Monday, July 16, 2012

After A Death Etiquette: Please Read If Someone You Know Has Buried A Close Loved One

I've written on how to behave around those of us with cancer. Now it's time to address how to behave around people who have suffered a devastating loss. Truth be told, they still suffer and that suffering isn't going to go away. People who are, otherwise, well-meaning often don't know how to behave around them though. So, if you have a friend or family member who has buried a child, a spouse, a parent, or a sibling...especially if the person who died was young, and you don't know what to do or say, I want to help everyone out. Keep reading.

First, a caveat. I've never buried a child, spouse or sibling, and both my parents are still alive. College Kid should have been a twin but his twin never developed. I look forward to meeting Benjamin Daniel Taylor one day and I still think about the child who might have been twenty-two years later, but this is the closest to that kind of loss I've ever come. And that is as close as I want to get. (FYI: Benjamin Daniel never developed beyond an egg sac and that type of miscarriage often goes unnoticed when there's another baby developing fraternally).

I belong to several support groups on Facebook that revolve around melanoma and I "hang out" with several moms whose sons and daughters have died from melanoma. I base what follows on things they have written, their shared feelings.

Just like we can boil down to three words on how to behave around a person with cancer: talk to us, there are also three words to remember here:

Talk about them.

That's right. Let's flesh this out shall we?

Talk. About them. That's right. Talk! They lived and loved! They were loved and still are! Don't act as though they never existed! And don't treat their immediate family, particularly, as though they forgot about them the minute they were buried. The truth is, they will never forget them. This is especially true of parents who have buried a child. That's not to minimize other losses at all, but the loss of a child, of any age, carries with it a special devastation. Parents aren't supposed to bring a child into this world and see a child out of this world. But it happens.

What doesn't happen, though, is that they forget their child. THAT NEVER HAPPENS. Ever. Not a day goes by that they don't think about their son or daughter. Years later there will still be tears. They will learn to live with the pain. They will learn to carry on because that's the way life is. They will learn to survive and keep pushing on. There's a lot of pain you'll never see or hear about. Night panics. The dreams.

When you have a friend who has suffered a devastating loss of any kind, please don't keep that person "buried." Bring them out into the open. Talk about the person. Share stories and memories. Bring out the pictures and movies. Let the family know their loved one may be gone but he or she is not forgotten. They need that! People often feel like it will open wounds to talk about the person who died, or it will bring on tears so they stay quiet thinking they are doing the right thing.

Talking will bring tears possibly, it may also bring a needed smile or chuckle. It won't "open the wound" because the wound will always be open. Talking and remembering are necessary parts of whatever healing that will come. It is not talking and not remembering that is excruciating.

They know their loved one died. Every minute of every day reminds them of that painful fact. They know. Talking and sharing keeps them "alive" in a sense and says they mattered and they still matter. If, by chance, your friend is having a moment where they do not want to talk about their loved one right then, they'll tell you. People can have those times. But those times will pass usually. Let them know you'll be glad to talk and share when they are ready. And then do it.

NOTE: a few things not to say, at any time, particularly immediately after the death...
1. "He or she is in a better place." As a rule, people really often do not want to hear that. They want their loved one there with them, not somewhere else, even if you mean "Heaven." That may come in time. It may not. If your friend talks in terms of their loved one being in a better place, that's fine. Follow their lead and agree. But don't be the first to make that statement. It can cause more pain than help.
2. "Did he or she know the Lord?" Now is simply not the time for that question. God alone knows our hearts and God alone knows the work He is doing as people die. Likewise, don't make any vocal judgements of a person's eternal resting place. None of us have any power or right to decide where any soul goes.
3. "Do you know the Lord so you can be with him or her when you die?"  Again, uh-uh. Don't go there. Your friend may make their own statement about this or about the one immediately above this, but don't you.
4. "It was his or her time." I know there are theologies that have God watching His calendar. And I know where in Psalms that idea comes from. Whether or not God is watching a longevity calendar, down to the exact second, with each of our names in red on a particular day, or not, there are people, even people of faith, who do not find comfort in this. Even people who agree with this belief don't often find comfort in it when it is applied to their loved one. Again, follow your friend's lead here. If they state it, then feel free to agree if you wish. If they don't go there, then please refrain from it yourself. Be comforting.
5. Some sentiments, no matter how heartfelt, are best left unsaid. We live in a world where people think they should go around sharing everything they feel. Well, no. There are feelings that are best left unshared. This time isn't about your feelings.

Talk about them. That's right. Don't show up at your friend's door, visit, and talk about everything under the sun except their loved one who has died. Even if it's a simple "I was thinking about ___  just this morning when ___."

They don't have to be, nor should they be, the only topic of conversation, but by all means mention his or her name. If a birthday or anniversary is near, let your friend know you've remembered. That will be appreciated. Really. Send a card, make a phone call, "I'm thinking about you today. I know today is your anniversary." "Today would have been her or his birthday." If she or he died today a week ago, a month ago, ten years ago, remember. Your friend is. It will mean the world for you to acknowledge this and remember their loved one.

