I wrote this several years ago (although have little memory of doing so) but because the subject is too often part of our lives, and advice about it is often wanted but not sought out, I thought it was worth re-posting here:
I’ve recently been on the receiving end of condolences and it has caused me to give some thought to the way in which we deal with having friends who are in mourning.
The conclusion of a life is a strange time for all those involved, not just immediate family but friends, acquaintances, work colleagues and even people we see casually or sparingly throughout life – the friendly dry-cleaner, the nice woman at the deli. No one really knows what to say, what to do or how to act, including the person doing the grieving.
I had this pointed out to me afresh the other day. Someone I haven’t seen or spoken to since all this happened sent me an instant message saying “how are you? how’s the family?”.
I, in my still slightly foggy state, couldn’t remember when we’d last spoken and couldn’t actually remember if he knew my news. What to do? It seemed blunt to just come out with it and stupid to beat around the bush so I took a half-way approach and said that I was fine but mourning was a tiring business. He, because he knew of the underlying situation, understood immediately and sent his condolences but, poor thing, was then completely stymied about what to say next. He felt badly because to his mind he didn’t have the ‘right’ words. He felt like he should say something profound.
Should I call?
Telephone calls can be difficult so unless you are very close to the person grieving stick to writing a note. Aside from the fact that there are many arrangements that need to be made in the first few weeks (all by telephone) it is also a much more wearisome thing for the person having to say “I’m fine thank you” or “We’re about as you’d expect” and so on.
When they are ready for calls, they will let you know.
Should I write?
I think many people are put off writing letters of condolence because they don’t know what to say. Somehow they think they need to be profound and have the ‘right’ words, or they think they’ll sound stupid, overly-sentimental or that the person they are writing to won’t want to be reminded of the situation.
I can only speak to my own experience, but I feel sure it’s not unique: it was lovely to get notes, letters and emails; it was lovely to know that the person I loved, respected, admired and missed so much, was loved and missed by others and that friends had me in their thoughts.
If you find yourself in a situation where someone you care about has lost someone they care about, write to them. They will, eventually, be glad to have it; it may even be passed to other generations – we still have all the letters written to my grandmother after my grandfather died and they give me an insight into someone who exists only on the edges of my memory.
If you think you would struggle with what to say in your letter, card or email (in these cases hand-written is so much nicer, but email works too), here are some places to start – it’s not necessarily easy, but it’s not necessarily meant to be:
If you were well acquainted with the person who died and spent time with them:
- Include a few of your memories of them, such as: “I remember when we…” or “I still laugh when I think of…”
- Talk about their character or personality “I always admired the way he…”
- Don’t be afraid to say that you too will miss them: “I’ll miss the way she brightened up a room”.
If you really only know the person or people left behind simply speak to their sense of loss and/or use things that you know about the person who has died:
- You can use phrases such as, “I know you will miss his tenacity and strength of character” or simply, “I know how much you will miss her.”
There are a few things that it’s best to steer clear of, at least for the first while:
- Talking about it being a release; best for the person who has gone; that they have been relieved of their suffering. All this may be true but it doesn’t take away from the reality that a much loved person was taken “too soon”, for whatever reason – keeping in mind that too soon can be from 0 to 102 – and that this pill is a bitter one to swallow.
- Be careful about religious references unless you know the strength and depth of the person’s faith; grieving can test these things, so tread lightly.
What do I say?
Often times running into someone in mourning is the most difficult thing of all. Grief is the elephant in the room. Should you ask them how they are? Give them your condolences? Give them a hug? Tell them it will be get better with time?
The best thing to do is judge the situation carefully – the better you know someone the easier that is. These few tips might help no matter how well you know the person:
- By all means, give your condolences but keep the encounter short, not ‘rude short’ just not prolonged. There are only so many ways for someone to say they are fine when they don’t mean it.
- Be careful about asking how they are, sometimes the mere question is enough to provoke upset (usually unexpectedly for all concerned). You can get around this (if you feel you need to ask the question) by asking about other family members and working your way back to the person in front of you.
- Hugs are great if you are somewhere out of the way and if you know the person well, otherwise, steer clear. Someone gave me a hug at the office – quite unexpectedly – and it really threw me.
- The thing that should be avoided is telling someone things will get better with time. Things will, but no one in that situation believes it and all it means is that they have to summon up the strength to agree with you.
Should I bake a pie, make a casserole, send food?
One of the loveliest things that someone did for us was send a grocery order. An old and cherished friend went online and ordered all the things we had loved and shared in my parents’ kitchen over the years. It made us all cry but it also made us laugh as we unpacked and commented on her choices.
Others made food or brought over good coffee or dropped things off on the front porch. It was all welcome – we certainly weren’t going to be cooking, even eating was touch-and-go; having the food in the fridge ensured that if we were hungry we could eat.
Kindness is the key
As I said at the beginning, the conclusion of a life is a strange time for all those involved. The key thing to remember is to be kind.
To the person in mourning: Be kind to yourself. Don’t put pressure on yourself to be happy (or sad), to go out or stay home – you get a pass, pretty much, to do what you need to do for yourself.
To the friends, family and others who surround the person grieving: Be kind. Mourning doesn’t finish at a funeral, it merely begins. It is a very strange time and no one ever knows how it will affect them; some days are good, some are less so. Give the person the space they need, or the company they crave but feel they can’t ask for. Keep in touch but don’t force; call but don’t bombard.
Make sure they know they are loved and supported and you will be doing your job as a friend.