This is a touchy subject, but then I’m no stranger to touchy subjects. People die. Big news, huh? Ignoring it won’t make it go away. And just because you don’t know what to say or how to comfort someone who has lost a family member, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. It’s much more hurtful to act as if nothing has happened. My mom died a year ago tomorrow, and I was honestly shocked by the people who did and didn’t offer their condolences. Friends from high school and college who had not seen me or my parents in 25 years sent me very sweet notes. Family members didn’t give me the time of day. Beyond hurtful.
So, here is my list of suggestions for at least making an attempt to tell someone you care.
- Send a note or card. This acknowledges a loss and your sympathy. I try to do this, though I’ll admit it takes me several weeks to buy the card, sign it, and mail it. Sounds simple enough, but somehow I can’t seem to get all three done in a timely fashion. Flowers and donations to charities are another kind remembrance.
- Call. Unless I know someone fairly well, I have not done this because I feel like they might be getting lots of calls and don’t need another one. In my experience, this was not the case. I only got a few calls. Keep it short, “I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do to help?”
- Take food to the house of a close family member. This is probably a very Southern tradition, but I cannot tell you how much it helps. Since we were taking my mom back to Mississippi where the rest of the family lives, I guess people assumed I wouldn’t need food here. I had eight people (us and my dad) to pack and get ready to drive twelve hours away (well, fourteen hours because we had a flat along the way), plus planning the funeral long distance and a local visitation. I was brain dead. We lived on takeout for three days. When we got to my parents’ house, a few cousins had put together snacks and a cooler of ice. My sister-in-law fixed dinner for the night we arrived. No one else brought anything until I begged my dad’s cousin to help. She couldn’t believe no one had brought us food, knowing we were from out of town, and quickly organized church friends to bring us sandwich fixings and breakfast for the day of the funeral. I think she’s a saint. My parents’ church fixed a meal after the funeral, and another cousin brought us a meal. Otherwise, we mostly fended for ourselves.
- Offer to do dishes or serve or something. If you are a close friend or extended family, this is a very practical and appropriate way to help. The immediate family often has people coming and going and a whirlwind of details to attend to. Something as simple as doing the dishes can be very overwhelming. Just pitch in for 30 minutes. A spirit of helpfulness will earn you the undying gratitude of the family.
- Attend the visitation and/or funeral. The family might not know if you came because they will likely be in a fog from all that has happened in a short period of time, but your attendance is a sign of respect for them and their deceased family member. One of my cousin’s (who is on a heart pump) traveled six hours to attend the funeral, and my parents had friends that traveled ten hours. One of my mother’s nurses took off work to come to the local visitation. These people went out of their way to comfort us, and we were so blessed.
I also have a list of what not to do. These should be obvious, but our society has lost a sense of propriety and many people need a primer in good manners.
- Don’t nurse a grudge. This is not the time to be right or to put someone else in their place. I can’t count the number of funerals and visitations where a group of family members used it as their forum to belittle another person or group. Seriously, get over yourself.
- Don’t falsely assume the lead role in grieving. While the whole family has experienced a loss, the definition of immediate family is parents, spouse, children, grandchildren, siblings (if the deceased is a child). Extended is everyone else. I don’t intend to minimize special relationships that someone might have with an aunt or uncle or cousin, etc., but the immediate family should still come first.
- The funeral procession from the service to the cemetery is not a race. The herse with the deceased is first. The immediate family, often in a limo or other chauffered vehicle, is next. Pall bearers should follow the family vehicles. Do not jockey for position like a horse race. Do not cut into a funeral procession that you are not a member of in order to bypass traffic and run red lights. This really happened at my husband’s grandfather’s funeral. Unbelievable.
I’m sure I’m not covering it all. These are only taken from my personal experiences. Losing a family member and the resulting grief is a messy, long-term process. Overall, I think it’s best to ask yourself how you can be a blessing in even a small way, and then doing it…even if it feels uncomfortable. The favor will likely be returned to you one day.