Friday, January 28, 2011

What to do (and not do) when someone dies

(I started writing this when Mom died.  During Lily's memorial, I wished some folks had read it.  I do not consider this list the be-all, end-all... so, if you have additional suggestions, feel free to mention them in the comments.)

It's okay if you don't know what to say when someone close to you loses someone close to them.
DO say something.
You can e-mail, snail mail, or just say in person, "I don't know what to say.  I'm so sorry."

It's that simple.
Please do that.
It truly is enough.


DO share memories.

If you have a story about something the deceased said or did that means something special to you, please tell it.  You can share this at the funeral, in a card, or in passing several days/weeks/years later.  Some members of the family may have never known about that side of their loved one.  They will certainly appreciate that their loved one touched your life.

If you have photos, give them.  A photocopy on a piece of plain paper is fine.


DO NOT post anything on Facebook unless it is in response to something immediate family has posted.
DO NOT initiate any post on your own.
It is not your place to spread that kind of news on that venue.  Ever.


DO NOT try to make the bereaved feel better.
DO NOT say, "S/He isn't suffering anymore," or "S/He is in heaven."
These things are okay for the bereaved to say.  They are not okay for you to say them.

Say you are sorry.  Then shut up.
If you get halfway through saying the wrong thing, just stop.  No one will ask you to finish.


DO NOT compare your pain.

Imagine you and I are downhill skiing.  We both crash.  You have broken a leg.
As we lie in pain on the snowy hillside waiting for rescue, I say to you, "Quit crying.  I have two broken legs."
Does it make the pain in your one leg go away?  Can you now carry us both down the hill because your pain is less than mine?

Pain is pain.
Even if yours is worse than mine, I still hurt.

DO NOT share what awful tragedy someone else is experiencing.  It will not help.
This is neither the time nor place.  Suck it up, and keep it to yourself.


DO bring food.  Bring whatever you are really good at making.
Bring a reasonable amount. 

In the case of an elderly widow/er, DO NOT bring a giant casserole that can be eaten over several days.  Instead, bring individual servings in reheatable containers that can be frozen and chosen one meal at a time.
Even better, package it in disposable containers that do not need to be washed and returned to you.

People brought Dad food, and he ended up giving it away.  It felt like too much.
So, when I made my dad two loaves of banana bread, my sister suggested I slice it all up right away and put pairs of slices in the freezer.  A much more managable serving size, you see.  He won't look at a whole loaf and think how he'll never be able to eat "all that" by himself.

DO NOT bring a dish because it was the deceased person's "favorite". 
We'll sit there thinking how that person won't get to eat any of it.


DO NOT buy or make a special token to commemorate the lost loved one.

Dear sweet lord, people.  Do you have any idea how many possessions dead people leave behind?  Everything is a souvenir.  Please don't make me a butterfly, or an angel, or a paper flower...
It's a lovely gesture, yes, but it's just one more thing we have to deal with, and one more thing we'll hate to throw out..
If it makes you feel better, you keep it.  With our love.


DO offer to help in anyway, if you can.

DO NOT expect the family to call you and tell you what they need.
Instead, think of a few things you could do.
Drive the kids to events, to school.  Cook a meal.  Wash windows.  Shovel snow.  Organize a photo album or a closet.  Make a run to the store or pharmacy.
Then, call in a day or two and offer to do that thing.


My jury is out on the issue of taking photos at a funeral.
For now, I'm gonna say this is something the immediate family can do but you DO NOT.

Someone lined up my family at Mom's funeral to get a picture.
Know what *I* see in that picture?
Mom is missing, that's what.
"Here.  Enjoy this picture reminding you that your mother will never, ever be in another family photo."

No, my jury is back.
They definitely say DO NOT take photos at a funeral, or a visitation, or the dinner afterwards, or while the family is writing out thank you notes.


DO NOT expect someone to "snap out of it" after the funeral is over.  Just because the body is layed to rest does not mean a broken heart and soul is layed to rest as well.  Someone mourning the loss of a loved one has an entire year ahead where he/she will be reminded of the empty place at the table with every holiday and birthday and anniversary.

The first year... is the worst year.

And even after that, it doesn't get easier; it only gets more familiar.

Thank you for reading.
It shows you care about people.


Andy said...

Darn good advice, and a great piece, Roses. Seriously.

This one: DO NOT try to make the bereaved feel better. No better advice can be given than that.

I learned MANY years ago that it ain't gonna happen by anything one says, no matter how sincere the effort. In my personal life, and in my job I run across people almost daily that have recently lost a loved one. I have a stock line that I use. It is simple, and heartfelt. I always say, "I am so sorry. I know that you will miss them very much."

Brilliant, huh? Of course not. But, I mean it, and it is true. People already know "well now, the pain is over," and "well, now he's with Jesus," and all that. They don't want to hear it a hundred times.

Good stuff.

Dani said...

I agree 100%

It's a process and the person has to go through it. You can't make it better.

Even if you've been through something similar you don't really know how they feel.

The phrase I hate is "These things happen for a reason." I never have but I always want to respond whith, "Okay Einstein tell me one good reason my loved one is gone."
But I know people mean well even if they are accidentaly insensetive.

I am sorry (again)you and your family have had such a hard time the last few months.

Thumper said...

Most excellent. And may I add to it? Lesson learned when my FIL died?

Don't hover over the surviving spouse (or brother or sister...whomever) and don't feel like they can't be left alone. we hovered, and eventually my MIL came straight out and pointed out after a couple of days she hadn't been alone AT ALL, and she needed to be.

Sometimes, people need to just be alone so that can do the whole ugly cry thing without feeling bad about it. Or maybe kick and scream and say awful things.

Sometimes time alone is the best thing you can do...

It sucks that we all have to learn this crap sooner or later...

The Gray Monk said...

Really very sensible and pragmatic advice. Well done Roses.

Cellar Door said...

Thanks for the advice. A friend of mine just had her mother die. I'm relieved to report I didn't do any of your faux pas. She asked me if I'd ever had anyone die on me, and I told her about that, but only after she asked.

So, I'm sorry, Roses. But I'm glad you share so much with us here. You help a lot of people, myself included!

Moogie P said...

All very good, thoughtful recommendations. In addition to food, I also usually take extra paper products -- toilet paper, paper towels, dinner napkins. That way, no one needs to run out to the store to re-stock to accommodate visitors.

And I, too, am very sorry your family has had to endure so much pain.

Lemon Stand said...

Thank you for posting this, Roses.

Bou said...

This is an excellent post. The other thing I tell people is... call or make food in 30 days. Or do both. In 30 days, that house is quiet, people are no longer visiting, and for some reason, it just feels like you're forgotten. I think it kind of stands out EVEN MORE when you throw a card in the mail a month or two later and say something like, 'I just wanted to let you know you're still on my mind...'

Last month, my husband was at church and the Bishop came up to him after and said, "I just wanted you to know... I know this was the first Christmas without your Dad. I said an extra prayer for your family as I know you had to be hurting."

1) The Bishop? Really? We didn't even realize he truly knew us.

2) The Bishop? Really? He has a flock of THOUSANDS and he made sure he sought my husband out to tell him.

It wouldn't have mattered, however, if it was The Bish or a friend who had said that to us, we're so touched someone would remember, that this Christmas did sorta kinda suck. Pop died in August. Someone remembered in December. Very cool...

Roses said...

I should also add that it's never too late to say something kind.