I walked up to a ramshackle house in a disadvantaged area of East Austin, knocked on the screen door and called out, “Meals on Wheels.”
“I’m bl(unintelligible),” a voice called from within. “But I’m coming.”
I paused, not sure what I’d heard. “Did you say you’re black or you’re blind?” I asked.
“I’m both,” the cheerful voice replied. Then a slowly moving figure came into view, shuffling through the darkened home to the door.
This was my first look at Mr. Lee (not his real name), a 70-something blind man who lives alone in an un-air conditioned house. A son comes by each morning to give him an insulin injection. He uses a talking glucometer to monitor his blood sugar and is always listening to a new audio book. Another son died four years ago of cancer.
When he reached the door I opened it and handed him his prepared food and asked how he was doing.
“I’m great!” he said.
On this day, like most days, I was feeling down. My only son, Brady, had died about six months earlier of suicide at age 16. When I learned Mr. Lee had also lost a son, I began asking him about the loss during our weekly visits. Specifically, I wondered how he could be so cheerful.
His response was that he was great as long as he was alive. Once or twice I suggested that being alive was not so wonderful, which is something I sincerely believe a fair amount of the time. I asked him when he’d started to feel better after his son died.
He said he’d felt pretty bad for about a year. It got better after that, he said. He still sometimes got sad, but these days when he thought of his son it was often a pleasant memory of something funny or amusing his son had done or said. Those memories put a smile on his face, Mr. Lee said.
After talking to Mr. Lee I usually went away feeling better. This fulfilled the primary expectation I’d had when I signed up to volunteer for Meals on Wheels, a non-profit organization that delivers prepared foods to mostly elderly folks who have trouble shopping or cooking. Once a week I deliver meals to eight or 10 people on my route. It takes a little less than two hours, all told, and it helps me to feel a little less grief-stricken.
It’s been good, I think. I’m not anywhere near as grief-free as Mr. Lee, but I think his perspective has been valuable. I am sure I’ve helped him and the other Meals on Wheels clients by bringing meals, but they have also helped me. And from what I’ve learned since by looking at evidence on effects of volunteering, I think my experience is pretty typical.
Some Volunteering Evidence
Considerable research supports the idea that volunteering can help people feel better. For instance, a 2003 study of American churchgoers found, “Helping others is associated with higher levels of mental health, above and beyond the benefits of receiving help and other known psychospiritual, stress, and demographic factors.”
Helping others is associated with higher levels of mental health, above and beyond the benefits of receiving help and other known psychospiritual, stress, and demographic factors.
This study said receiving help was also beneficial. But, “Giving help was a more important predictor of better reported mental health than receiving help…” This suggests that people can best help themselves by volunteering to help others, rather than by requesting help from others.
A more recent study from England asks the question, “Volunteering and Health: What Impact Does It Really Have?” This reviewed 87 papers investigating various aspects of that question and reported, “Volunteering was shown to decrease mortality and to improve self-rated health, mental health, life satisfaction, social interaction, healthy behaviours and coping ability.”
Volunteering was shown to decrease mortality and to improve self-rated health, mental health, life satisfaction, social interaction, healthy behaviours and coping ability.
Volunteering As Grief Coping Strategy
There is not much evidence on the effect of volunteering on grief specifically. However, I have found a couple of relevant studies.
A 2007 study used data collected from a representative sample of thousands of U.S. adults through interviews spanning several years and looked at the effect of volunteering on people who had lost spouses. “Volunteer roles adopted after spousal loss protected against depressive symptoms, and increases in volunteer hours enhanced self-efficacy,” this study found.
Volunteer roles adopted after spousal loss protected against depressive symptoms, and increases in volunteer hours enhanced self-efficacy.
In 2004, researchers published an investigation of whether formal volunteering protects older adults who’ve lost their roles as partners, parents or employees from psychological ailments. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t consider whether partner losses were due to death or, say, divorce. In any event, the researchers concluded, “Results further demonstrate that being a formal volunteer can protect older adults with a greater number of major role-identity absences from decreased levels of purpose in life.”
Anecdotal evidence supports the view that grievous loss can powerfully motivate survivors to help others in highly significant ways. One notable example is Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which was founded by two mothers who’d lost children to drunk drivers. With the possible exception of the National Rifle Association, in my opinion this is the most influential single-issue advocacy organization in recent American history. Countless lives have been saved because of these two bereaved parents’ extraordinary efforts to see that laws against drunk driving are enforced.
Another example is John Walsh, who became an anti-crime activist and later creator and host of the “America’s Most Wanted” television show after his son Adam was abducted and killed. Walsh has raised awareness of missing and exploited children enormously, to the point that “Code Adam” is used in many U.S. retail stores to announce that a child has gone missing or has been found.
Of course, these highly influential bereaved parents are vastly outnumbered by the likes of me, who perform far less remarkable and impactful volunteer work of all sorts. Many bereaved people gravitate toward helping other bereaved people. (I include myself in this group, since a desire to help others as well as myself is the reason I created Grieve Well.)
Some survivors volunteer in hospices counseling the bereaved and about-to-be-bereaved. Others participate in grief support groups, both online and in-person. Some obtain formal training as grief counselors and make helping the bereaved their profession.
I haven’t found evidence that the type of volunteering makes a difference. It seems that by helping others without expectation of a financial or other tangible reward, we help ourselves. How much it helps isn’t clear. I can’t say that driving for Meals on Wheels has freed me of grief symptoms. I can’t even say I’d be worse off if I hadn’t started volunteering.
The Limits of Proof
Like virtually all the research I refer to, these studies show correlation, not causation. They do not definitively prove that volunteering brings about better mental health. It could instead be that mentally healthy people volunteer more. However, in my opinion there is enough evidence to strongly suggest that volunteering can help you feel better after a devastating loss.
I am not trying to tell anyone they should or should not volunteer as a way to cope with bereavement grief. I am only pointing to evidence that suggests it might help. What you do with it is up to you. I’ve got enough problems without trying to control anybody else.
Thanks for reading, commenting, liking, sharing, reposting and following Grieve Well. I am sorry for the losses that brought you here. If you do volunteer, I hope it helps you some. And whether you are interested in volunteering or not, I hope you get some peace today.