People often say, "I don't want to remind them...." Trust me here. You won't be reminding them of anything. They already know. This day has never left their hearts and minds. You'll be helping them remember! Big difference!

Talk about them. That's right. If you're read this far then there's no need for me to be redundant. Talk about the person your dear friend misses. Sure it may bring a tear. For both of you. That's OK.

The long and short of it is talk about the person your friend or family member misses. If you truly do not know what to say or are scared of saying the wrong thing say:

"I've been thinking about you."
"How are you doing?"
"I've been praying for you."

You can't go wrong with those.

If you're still not sure, just show up. Be there for and with your friend. Pitch in, bring some food. BE a shoulder to cry on or lean on.

In the Biblical Book Job, Job loses his wealth and then all ten of his children are killed. Job's own health is in jeopardy and it's just him and his wife. Friends of Job come to visit. They sit with him for seven days before speaking. They sit silently with their friend in his pain and grief. For seven days. They watch him. They listen to him. They are there. Often they are remembered for all the wrong things they finally utter as they try to be helpful. And they really were trying to be helpful and console Job. They were trying to say the right things and help him "snap out of it" as if that were possible. The thing that often goes overlooked is they were there. Quietly. For seven day sitting with their grieving, aching friend. I've never gone and sat with anyone for seven days and just sat quietly for and with them. They may not have always said the right thing, but they sure did the best thing.

When someone suffers a devastating loss their life changes. More than likely, we will all, at some point, suffer a loss that leaves us beyond anything that can be adequately put into words. We will all walk with friends and loved ones as they face these times. This is, sadly, part of life.

While there are parts of life and things we endure that we certainly are not grateful for, we can be people that others are grateful to have in their lives.

Be that person for someone you care about.


  1. I spoke with my husband's best friend from college on the phone the other day - our 25th wedding anniversary. The first words out of his mouth were "Happy anniversary." It actually put a smile on my face and I replied "thank you." I was even surprised by my feeling and response but it made me feel good (and a little bit better) during that very sad day. He was the only person who said this to me that day. Now I know why he was my husband's best friend.

    Missing WJH

  2. Happy belated 25th Anniversary Maureen! That's a sweet friend!

  3. Carol, thank you. Your words are priceless (again) :). I don't know if you will physically be in Grand Rapids today/tomorrow- but that is where I live and I will give Sue a hug this afternoon from both of us.

    1. Please do give Susan a great big ol' bear hug for me, Pam! I won't be there and she knows. Thanks!

  4. A wonderful,educational,and timely post..Thank you so much for your compassion and insight. Talking about death is one of the most difficult things we are called upon to do.
    I am wondering if you have read "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" by Rabbi Kushner.I read it years ago while working as an obstetrics nurse. With so much pain and suffering swirling around, I bought and updated version and am rereading it.
    Love to you and Sue, and all those enduring the loss of a loved one. I must admit at times like this, I am thankful for a strong Faith in God.

  5. A wonderful,educational,and timely post..Thank you so much for your compassion and insight. Talking about death is one of the most difficult things we are called upon to do.
    I am wondering if you have read "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" by Rabbi Kushner.I read it years ago while working as an obstetrics nurse. With so much pain and suffering swirling around, I bought and updated version and am rereading it.
    Love to you and Sue, and all those enduring the loss of a loved one. I must admit at times like this, I am thankful for a strong Faith in God.

  6. I was sent here via a friend's Facebook post. My brother died in 1994 at the age of 20. It was a tremendous and sudden loss for so many of us. I'm staggered when I meet people who ask about my childhood/family and I mention that my brother passed away, and I'm asked, "How did he die?" I don't think it's OK to ask that about somebody you never met of a person who you don't know very well. (I'm just amazed at how often I'm asked that. I creatively avoid answering it... It was a painful time, and I'd rather talk about our fond memories of him.)

    Great words of wisdom, thank you for sharing this. I'm passing it along.


    1. I'm sorry about your brother, Michael. You're a great example of time not lessening pain. I can feel your pain in what you write. Blessings on you, friend.

  7. When remembering those who have passed, please do not do what my sister did. My ex was killed a yr ago and the day is coming up. We have a 22 yr old daughter and we were both devastated, and are still having a terrible time dealing with our grief. When I looked at my email this morning, I was quite shocked to see a note from my sister with the subject "Auntie bday 9-3; Ralph Death day 9-6". I was even more shocked to see that she had sent the same to my daughter. I could not imagine anything worse for her to look through her emails and see that in the subject line. A simple "Thinking of you" would have been much more appropriate and appreciated. We certainly do not need to know that the date is coming up, we have been living every day knowing he's gone. Yes, its wonderful to have support from those who care, but please use common sense when addressing such sensitive issues.

    1. I am so sorry! That is most definitely insensitive, and that's putting it nicely. Common sense is needed, you're so right. Prayers for you and your daughter, friend. And thank you for sharing your pain.


Thank you.