When you are heartbroken – Breathe

The sudden death of a child or young person, a loving wife or husband or best friend, can break our hearts. We feel shattered into so many pieces we don’t know how to face each day. We know we will never see the world the same way. We will never be the same person we were before this death happened.

A dear friend of mine recently buried his oldest son. His handsome, loving, full of life 27-year-old son died in an accident. His name was Matthew and he was to be married in 5 weeks. Matthew had just bought a new home with his fiancé; he had his whole life stretching out before him.

When I heard this news, I said to my friend:

There are no words I can offer that will make any of this pain go away. I am just so very sad to hear that Matthew has died. For what comfort it may give, I know you all are a strong and loving family and you will see each other through this loss. I’m here if you need to scream, vent, cry, talk, or just sit with another person in silence so that you are not alone. My cell is on 24/7.

For a week, I kept coming back to one question: what I could “DO” for my friend?

When we care about someone and they are in pain, we want to “DO” something for them to help them “feel better.”  That’s simply our nature. We make dinners and bake things and drop them off at the house where people are grieving. And, sometimes, that’s very helpful.

But imagine being a parent who just buried their child and 20 or so people a day are calling, emailing, texting, or coming by and ending every conversation by asking “how can I help you” or “what can I DO for you?”

And there is nothing you can say in response to that question because you’re just trying to make it from one minute to the next.

How do you get through a day when your heart is shattered by death?

How do you get from one minute or one hour to the next minute or hour in a day?

Only the person suffering can answer that question for themselves.

But I have suffered losses that shattered my heart. Here is what I found in that darkest space.

All each of us actually HAS to DO each day is breathe, deeply, in and out.

Anything else we DO beyond that is a choice (eat something) or a commitment (go to work, feed your family, pay your bills).

I made it through several shattering experiences by taking my daily life down to the bare minimum that I required of myself. And I made it a goal to just breathe.

Use your breathing to make it through a day? How?

Take 1 minute, close your eyes and breathe deeply: slowly inhale and exhale. Count your breaths as you go. Repeat that breathing and counting session every 1 or 2 or 3 hours during the day, or every 15 minutes if you need to. Add 15 seconds to each breathing cycle if you want to, and keep counting your breaths. At the end of the day, when you need to sleep, spend the last 5 or so minutes while awake breathing and counting your breaths.

When you wake up in the morning and the brain fog clears, and then pain hits, breathe deeply and count your breaths.

When we count, silently or out loud, it actually relaxes our brains. No kidding, there’s science on that somewhere.

Make plans to have a ready answer to the question: what can I DO for you?

Below are some suggested answers you could consider using.

If it’s a close friend or family member asking the question and you want their help, have a list ready of things you need their help to do.

For example:

  1. Going with you to make the funeral or memorial service arrangements;
  2. Driving elderly parents to and from their home to doctor appointments, or prefilling their medication boxes while you are coping;
  3. Picking up groceries you ordered online and getting them to the home and put away;
  4. Picking up and dropping off people coming into town for the memorial or funeral at airports/trains/bus stations;
  5. Taking a walk with you; and/or
  6. Staying over for the night in your home so you are not alone when you wake up.

For all others (co-workers, neighbors, your community of friends) asking what they can do for you here are some suggestions for you to consider using.

  1. Ask them to give a donation of money OR time to a charity in honor of your loved one who died. AND/OR
  2. Ask them to make it a goal to tell their friends and family that they love them more often. Ask them to hug those they love for a few extra heartbeats. Ask them to put more love into the world. AND/OR
  3. Ask them to share with you any pictures they have of the loved one who died – it’s easy to scan photos or make copies these days. In a digital world, collecting images of the person we loved can help us remember all of the joy and love and times of that person’s life. AND/OR
  4. Ask them to hang prayer flags in their yards. Some people believe that the wind touching the flag carries the prayers onward, cleansing the negative energy in the world. I received prayer flags recently and have them on my porch. They make me feel better, whatever else they do in the world, and I just feel better seeing them each day.
  5. Ask that they build a small Cairn in their yard, or have a very small Cairn in their home as a memorial, or help you build a Cairn in your yard or for your home. For more information on Cairns and what they mean and how they are built go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cairn.

I want to acknowledge here that these suggestions are “DO” items – but that’s what we all seem to need. I make these specific suggestions because they, hopefully, will make people THINK/REMEMBER to love more in their daily life while they “DO” these things.

Feel free to post any or all of these suggestions on your Facebook page, add these requests to an obituary, or publish them in your memorial service pamphlet. It may help you get from one minute to the next to be ready to offer those answers to friends and neighbors and teachers and anyone else who asks. Those ready answers may make your day a little easier to endure.

And breathe – just breathe – and know that as much as you loved the person who died, they loved you right back. And love lives on.

In and out, my dear friends, just keep breathing.

Many thanks to Andreas Berger for this beautiful photo of prayer flags via Unsplash! https://unsplash.com/@andreas1104



  1. I lost my oldest daughter when she was 38 years old. My daughter in law painted a picture of a jar full of pussywillows in a clear vase sitting on a dresser, at the bottom we’re the words “just breath”. I hung the painting where I would see it often. It helped so much just to have that reminder several times a day. It’s one of my most cherished things.
    Your writings are awesome and I love the comments. Good job

    1. Thank you for your comment, Gail! Sometimes remembering to take a deep breath in and let it out is the way we get from one moment in grief to the next. I’d love to see a picture if you’re willing to share it with us.

  2. I lost my father, my hero and my best friend just over three weeks ago. I am absolutely crushed and feel somewhat lost without him. All of the things I should be doing such as packing my house belongings and getting ready to move seem pointless now, as I sit here looking at my clutter waiting to be packed up. I find myself talking to my father as if he’s around, begging for a sign that he’s made it to a peaceful place on his spiritual path. Wondering if I should call his mobile just to fool myself that he’s still here.


    1. Hi Kat, I felt the same way when my Dad died. He was my hero and my biggest supporter and it was/still is a huge loss. But I talk to him all the time because I think he is around. I choose to believe he is at peace after fighting in 3 wars for our country, being married for 57 years to my mother, and raising 5 kids – goodness knows he EARNED his peace.
      But it’s okay to go slow in doing the practical things that you feel you need to do.
      A friend who was overwhelmed when her mother died decided to just do 1 hour a day of packing and going through paperwork. She set a timer and when she was done she went and did something for herself (exercise, walk with a friend, time with her husband). Slowly she got through it all. Yes, there were some days that there was more than 1 hour of work to do, but she cut it up into pieces so she didn’t get overwhelmed (1 hr in the morning, 1 hr after lunch, 1-2 hours in the afternoon or early evening).
      Grief is a slow process. Let yourself have days when you do nothing, if possible. But be with others, get someone to talk with, call a friend. Read a book, take a day trip to be out in nature, or to go see something beautiful. Think about your Dad and his wishes for you and your life.
      Please take care of yourself in all of this sadness. Best wishes, Paula

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