When you learn there’s been a death, what’s your first response? Do you express your condolences to the bereaved and communicate your sadness, or, do you ask a question? A reader shares her experience that when someone has died, one of the first responses she most often hears is the question: “How did they die?”
No matter how well meaning, does it really matter how someone died? Does it change the way you should respond to the death? Maybe the question “how” is not one the bereaved wishes to discuss, and yet how does one gracefully navigate a conversation that might be intrusive when overwhelmed with grief?
How someone died, whether by accident, terminal illness, unexpected death, violence, or suicide, shouldn’t change the way you respond to the news of the death. And it’s important to protect the privacy of the bereaved and not make them uncomfortable with intrusive questions.
Are questions ever appropriate when learning of a death? Questions that might be appropriate are: “Can you tell me where I can get information on the funeral, memorial service, or visitation?” “Is the family accepting visitors?” “Can I bring a dinner?” “Where can I make a donation in their memory?” Or, “Is there someone I can call to offer my help?”
Years ago, a friend’s mom died. My friend shared the time and place of the visitation and yet I chose not to attend. I had good excuses; I was living in a large city and was unfamiliar with the part of town where the visitation was held. Also, my faith does not hold visitations and I had no idea what to expect. Instead, I wrote a condolence note and I stayed away. The day after the visitation, before my note arrived, my friend called. During our conversation, she told me that an acquaintance from work had showed up at the visitation. She shared that even though they weren’t friends, she had embraced her warmly and was so glad to see her.
This experience taught me the importance of making that initial connection with friends and loved ones following a death. It’s like breaking the ice in any situation; it may feel very awkward at first, but once you make contact, communication becomes easier.
For example, a member of my congregation experienced a terrible loss. Several weeks after his wife’s death, I saw him sitting alone before services. I approached him and gave him a hug and told him how sorry I was for his loss. When I returned to my seat, other members of the congregation followed my lead. It seemed as if they needed someone to show them that it was okay to make contact.
So how do you break the ice? And is it always okay to give a hug? If you are physically nearby, show your support by attending the visitation, the funeral or memorial service, and the reception. And speak to the bereaved. If the family is accepting visitors at home, pay your respects. If you are uncertain about whether it’s appropriate to give a hug, it might be best to ask, “Is it okay to give you a hug?” as not everyone is receptive. Condolence messages, whether by card or note, as well as donations are always appreciated.
But what if you are neither nearby nor close to the bereaved? It’s still appropriate to write a note or send a card. And if you’d like to remember the deceased with a donation, that’s okay, too.
Once you’ve broken the ice, your support in the days ahead will be welcome. You might make a phone call, just to say hello and let them know you’re thinking of them. If they don’t answer the phone, leave a short message. E-mail is also a great way to keep in touch. If you live nearby, you might visit. The most helpful thing you can do is keep in touch.
Robbie Miller Kaplan is the author of How to Say It When You Don't Know What to Say, a guide to help readers communicate effectively when those they care about experience loss. Now available in three individual volumes: "Illness & Death," "Suicide" and "Miscarriage." Additional titles are available as e-books: "Death of a Child," "Death of a Stillborn or Newborn Baby," "Pet Loss," "Caregiver Responsibilities" and "Divorce." Click here to order.
It’s hard to think about obituaries but at some point, we all come face to face with them, for our loved ones or ourselves. To learn about obituaries, I went to a pro and interviewed Susan Soper, the founder and author of ObitKit.
Should we write our obituaries in advance?
A: There are two schools of thought on this. Some people want control over how they’ll be remembered and want their obituaries signed and sealed, ready to be delivered on the appointed date. That takes courage and discipline. Others have the attitude that they’ll be gone, so what does it really matter. In between, there are people who care but don’t know exactly what to do about it. They might leave half scribbled notes, a request for specific music or a prayer or psalm that is meaningful to them but if it is done in a random way, those wishes might not get carried out.
Q: Facing your mortality head on is difficult. How do you get past that to work on your own obituary?
A: It seems that the Baby Boomers are more sanguine about death. We’ve led active, productive, gratifying lives and have seen enough tragedy – whether personal loss or a national assassination, war, terrorist threat – so that we seem to be able to accept the fact that we’re not immortal. Once that is in the mind-set, it’s not so terribly hard to be reflective, to look back on your life, to determine how you want to be celebrated.
Q: What steps should we take before writing an obituary?
The ObitKit suggests a number of ways to approach this. First of all, don’t try to do it in one sitting. It helps to have a template to prompt your thoughts and memories. Most funeral homes have very basic forms – just the facts – but I like to encourage people to think outside the box, if you’ll pardon the pun: talk to friends and family members, ask them how THEY see you, what adjectives they would use to describe you; are there old college chums who could help resurrect some memories or accomplishments of earlier years? Make lists: education, achievements, awards, career moves, community service efforts, memberships. Definitely include members of the family – survivors – and even pets, special friends or even doctors, if you wish.
Q: Are there specific criteria for writing an “appropriate” obituary?
Not long ago, obituaries were pretty somber: names, dates, birthplace, parents, survivors, military service, career, funeral details. After 9/11 when The New York Times published brief but very poignant articles about each victim, readers responded to the personalities that emerged in print – the foibles, romance, routines, wisdom, humor, eccentricities and more – that papers all over began putting feature writers on the obit beat to liven up those pages of remembrances. Now, almost anything goes. I have seen obits that included fiancés as well as old girlfriends, pets, irreverent comments about a person’s oddities and more – all in the name of painting a more complete and colorful portrait of the deceased. I also advise people not to be too “writerly” in this effort: just get the information down and someone who will do the actual writing of the obituary will be grateful to have that information – accurate and detailed – without having to guess or hunt for it.
Q: How can we be sure the obituary we write will be used?
There are no guarantees. But if you alert someone close that you have completed – or at least attempted – some final wishes, they will likely be respected. Whatever you do, don’t put them in the safe deposit box! Leave it in a drawer or cabinet where it will be easily found and accessible. What is worse than leaving something that doesn’t get used is leaving nothing at all, putting your loved ones in a difficult position – along with grief and sadness – to have to guess what you might have wanted. You can make your parting gift to them peace of mind.
Sometimes it feels like the elephant in the room. Someone has died and we don’t want to bring up their name. So we not only don’t mention their name in conversation, but we refrain from talking about them. Do you ever wonder why we avoid saying the name of the deceased?
A friend facing the anniversary of her husband’s death was hurt that friends no longer said her husband’s name. She finally asked them why and they told her they were afraid his name would make her sad. She’s already sad that her husband died and she thinks about him all the time; she told her friends she likes to talk about him, too, and she’d welcome hearing his name.
That reminded me of a story another friend shared. It was the anniversary of the death of her 21-year old neighbor. Although she remembered the date, she didn’t plan to send a card or call her friend because she didn’t want to remind her of her loss. I explained that her friend was thinking about her son all the time, especially on the anniversary of his death. If she were to reach out to her, she would make her friend feel supported and not so alone in her grief.
It can be awkward to broach the subject, but why not give it a try. Let a friend know that you think of ‘Peter,’ her deceased spouse, every time you eat coffee ice cream, his favorite. Or, around the anniversary of a neighbor’s daughter’s death, let them know that you’ll never forget ‘Lisa’s’ wonderful smile. Or, share with someone that something reminded you of ‘Tim’ and just the thought of him made you feel good. You’ll make them feel good, too!