It’s probably the most difficult gift to give, the one for a friend or even an acquaintance who just lost a loved one or who’s dealing with an illness. But it’s also the best way to let that person know you’re thinking about them. “It’s a great opportunity if you’re not that close with someone or if your fear of saying the wrong thing stops you from saying anything at all,” says Kelsey Crowe, author, speaker, and founder of Help Each Other Out. “A gift is a great way to show that you’re thinking and you care.” But it can be nerve-racking to figure out what someone might want or need, so below Crowe and two other grief experts help navigate the best gifts to buy for people dealing with loss.
Crowe recommends gifting things you personally know about. “If for example you like lotions, you probably know some really good lotions. So you can say, ‘These are my favorites.’” If you’re not as familiar with lotions, the Cut’s beauty editor Kathleen Hou has called this candlenut body creme one of the best-smelling body lotions, period, “like powdered vanilla pudding, coconut, and white tropical flowers in the humid sun.”
Also, if you buy something on Amazon, take the time to make it personal. If you can’t order it to your own home and then ship it with a card, take the time to include a note on the Amazon order.
“The first thing is that it’s important that you take an action,” says David Kessler, the healing and loss expert behind Grief.com, who lost his son two years ago. “You want to say, we see the pain and you’re not alone. That means the world to people.” He suggests a massage along with a note: “You can say, this is an enormously hard time. I hope this can help you take care of yourself as you continue down this road.”
Kirsten Henry Fox started Uplift Gift, a website that curates sympathy gifts, after surviving breast cancer and realizing how little people know about how to interact with friends who are grieving or dealing with painful experiences. If you’re gifting something to someone who received a bad diagnosis, think about how they’ll now be spending a lot of time in the hospital. She remembers getting a pashmina, “which you can use as a pillow or a wrap or put it on your lap. It’s soft. I found that extremely comforting,” she says.
For something practical: a phone charger. “You’re on the phone all the time when you’re in a crisis, so that’s an awesome option,” says Fox.
… if they have a Samsung.
Kessler also sees the value in gifting someone a few hours with a professional organizer or a cleaning service. “So many times we have to go through our loved one’s things. There are organizers who know what that process is like and can help,” he says. It’s best to search for grief organizer experts in your neighborhood, but if you want to help out with more basic tidying up around the house, the cleaning service Handy is available all over the U.S.
“Dealing with someone who’s died means dealing with so much paperwork,” says Crowe. “People don’t talk about that.” Gifting something like an organizer shows you really understand what they’re going through.
Of course, flowers are always a safe bet.
When it comes to books, “People like books of poetry, but if you do provide something to read, make sure they know that there’s no expectation or pressure to read it,” Crowe says. Write a card that makes that clear, saying something like, “I thought you might like this, it’s for you whenever you’re ready.” Both Crowe and Kessler brought up this book of poems that Kevin Young collected after his father died. “It looks like a beautiful gift,” Kessler says. “It looks substantial.”
Crowe calls the C.S. Lewis memoir A Grief Observed “really beautiful,” but “it has some religious overtones, so you don’t want to give that to anyone who’s an atheist.”
“There’s a book out right now called The Bright Hour and it’s exquisite,” Crowe says. The author’s writing it while she’s dying of breast cancer “and it’s just such a beautiful book.” Crowe also suggests Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. “These are the two memoirs of people who are dying and the writing is exquisite.”
If they’ve been widowed, Kessler suggests Option B by Sheryl Sandberg. And like Crowe, he says you should make sure it doesn’t come off like a reading assignment: “You want to say this is for you, whenever you’re ready.”
Fox recommends The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. “It’s timeless. It’s religion but it’s not religion. It’s uplifting. It’s a path to taking yourself from crisis and moving yourself towards a better more positive outlook.”
“If you’re just the sort of persona who loves escapism and novels you can give a frothy novel and say, ‘This is just to take your mind off of things for a day,’” says Crowe. That also works for something like a movie gift card, but Kessler says you should make sure to include a note that sets the tone with something like: “I know it’s hard, but in time you may want a distraction.”
“You don’t have to be a personal friend to do this,” says Crowe. “It can just just be someone you care about, like your college friend from 20 years ago. I had breast cancer and my students sent me a basket of organic foods that was so unexpected. Sometimes we think we need to be in the normal periphery of family and close friends, but a lot of times it’s the gifts from people you didn’t expect to notice that are very meaningful.” Which brings up another point for Crowe, specifically about gifts for people dealing with illness: “When people are around illness (their own or a friend’s) they tend to get a little healthier for a moment in time. So: thinking of things that might be organic. Not, like, cheese puffs, but healthy. Or hypoallergenic.”
Fox, from Uplift Gifts, also suggests tea: “It’s a comforting drink that anybody can participate in.” The tea expert Amy Dubin recently recommended this sampler set of Indian and Sri Lankan teas, which includes Assam Melody, Darjeeling Sungma Summer, Ceylon Sonata, and Irish Breakfast.
Fox loved getting chocolate while she was dealing with her illness: “For me, that was pretty big.”
“Often a plant can signal rebirth, and especially a flower or plant that meant something to the person who died, the person giving it, or the person receiving it. People often experience appreciation for that,” says Crowe. She also says to add caveats in the note like, “If you don’t have a green thumb the universe is forgiving.” Because, “You don’t want to give someone one more thing to take care of — but it might feel nice.” This Peace Lily is low maintenance and easy to care for. And here’s a planter we like, too.
People love mugs and people appreciate handmade things. Find a way to combine those by printing a photo with the person who is gone on a mug. “That’s really meaningful,” says Crowe. “That just shows: I love you.” She warns that it’s probably best for it to be a group photo and not just the person alone: “That might be a bit much.”
“If it’s someone who lost a spouse, get a game for the child, or a kids’ book someone can read for the child,” says Crowe. “It doesn’t have to be grief-related, but just noticing that there is a child in your life, and you always want to keep one ounce of joy when there’s a child … providing gifts that can help spark that.”
If you’re a more kitschy, joker type, Crowe suggests sending someone a whoopee cushion. “I know someone got a whoopee cushion when they were in the hospital with a dying parent. That was a funny whimsical gift — and something to do with guests.”
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