Friday, November 5

What to Do When Someone You Know Dies

Yesterday I had to buy a sympathy card. Someone I know has died. I didn't know him all that well, and I don't know his widow at all, but he gave of his time to us when we needed it, so I am sending a card. I've set aside some time this afternoon to compose a note to go with it.

Since I've been on the receiving end of sympathy cards and such gestures, I probably feel a little more confident doing this sort of thing than most people do. I know many people wonder what they should do, and even if they should do. They may think it really doesn't matter whether they do anything or not. So I'm helping you out here. I'm going to write a list of tips for what to do when someone you know dies. It's one of those off the top of my head things, so I welcome any additions you might have.
  1. Do something. Exactly what you do isn't nearly as important as that you acknowledge the death in some way. If you hear the news of the person's death and you have even the most fleeting thought wondering if you should do something, the answer is "yes." It doesn't matter that you didn't know the deceased well. If you have any connection at all, your effort--no matter how small--will be appreciated. Really appreciated. It's the little kindnesses shown, even by those they hardly know, that get the family through the difficult first days after a death. Until you've experienced it, you probably have no idea how much it helps.

  2. Send a card or note. Just a signed card is fine, but a card with a little personal note is better. If you didn't know the person well, you can always write something like one note we received that said something like this: "I didn't know him well, but when I saw him, he was always smiling and friendly." Chances are, the family will go through those cards again and again for a few weeks, and the visiting relatives will want to see them, too. People who have never been interested in cards--even their own birthday cards--will be interested in the sympathy cards and notes.

    Try to be sympathetic to the family's particular religious beliefs when you pick out a card. This doesn't mean you have to go against your own beliefs, just that you don't want to choose a card that might be offensive to them. And for goodness sake, don't choose one of the ones that says, "Our prayers go out to you." (Yes, I really, truly, saw a couple of those yesterday.)

  3. Send flowers. Yes, they may get too many, but if you want to do more than send a card, flowers are fine. We had a dining room table full, and we appreciated each bouquet. You might want to consider sending one carefully chosen flower, or a really small bouquet in a lovely vase instead of a huge bouquet. Don't over think it, though. Just do it.

  4. Give food. It doesn't have to be a whole meal, or even a main course. Bake some buns or make a loaf of bread. Take over a frozen pizza or two, or a bit of fruit. Make a pot of soup or chili. Put your food offering in a disposable freezer container and suggest that they freeze it if they need to.

  5. Give to a good cause in the deceased person's name, and let the family know of your gift. If they died of a particular disease, you can always give to a charitable organization that helps people with that disease. If they had a particular cause they cared about, give to that cause in their name. If they were Christian, you can always place Bibles in their name through the Gideons. Gideon Bible donations work particularly well if you can only give a small amount. You can just write on your card to the family that you donated 2 (or however many) Bibles in the deceased's name. You may think this all sounds pretty lame, but it won't be lame. I promise.

  6. If you are close enough to the family to want to help out with duties they might have, offer to do something specific. Offer to take all the children to the Dairy Queen. Offer to place death notices in the papers. Offer to walk the dog. Offer to do some grocery shopping. Think about what chores they need done and then offer to do one of them.

  7. Visit. Or at least call and see if you can make a brief visit. A short visit will let them know that you aren't scared to be around them, and that you won't be avoiding them because of their grief. And don't be scared to be around them. Most likely they won't break down during the short time you're with them; they'll just be really appreciative of your interest and your care. Don't worry about looking foolish in their eyes; they aren't thinking about how you look.

  8. Go to the funeral or memorial service. You don't have to stay around after the service (although it's nice if you do), and you don't have to go through the receiving line. Just attend and sign the guest book so they know you were there. This is another one of those times when you shouldn't worry that you were not close enough to the deceased or to the family. Just attend the service if you can, and know it will be appreciated. If you are worried that you won't know anyone there, you can ask a friend--even one who didn't know the deceased--to go with you for moral support.

  9. If you've waited to do something until you're afraid it's too late, be assured that it's not. A month later, half a year later, your gesture will still be appreciated. It might even be more appreciated, because by that time, the dust has settled and reality has set in. In fact, if you really want to be helpful, consider inviting the family or the spouse of the deceased over for coffee or out for a walk a couple of weeks after the funeral. It may still be hard for them to go out in public much, but they may be tired of being cooped up indoors.

Well, that's enough for now, although it does seem like I should have a #10. What more can you add? What things have you done?

[Update: Several more good suggestions have been given in the comments. I'll list them here, and add my comments, and keep adding as long as the suggestions keep coming.
  • Jmark suggests visiting on the anniversary of the death. I'll add that if the death made enough of an impression on you that you remember the date of the anniversary or even the general time of the anniversary, make some sort of gesture to the family at this time. Visiting during this time period is good, but you can also just send an email or a card, or make a phone call saying "I was thinking about you, and remembering that you are approaching the anniversary of X's passing. I am praying for you at this time." Don't worry that you are dredging up something they don't want to be reminded of. The date on the calendar itself will dredge things up, and it helps to know that others remember, too.

  • Violet suggests letting the person talk about the one whose died--listening without giving the impression they ought to be over it by now. Let me add that when they want to talk, show interest by asking questions. They will be happy that someone else is interested in their loved one, too. Talking about the loved one secures the memories and keeps them from fading.

  • Bob adds this:
    Remember. Put your memories into words. Tell a story about the the one who died. I loved hearing stories about my dad, very often stories I'd never known. I found that listening to people's fond memories had a very powerful healing influence somehow.

    Excellent! If you wonder what to write on your card, put a little story about the loved one. It doesn't have to be a big or important story. It might just be a remembrance of what they liked to put on their hot dogs, or how they used to walk to school in the winter without a hat or mittens. They will be hungry for details at this time, so whatever you've got, they'll want to hear it, even if they've heard it all before.

  • William agrees with Bob on the importance of memories and stories, and mentions videotaping people telling their stories. This would be a wonderful way to preserve memories. (William leaves a lovely original poem as well. Check it out in the comments.)

  • Linda suggests two books that helped her understand grief after her friend's son died: A Grace Disguised by Gerald Sittser and Roses in December by Marilyn Heavilin.

  • From Russell Sutherland:
    Consider sending something (preferably a personal letter) at the anniversary of the deceased persons birthday. As a grieving parent of a son who died several years ago, I know how helpful this can be.

  • Rodney Olsen says that sometimes just being there and talking about normal things is best:
    For me, I didn't want to chat about mum just then. Talking about normal stuff helped me come to terms with the fact that even though I was going through a tough time, the world was still turning and life would eventually go on.

If you've got more suggestions, or even questions, put them in the comments. I'll keep adding as you keep suggesting.]