Looking ahead:More on Issues of Life and death-Part II
There’s a strong possibility that someone you know will experience a death in their family in the coming year. Knowing beforehand what we can do as friends is essential. We must practice, and teach our children to practice, good protocol during such times.
Our active response and role as friends (and acquaintances) should reflect our sympathetic care and concern for those who suffer such a loss. This caring concern must be expressed without being presumptuous, overbearing, or troublesome. Grief’s fragile emotions represent times to walk softly with comforting solemnity. Long standing etiquette points the way with some basic helpful guidelines. Our children also need to learn and understand this duty, especially if they are to attend a funeral. Many parents wisely leave small children and infants at home when the funeral is not for a close relative.
First, practice dignity. During funerals and times of mourning we, as friends and acquaintances, out of respect, should demonstrate a reserved demeanor. This behavior acknowledges the death of a friend’s loved one as a serious matter. A dignified countenance reflects sincere sympathy. It also provides a sense of stability. Quiet, rather than loud or boisterous, provides genuine comfort to a bereaved family. Friends do not silently avoid the subject nor ignore the fact of death, but they do walk softly, with sensitivity and carefully chosen words, which provides reassuring comfort. A calm gentle manner always accompanies dignity. Respect your level of friendship-if you are simply an acquaintance, a sympathy card is appropriate. This isn’t the time to try to become someone’s best friend. If, however, you are best friends, be there with quiet strength, dignity, and support. Children are capable of demonstrating dignity when they are have been instructed ahead of time.
When in the presence of a grieving person “read” their face and body language” as you speak to them. Be sincere, brief and non-intrusive. Take your cue from their behavior. Every person reacts differently, but usually long conversations and detailed conversation are quite difficult for mourners. When friends suffer a hard loss and tears are heavy, a silent hug or held hand often provides the best temporary level of comfort and support. “Weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice “is reliable advice. This happened with a very close friend, who tears flowed with deep grief as we arrived to “pay our respects” during the viewing of her husband’s body at the funeral home the day before his memorial service. She trusted us with her tears. Simply holding her tight, we felt her pain and cried together. Words beyond “we’re so sorry” were unnecessary. Our presence alone meant much to her as she expressed her grief.
Words and gestures of condolence: When you learn about the death of acquaintance, friend or a friend’s loved one, a brief note of sympathy to the surviving family is always appreciated. Unless you know the family extremely well, don’t call. The family will be busy with arrangements. Unsolicited interruptions add to their burden. Instead send a note. Handwritten messages on a card or stationary need not be lengthy. The purpose of the note is to give comfort. A short personal memory, never derogatory, may be included and will be appreciated. When you see a family member later, days after the funeral, and you were unable to attend, if you haven’t previously expressed your sympathy, do so without elaboration over their loss. Just let them know you care and hope they are doing well.
Your discretion about whether or not to contact family involves the level of closeness with them. Unless you know the family intimately, do not presume to intrude or make a social call to their home during the immediate days following a death. Depending on the people involved even a short phone call can put those mourning in a difficult position. On the other hand, when yours is a very close friendship, your call with a specific offer of help, such as a provided meal, to babysit, or provide transportation for out of town relatives, lends meaningful support. An offer to house sit during the funeral can be welcomed assistance. When my wonderful mother-in-law died, several friends provided this help to our family because they cared for us and wanted to lighten the load. They organized meals from among many friends for our family’s post- funeral gathering. These dear ones manned my kitchen in the most in the helpful and comforting way. Their help was true relief.
Many groups and churches provide this type of organizational help through a person who takes charge of meals in these instances. That is who you should contact if you are not a close friend but want to help. Your gesture will be appreciated and speak volumes.
Appropriate words of condolence include expressions of your sadness, how special or accomplished this person was, how much you and others will miss this person, your sorrow for the family’s loss, and “our prayers are with you”. It’s alright to simply say something to the effect of “I’m so sorry for your family. You will be in our thoughts during this time.” Just remember to watch for any sign of distress or discomfort your words may cause and don’t over-talk the issue. Most mourners are comforted with sincere and brief condolences. Sincere and short on your part is always better.
Sending flowers to the funeral or making contributions to a memorial fund are other appropriate American gestures, unless the death notice indicates otherwise. If uncertain of a family’s preference, inquire with a call to the funeral home. Depending on your relationship you may do both, but usually one or the other gesture is quite sufficient. Send the flowers to “the funeral of Mr. First and Last Name” in care of the funeral home or church address. Sign (or instruct the florist to write on) an accompanying small card “with deepest sympathy” followed by your name. You may also include a brief personal sentence in addition to your sympathy when floral are sent directly to the funeral home. (Some florists also write a brief floral description on the back of the card in case the card is separated from the bouquet or plant, which I think is most helpful). Address the card’s envelop to the family member you know best or to “the family of Mr. First and Last name”. A flowering plant, rather than a short lived floral arrangement or spray is often a nice gesture from friends. Family members generally send a floral spray.
In lieu of flowers a favorite charity or church memorial fund in honor of the deceased person is often mentioned in the death notice. This is a wonderful way to add to a person’s legacy and help someone else in the process. You may send your memorial donation in advance to the funeral home or to the organization or place it in the memorial basket near the memorial cards that sit by the guest book at the entry. You may leave your memorial there before you take a seat for the service and after you sign the guest registry book. Do not include cash, but write your donation check in advance, according to the directions in the death notice. The funeral director takes charge of getting the memorial gifts to the proper place if you place it in the basket. The amount you give is optional and is not disclosed to the family, except to notify them that a “gift was given in honor” of the deceased.
Various customs: When expressing condolences to a friend from a different culture or religion, check on their customs before doing so.
Black remains the color of dress for family and pallbearers at funerals. Every person should have a basic black outfit in their closet. Don’t get caught short at the last minute. Plan ahead and purchase some classic black garments when they are on sale . Black is fitting and respectful for serious occasions. Friends may wear dark clothes, if they prefer, unless they are sitting with the family; and then they should also be in black. For men, dark jackets with slacks, white shirts, and ties are most appropriate during these times. Dark daywear is appropriate for ladies and all children. Do not wear loud prints, flashy colors, or immodest apparel for these solemn occasions. It’s disrespectful. Wear shoes with heels that won’t sink into grass or soil if you attend an outdoors burial service. Bring an umbrella when it’s snowy or rainy. During cold winter times you may wear your dress coat. Gentlemen always remove their hats (indoors and out) during the ceremony.
Paying respects involves the custom of briefly visiting the body before burial or cremation. This usually occurs at the funeral home in the “visiting room” before the funeral. This is an appropriate time for friends to stop by during the allowed hours. Upon entering or before leaving the funeral parlor be sure to sign the guest registry book, using your formal title. A married couple would sign “Mr. and Mrs. First and Last Name”, even when they are close friends of family or the deceased. Be a good listener during your brief visit with bereaved family members during this time. This is an appropriate occasion to express condolences to them. Passing by the body is at the option of the visitor.
Follow up friendship: The weeks following a funeral remain a time of adjustment and loneliness, especially for widows now alone. This is a good time to make a phone call, issue an invitation, send another note, or stop by to say hello.
True religion has certain tell-tale features involving our actions and the protocol we employ. One such feature is how we demonstrate concern and care for the welfare of others during difficult times. What we say and do, how we dress for a funeral and various gestures of support can greatly comfort surviving family members. When we set the right example and teach our children how to best act and what to expect and do in these situations, we are equipping them with an important life skill and teaching them true religion in its finest Christian sense. Protocol matters!