Just large enough to fit in the palm of my hand, it feels the perfect size when I close my hand around it. One edge is round and the other is triangular. One side is plain; the other has the word “son” carved into it. Right after Patty left the basket on my doorstep, my little stone became my nighttime friend. 

I got into the habit of going to bed with it. Once settled, I held it on my chest just between my breasts. I liked its coldness on my aching heart. It helped me relax. Holding it in my hand and reading the word with my thumb also helped. I carried it around in my pocket for a while. I wanted to feel it there for me. Then, I began to wonder about my own sanity. Was I trying to exchange my son for a stone?

When I got myself more together and began to feel better, I let go of it and let it rest on another item from that basket – a little, silk-covered, sachet pillow that smells of lavender with butterflies and the word “heal” painted on the silk. These two gifts from Patty are still there on my bedside table after all these years.

Madeline, thanks so much for guest blogging today and for discussing this matter with us. We find ourselves wanting to reach out to friends who are grieving, but don’t know exactly what to do or say. The basket that Patty gave you sounds like a perfect way to show concern and support without being intrusive.

Now let me share a bit of background on Madeline. Although she fell in love with poetry and creative writing in grade school and studied journalism in college, her professional life focused on technical writing. It was not until later in life that Madeline finally pursued her dream of being a professional writer. 

Madeline co-authored BLUE-COLLAR WOMEN: TRAILBLAZING WOMEN TAKE ON MEN-ONLY JOBS (New Horizon Press, 1994) and co-edited THE GREAT AMERICAN POETRY SHOW, VOLUMES 1 (Muse Media, 2004) and 2 (August 2010). Her poems have been published in two photography books, THE EMERGING GODDESS and INTIMACY (Paul Blieden, photographer), and a number of magazines. For more about Madeline and her writing, visit her website at

Here’s a beautiful book trailer for Madeline’s book.

How do you comfort grieving friends? Has someone shown you care and support during a difficult time in your life? What are your thoughts on this topic?



  1. A touching post. I try and be there for my friends, but remain in the background. Sadly I have had to comfort several over the years, I find the little things are the greatest help. Such as Madeline's stone.

  2. Mason -Thanks for hosting Madeline. Her books sounds good - just the right mixture of memoir and guide to getting through grief. As a counselor and a friend, I've spent many hours with folks in this excrutiating system. Sometimes it has been suicide, sometimes an accidental life that I believe was just suicide with another name. I think so many people are freaked out about it that they become frozen. Doing the awkward thing is not as bad as doing nothing - in my opinion.
    We are awkward around death in this world.

  3. Mason - Thanks for hosting Madeline.

    Madeline - Thanks for sharing some of your journey in healing. You're absolutely right that people don't always know how to respond when someone is grieving, especially if it's a suicide. I'm sure your willingness to share your own experiences will be helpful to many.

  4. Madeline, This sounds like a powerful book with healing included.

    Mason, Thanks for hosting!

  5. I like the idea of being there for those who are grieving, having a quiet presence with them during that time. Those little things, making a coffee, taking a walk, keep us connected.

  6. Someday, each of us will be touched by the death of a friend or loved one. I imagine this book would be a great comfort and guide.

    I'm not the fabulous cook my sisters are, so I clean for people. I'll weed their garden, sweep the house, or wash dishes.

  7. Grieving is not an easy path to walk, either as an individual walking the path, or watching a friend or sibling having to walk it.

    I laughed at the title of the blog article, not another casserole. But when it's a family, the last thing you feel like doing is cooking, so I was thankful for those dishes. For many, cooking is positive and tangible way to show support and caring. I had a freezer full of caring.

    I try hard not to be intrusive--I didn't like it as one who grieved.I try to provide an ear and shoulder. I also have written little notes, shared encouraging bits and pieces of poetry (some my own, some from others), an uplifting scripture. It depends upon the person and how well I know them and I space those cards and notes out over the course of time--grieving does go beyond the memorial service. I especially try to share a note, card, or even a phone call around the *firsts.* the first year, anniversary, a birthday, holidays.

    Madeline, I'm sorry for your loss. It's not an easy thing to lose a child and grief is a funny thing with very little awareness of time gone by. I've watch my sister struggle to deal with it all. Even after four years there are days...

    Sia McKye's Thoughts...OVER COFFEE

  8. Hi Mason and Madeleine .. it's a wonderful offering that is available for us to read - we can learn so much.

    I definitely would be a better comforter now - 5 years ago I wouldn't have known what to do .. blogging teaches us and offers us so much.

    Patti's basket is just the right sort of neighbourly comfort - so appropriate ..

    Thanks so much - very sad and poignant .. Hilary

  9. Mason and Madeline, all I can say is thank you.

  10. What a great post. It is always so good to have a friend like that who can respond so instinctively to grieving friends. So many times friends freeze and don't know what to say or do, so they fall back on platitudes and food. Death and dying and suicide are issues few people don't want to shy away from.

  11. Thank you all so much on your wonderful and caring comments. I'm so fortunate to be Mason's guest today. I'll keep dropping by to check on what's happening.

    One thing for us all to remember is there is no right or wrong way to grieve or to comfort someone who is grieving. I just shared one person's way that resonnated with me. Believe me, the food and kitchen detail and vacuuming helped a lot too.

    Love to you all,

  12. What a beautiful piece of writing, Madeline, and what a powerful description of such deep grief. That neighbor was like a godsend, wasn't she? It always restores my faith in humanity when I hear of people like that.

    Mason, thanks for bringing Madeline Sharples work to my attention.


  13. My wife died in 1999. Our two kids Rory and Sean were 7 and 3 at the time. A few weeks after her death, an acquaintance stopped by with an envelope for the boys. She was the mom of one of Rory's 1st grade classmates who frequently talked to Trici in the playground as they waited for the school day to end. This mom had written down every single thing she could remember about my wife. What her clothes looked, her earrings, her perfume, funny stories she shared about the boys...everything. She told me she wanted to be sure that when the boys grew older...they had details about their beautiful mommy. I was so very touched. Thanks, Tom Zuba (

  14. It's hard to know what to say and difficult when it's someone close. Madeline's friend did a wonderful thing.

  15. Just a quick note to say thanks to everyone for dropping by today. Hope everyone is having a good day.

    Madeline, thanks again for guest blogging and sharing this insightful post. We really don't know how to relate to others when they are grieving even though we want to help. Your post sheds new light on that.

  16. Madeline's best gift was her neighbor. How blessed they both are.

  17. Again, I'm so thankful that so many of you read my blog post today. And many thanks to Mason for hosting me.
    All of you are so caring as was my neighbor. We all need people like her in our lives. I hope you'll stop by my blog sometime as well.

  18. What a touching post. What a wonderful support Madeline's neighbor was during the grieving process.

  19. Beautiful. That kind of compassion and understanding is not common enough.

    I've taught several kids with bipolar disorder and it can be so hard for them to cope. My thoughts and sympathies are with you for your loss.


I'd love to hear your thoughts on today's post. Thanks for dropping by.