I am thrilled to have my friend Isa Catto, artist extraordinaire and SuperGrace as a guest blogger for the next few posts on Condolences. Isa was prompted to contribute this insightful and sometimes shocking series as a result of her grisly experiences with her recent and tragic bereavement. As if losing your parents isn't bad enough--she was subjected to some epic examples of sheer Gruntliness. And we both concluded that people aren't inherently mean (well, most people aren't), so we ascribed a majority of these gaffes to cluelessness and discomfort with a difficult and sad situation. We also concluded that a little Grace Primer on Condolence Do's and Don'ts was necessary. So, take it away, Isa.....
Recently I lost both parents, and my mother-in-law, in quick succession. I was very touched by all the love and support, but I also realized that grieving brings out a great deal of social deficits. Many people need a primer about social guidelines around the grieving process.
Do say something. Acknowledge the loss with a swift “I am so sorry “ or “ You have been in our thoughts and prayers and please let me know if I can help you in any way with walking the dog, taking the kids etc.” Do not linger unless the person wants to talk. It is devastating when people avoid you because they are too awkward to offer a condolence. It isn’t hard. I was astonished at how many people say nothing, and we live in a small town. Life and death are constants. Don’t ignore the final transition when it happens to someone. Everyone needs support when they suffer loss. This is an opportunity to exhibit grace and to overcome your own anxiety and to step out of your own life. And if you can't bring yourself to say something, then write to the bereaved. (See the next "do".)
Do write a note. Email is now acceptable, but never post on Facebook unless you have absolutely no other way to get hold of the bereaved. If this is your only means, make it a direct message as opposed as a wall post. I had so many people posting on my wall that I had to post back a thank you. That made me very uncomfortable. I later discovered that I could have turned OFF all FB communication, but I am a FB Luddite so I just didn't know. NEVER send a text condolence; this is simply too casual. NEVER send condolence through a third party; people were always sending condolences through my husband or best friend. This is a cop out. Handwritten notes are best, and the post office needs all the help it can get anyway. Writing a note also honors the deceased by keeping his memory alive that much longer.
Do include in the note a positive story or memory about the deceased if you knew him. Avoid discussing your specific experiences with loss unless you are an agile writer or a famous Irish poet. I loved discovering details of my parents' lives through other people's experiences. These memories were a delight and a gift during a dark time. Notes really do help with the slap of the loss. It is a way to honor the deceased and the family.
Do dress appropriately for the funeral. Choose a modest style in a dark color. This is not complicated, folks--a black/navy/charcoal/brown suit or dress for women, and pretty much the same for men. (Well, not the dress). To dress immodestly, or overly casually is profoundly disrespectful. To dress in attire that suggests that you are fitting the funeral in between clubbing, rock climbing, or skiing, is unspeakable. In San Antonio, where my father was buried everyone was appropriately dressed. Here in Colorado, at my mother’s memorial, the attire ranged from appropriate to athletic gear, jeans, fishnets and a tank top.
Do bring food. It is overwhelming when you lose someone in the family. Good food is always welcome.
Always bring it in a casserole dish that you can part with for a few weeks, or better yet a recyclable/disposable container. I had one woman who was desperate for her dish after a few days and although I really didn’t have the time to deal with her pantry crisis, I of course did. That said, we also received several mystery casseroles, which were not exactly consumed with relish in our household. They were pretty awful. It is wise to find out in advance what the family likes – comfort food never fails.
Do honor the specific directions of the bereaved. If the family asks for a donation to a particular charity or memorial fund in lieu of flowers, do it. It is not dissimilar to giving gifts from a registry – you are paying attention to what the family actually wants. This is no time to be creative and to freestyle. IF you do not know what to do, ask a close family friend. Fussing with flowers and plants when you don’t want them is one more thing that the bereaved doesn’t need.
Do give the bereaved and the family room. Things fall through the cracks. Calls don’t get returned, appointments get forgotten and details get overlooked. This is normal, so be forgiving. When my father died over the Christmas holidays, I was especially forgetful and I just didn’t have the energy to oversee all the kids’ thank you notes and I forgot the neighbor’s Xmas presents, and mislaid two teacher presents. Six weeks after my Dad died I received an email from an acquaintance asking after my mental health. She followed it with a request for a donation to a non-profit. That is really bad form. I would give people at least a grace period of three months. Also, unless you go through this process, you really don’t realize how much time the administration of death takes – it is a full time job for everyone to handle an estate, regardless of size. So accept that the bereaved may not have much time for lunch, book group, or salsa class for quite some time.
Next post: Condolence Don'ts. Have you seen any whoppers?