Reposted from the KC Spaces March 2013 issue
My father died very unexpectedly when I was a senior in college. He was 54, which seemed old then but now strikes me as shockingly young. On the evening following his death, my six siblings and I were at the dinner table with our newly widowed mother, sundry relatives and friends. The phone rang. The room fell silent as my mom answered: a telephone solicitor, asking for my dad. In her perkiest, most cordial (think Sue Ann Nivens) tone, my mom replied “He’s dead at the moment.”
That rejoinder is now a piece of family lore, and an example of how our clan, like many others, uses humor to manage sadness.
Of course, the joking didn’t mean we weren’t heartbroken. But it made everyone feel better. At such times only the nearest to the departed are allowed any sort of jest. Attempts at humor would have been tasteless coming from any of the sundry relatives and friends.
Here are some ways to be truly helpful when there is a death in the immediate family of a close friend.
Listening is Job One
Never under any circumstances say “he is in a better place” or “at least she didn’t suffer.” You will not provide comfort, only trivialize the loss. In the direct aftermath of a death, your job as a friend is first to utter a heartfelt “I’m so sorry” and then fermez la bouche. Your bereaved friend may want you simply to listen to his or her expressions of shock or grief or memories of the loved one. It’s helpful to come mentally prepared with a few positive memories of your own to share, if it seems appropriate within the conversation. This can be of particular value if your friend is preparing the eulogy.
Step Up to the Plate
The most thoughtful thing you can do, other than listen, is help your friend prepare for the onslaught of condolence visitors and out-of-town family. You will likely hear nothing if you issue an empty “let me know if I can do anything to help.” If you sincerely want to assist, offer something specific. The list of possibilities is endless. Volunteer for airport runs. Make your guest room available for visitors from out of town. Hire the Merry Maids to spiff up your friend’s house. Take her or him shopping for attractive funeral attire. Provide transportation to the service for elderly family members.
Never think that the bereaved are too grief-stricken to notice who attends to such duties. They notice.
“She Would Have Wanted Everybody to Eat”
Post-funeral gatherings can be wonderful, bittersweet affairs, full of tears, laughter, memory-sharing. But the immediate family often is not in an event-planning state of mind. Responsibility rests with friends and family who have a talent for such things to put together a gathering that feels intimate and hospitable, that honors the deceased and will be comforting to the bereaved family in the difficult months ahead. If you are a good planner, this is your time to discreetly step up and help organize the provision of ample food and drink.
Friends and neighbors likely will bring lovingly prepared food, which might be used for a potluck-style funeral repast but may need to be held back for the family, who will need sustenance in the days ahead. (In the sidebar above I have ideas for easy-to-freeze casseroles and meals that will provide solace to grieving families.)
You could consider serving carry-in barbecue, having the meal fully catered, or presenting a buffet featuring the warehouse club’s finest. When my sweet mother-in-law died several years ago, we hosted the post-funeral repast at our house. I called Party Personnel (913-451-0218, partypersonnelkc.com), who supplied an extremely capable bartender and two waiters. We served a HoneyBaked Ham and an assortment of salads, sides and sweets from Costco, presented on my prettiest platters.
Host a Dinner for Out-of-Towners
When my husband’s sister Claudine died last fall, a contingent of my St. Louis family came to Kansas City for the funeral, an enormous comfort to Jim and me. After the service, burial, post-funeral reception at a restaurant on the Plaza, and post-reception reception at our house, some dear friends hosted a casual pizza dinner for my family—the entire rowdy lot of us—at their home, an invitation deeply appreciated by all. This is the sort of gesture one never forgets.
I don’t, by the way, recommend a restaurant for a post-funeral gathering, as it is not an ideal backdrop for the bursts of feeling that such occasions produce. Laughter through tears may be your favorite emotion, but better to display it in a private home than a public establishment.
Thank You, Mark Zuckerberg
Say what you will about Facebook and what a time-waster it is, but FB has helped me learn of several deaths about which I might not otherwise have known. When I lost my precious mom last January, I posted a link to her St. Louis Post Dispatch obituary on my Facebook page; it felt like an okay thing to do. I felt genuinely consoled by the empathetic comments that immediately popped up from people who don’t know me well enough to send me a note through the post. And I was touched when a few friends shared the obit on their Facebook pages. I felt like it honored my mom’s memory.
Always send a handwritten note when a true friend (as distinct from an FB friend) loses a loved one.
Bring it Up
Sometimes people don’t know what to say, so they say nothing. An “I was so sorry to hear of your loss” is always appropriate. My friends who have gone through the agony of losing a child would tell you they love to talk about their child, to hear his or her name spoken, to keep their baby’s memory alive. But people tiptoe around the topic of the child, afraid to be hurtful. Never hesitate to share a positive memory, and let them know you would love to hear theirs.