In December’s “Wife, Interrupted,” Robert Sanchez highlights one widow’s journey from tragedy to being a single mother. We asked her, the author of, to weigh in on what people can do to help someone in need.

I belong to a third culture. I am neither a whole, healed woman, nor will I wear black and grieve forever. I belong in this nebulous, in-between place.

We are a growing demographic, the broken-hearted us. You might belong on this team roster, or perhaps you are walking alongside someone who is. If you are wondering how to help someone in this place, let me tell you what I’ve learned.

If you don’t know what to say, simply say, “I’m so sorry.” Or even better, “I am so sad for you.” Don’t try to explain or offer a lofty word. There is no explanation, so free yourself from trying to find one.

When you ask how we are, we may say, “Fine, thank you,” or “We are doing okay.” Try with all your might not to press further. The pleading eyes or the prodding voice that says, “Really? Come on, really? How are you, really?” We can’t answer that question. It is all I can do to speak. I answered you. Puncture this surface, and I might spill everywhere.

I, personally, have needed acknowledgement that nothing was normal anymore; that everything has changed for me. I have needed a “free pass” from anything and everything on anyone’s calendar. I have not been able to step into what was, sit at a table where Robb would have been, attend a party where he would have been a guest.

It’s natural for anyone who has gone through this to want to proceed with “life as normal.” We may not want a public display of any kind. Perhaps the best thing you can do is to be present and patient. When—and if—we are ready to begin the journey of uncovering the tragedy, we may remember you were one who was present and patient. And we may trust you.

This journey brings along a monster named Burden. He whispers dark secrets that make us think we’re exhausting you and your resources. If you can give without waiting for a wish list, you can slay that dragon for us. We may not know what we need, but we usually know what we don’t want. Respect the word “no.”

There is a difference between wanting to give to us and wanting to give for you. The motives are thinly veiled, and there is grace and space for both. Try to know why you want to help. Is it because you know this family well, you see a need, and you can fill it? Or is it because you feel overwhelming compassion—perhaps even a sense of guilt that your life hasn’t fallen to pieces—and you simply must-must-must respond in a tangible way?

If you are giving for us, then just do. Step in. Don’t wait. It will mean the world.

If you are giving for you, then give in a spacious way: gift cards, notes, surprise gifts. It will mean the world.

If you are one of us, stuck in the in-between, third culture of grief, please let me tell you what I have learned. The rules have changed.

If you are hurting, if you need help, say it. Others don’t know what you need, but so many want to help. If you know what you need, say it. And if you know what you don’t want, say it. Be honest, and don’t let pride exhaust you. Save that energy for getting out of bed in the morning.

Be alone as long as you want, as much as you want. Isolation is normal, I have definitely learned. In other centuries and cultures, those with a broken heart and a ruptured world have been sent to live in seclusion for as long as they needed. Allow yourself the freedom to clear the calendar, to say no, to be alone.

Check your mailbox. And on the day the mailbox is empty, don’t be deceived: It doesn’t mean the world has forgotten about you or the one you love.

Give yourself a break on the thank-you notes. All the rules are different now, even the formalities of courtesy.

You can’t always predict an emotional toll. What you fear with all your heart may come more easily than you expected. What you thought you could conquer may bring you to your knees. Go easy on yourself. Go to a party if you want, and leave five minutes later if you must. If laughter finds you, pull up a chair and invite her to stay. Don’t worry about what others might think—tell them you’re taking the day off from sadness.

God is good and antidepressants aren’t bad. Get help.

—Image by Jen Edwards Photography