This is actually a revision and expansion of a blog post I published over on LiveJournal back when my father passed; but a dear friend is currently watching his mother as she prepares to transition to the leg of the journey she must make alone, and our own beloved Grandpa is also starting to show signs that he’s thinking of going to join his beautiful wife. So I thought now might be a good time to talk a little bit about these Helpful Hints, which I jotted down while we were neck-deep in preparing Dad’s funeral and surrounded by well-meaning folks, floral displays the size of furniture, and a steady stream of phone calls, emails, and (god forgive them) text messages. Sorry to get morbid here, guys, but some things are best discussed in advance.
Caring for the Bereaved, by the Bereaved
- “Let me know if I can do anything to help” is a lovely and kind phrase, but is itself not terribly helpful. The person on the receiving end of the statement is probably up to the neck in miscellaneous tasks, feels like they must personally handle every one of them, and is not likely to be able to think of anything right off the bat. While they may file your name away under “Potentially Useful People”, odds are good that they will not call you, because they will be mired in the run-go-do mentality–or, depending on how much sleep they have(n’t) had recently, they’ll forget you were ever there in the first place. (It’s not personal.) A more useful phrase would be something like “Is someone arranging a dinner after the funeral? I would be glad to help make the food for that”, or “Did all your bills make it into the mail this month? I’m going to the post office, so if you have something to send, I’ll be glad to take it with me”, or “I know you’ll have a lot of running around to do. Would it be helpful if I sat here at the house for an afternoon so that when people send flowers, there’s someone to sign for them?”.
- Casseroles, pots of soup, etc are wonderfully helpful–they’re heat-and-serve meals–but the person will need to continue to eat after the Week From Hell has ended. Consider bringing nutritional shakes, frozen waffles, cans of soup, etc–anything that will keep for a while, and which the person can just put in their body without having to do any real thinking, or consider bringing your pre-cooked “real food” meal preportioned in small, freezeable containers. This is especially true if you’re visiting a person who, having lost their spouse/loved one, will now be living alone–it will take a while before they learn how to cook for one, even after the long while during which all food tastes like cardboard so they are not at all interested in anything complicated.
- “I’m sorry for your loss” is an appropriate thing to say, and it is ok to add something like “I was shocked and saddened when I heard the news. My heart is breaking for you”. A ten-minute speech about how you’re feeling is probably best saved for sharing with another friend or family member–not the grieving person, unless they specifically ask. And it is never, ever, ever going to be ok to take this opportunity to lay a guilt trip–“You never even told me he was sick!” is just mean, and “You know, when I had my heart attack…” is rude.
- While it is absolutely fair to use comfort phrases from your faith–things like “I will pray for you”, or “Your husband has gone home to Heaven”–taking this opportunity to attempt to convert someone to your faith makes you a predator at best. Yes, you may leave a Bible “for comfort”; no, you may not hit them with the “let’s pray for your forgiveness now so when you die you can be with him again” hard-sell approach. Yes, you may tell them you will light candles at Church for them; no, you may not explain that you’ll be praying that their loved one repented in time to avoid Hell. You see how this works. If I could go back in time, I actually think I would punch the person who was guilty of these crimes during our grieving period. I don’t care what it would do to interpersonal relationships; three years after losing Dad, I am frankly more furious about this now than I had the strength to be then.
- “Don’t forget to call [name] and tell them–they’d want to hear it from you” is just hateful. By the time you arrive, the grieving person is tired of calling people, saying hello, exchanging brief pleasantries, and then saying “Well, I just wanted to let you know that [loved one] is dead”, and then sitting through all the sympathetic expressions. The grieving person is probably considering playing Will It Blend with their phone. They do not want to add to their to-do list.
- The Horrible Day When It Happens is not really an appropriate day to go rushing over to visit the grieving person, unless you are close family or a long-time friend. Rule of thumb: if you have a key to the house, you are welcome; if the grieving person called you within the first hour or two of It Happening, you are welcome; if you were at the hospital when It Happened, you are welcome. Third cousins twice removed appearing on the doorstep at 9:00 p.m., however, bring less comfort and more of a sense of obligation. The deceased will still be dead tomorrow; you can wait a day or two.
- “I’ve been trying to get ahold of you all day, but your cell phone was off” is not a good way to start a conversation at any point before the funeral. The phone was probably off because the grieving person was making funeral arrangements, doing post-death business errands, or just crying their eyes out in their armchair. It’s hateful to imply that they should apologize for inconveniencing you. Voice mail exists; if what you are calling about is actually important, leave a message. If you are just calling to express your sympathy, send a card. It is ok to write “I tried calling, but I know this is a terribly busy time. If you’d like to call once things have settled down, here is my phone number; otherwise, just know that you’re in my prayers”, and then be prepared to not take it personally if you don’t get a call back.
- Whether you noticed it or not, “you’re a strong person” actually puts a little pressure on the grieving person, because it sends the message that people expect them to grin and bear it. Something like “you are strong enough to survive this, even if you do so with eyes full of tears” is perhaps a little better.
- They actually *can* feel it when you pray, send mojo, etc. Go ahead and do it–often.
- The person who calls two weeks after the loved one’s death will be remembered far more than the person who called in the first 3 hours. It’s ok to be both; but if you can only be one, be the one who remembers that the family still exists when all the chaos dies down. And if you’re someone who was there from the very beginning–someone who was eligible to come visit on The Horrible Day When It Happens (see #6)–consider bringing a notebook that the family can keep someplace centrally located. Go ahead and label a few pages: “People Who Called”, “People Who Sent Cards”, “People Who Sent Flowers”, “People Who Helped With Arrangements”. The family will be supremely grateful later for those lists, because they will absolutely have forgotten a good 80% of the interactions they had.
And then I’ll end with the most important thing I learned during my time as The Bereaved: once you’ve expressed your sympathy, left your card or phone number or flowers or casserole, and hugged all the crying people, go home and hug everyone there. Hug your kids. Hug your spouse. Hug your dog. Hug the people you love, and tell them that you love them, because the worst day in the world is the one when you can’t say it to their faces anymore. Do it now. You can make the time.