Death and grieving etiquette

The Perfect Stranger's Guide to Funerals and Grieving Practices: A Guide to Etiquette in Other People's Religious CeremoniesI’d never thought about grieving etiquette until yesterday. For the last two weeks, I’ve had the feeling to call a fairly recent acquaintance. A tall (6’2″), gorgeous woman, thin, after five children, married to an emergency room doctor, all of 42. The type of woman that would engender the hatred and jealously of all others were it not for the simple truth she’s funny, outgoing and self-deprecating. Our friendship began when she invited me to speak to a group of young women in her church, basically about keeping standards high in a world where standards are low. Our conversations were brief but fun, and I showed up with few expectations about the event or her. I was surprised on both counts, glad I recorded the 40 minutes and left with a new friend.

These last two weeks, I refrained from calling until the bitter end. Sometimes, impressions start out quietly, then get louder, progressing to the point where I think I’m starting to lose my mind. It’s reminiscent of not being about to get Born this Way out of my head actually; a rhythmic beat that won’t begone. Eventually, my will gives out. I emailed her three days ago, then called several times. A day later she responded, told me that her sister (also named Sarah) had unexpectedly died 10 days prior. She’d gone to the funeral, assisted with Sarah’s 6 children and husband, and provided much needed assistance. The day I contacted her, she had returned from the trip. She invited me to come to her house and I jumped on it, having never been. She said she’d “appreciate the distraction,” and though I had no idea what to do for a person who’d lost her sister and best friend, I went. No food. No flowers. Just me and my young daughter.

As an aside, everything in that home was tall and big (including her ceilings, high enough to accommodate her 6’6″ husband, 6’8″ fifteen year old son, 6’2″ 14 year old daughter, and so on). I felt my body grow taller and slimmer being in the environs. In any case, the woman kept me talking, non-stop, for over an hour. It was slightly odd, being turned away from directing the conversation to her. She successfully thwarted every attempt I made to ask about her in any way. Finally, after I’d been going on with diarrhea of the mouth, I put an end to it. This took the conversation in a surprising turn.

“Normally I wouldn’t do this,” she began, “but I want to hear about other people, other things, anything but myself.” She went on to ask me if I’d ever lost anyone close to me. No, not really, I’d replied. “I’ve been doing everything wrong!” she said emphatically. “All wrong–I’ve left everyone alone, thinking they needed ‘family time’ she continued, “when in fact, that’s the last thing they want–or I wanted. Cards, flowers, phone calls, from people I don’t even know made me feel so good. But most of all, I want company.” She proceeded to explain a person suffering from a loss doesn’t want more alone time–“I’m already alone in my heart, I want company.”

Ever the cataloger of all things helpful, we talked about advice for the support group. It came down to a few tidbits she’s learned:
1. don’t be shy about calling, writing or just dropping by. A person in grief won’t ask for help, and won’t want to bug anyone else. Don’t call and ask if a casserole is needed. Just bring it by. If no one answers, leave it on the doorstep with or without a note.
2. cards and notes and calls are all welcome. doesn’t matter if the person who passed was a distant acquaintance or friend of friend. The memory and thought counts and helps the grieving process.
3. next to food, babysitting is the most helpful service to provide. Picking kids up from school, helping out the spouse of the person with the loss is appreciated (taking the kids home from church so the husband can attend to his duties).
4. coming over, and like I learned, being comfortable with talking at length about fun things. “Don’t forget the fun things!” she said. This was particularly hard for me. It was a big week, what with the ebook and movie stuff being announced and launched. Yet time and again, it was what she kept coming back to (her husband even got in the game, asking questions to assist in the novel he’s writing). a person dealing with hardcore issues wants to hear about fun, exciting events, not more depressing stories.
5. don’t worry about empathizing and crying. Enough tears have been shed. It’s okay to be happy. The funeral for my friend’s sister Sarah was a joyous occasion, as much as it could be. A celebration of life rather than mourning over the death.

The entire conversation was extremely helpful to me, and though I won’t look forward to death, I’ll definitely keep this etiquette in mind when it comes my way.