Monday, December 10, 2012


Today is my little brother's birthday, the one that died. Perhaps it's coincidence, or perhaps it's Karma that made me see a post on Alan's facebook today about how people behave at funerals.

Link here. Go read, then come back.

Got it? Good. Take it to heart.

The only thing I would add, is if you are truly close to the person mourning, it's ok to give a hug. You don't even have to say anything, just an arm around their shoulders, a quick squeeze. Physical communication is as real as verbal, and if you don't know what to say, a hug, or a hand on a shoulder, a brief moment of physical contact can communicate your sympathy and offer of support better than a soliloquy.

At Jeff's viewing... I lost it. I completely lost my shit, and I freely admit that. It was the family viewing, before the public one. It was me, R, and mom in there with him. R had already seen him, mom came as moral support for me. She'd known and cared about him, don't get me wrong, but she didn't have the kind of emotional ties to him that I did. Know what she did? Stopped halfway down the aisle to the coffin, and waited. She stood there and waited for me to be ready to leave, as did R.

R is not a physically expressive person. We've been tight since we were seven, and I can count on my fingers the number of times that she has hugged me. I've hugged her a lot, and she puts up with it from me though it's not her bag, but I'm a toucher with those I care about. That day, R and I were both mourning, and she knew better than anyone that no words would help. We both already knew that if the other needed anything, we'd be there for them. We both already knew that he'd died far too young. We didn't have to give each other our sympathies.

What she did instead was put her arm around my shoulders while I stood there staring at the young man who should have lived to attend my funeral and cried. She squeezed, just a little, just the beginning of a movement reminiscent of lifting me up that way. It communicated caring and support and the offer of any help I needed, though all of that was already understood.

When I was ready, and walked out of that room that held the shell of someone I loved, mom was there. She hugged me, and when she asked "You ok?" it didn't mean "are you done with hurting over this" or "don't make me feel bad that I don't feel as bad as you, so buck up camper" like so many people mean when they ask that question. It meant "are you ok to walk back to the house, or do you need a minute?"

Because, if you didn't know already, grief can do some messed up things to you. I've dealt with it more than I wanted to in my lifetime, and I know I haven't seen everything. But I do know, first hand, there's a real chance that it can physically impair you.

Certain friends at certain funerals, I've stayed close to. I'm not trying to make them feel better or make the hurt go away. Mostly, I've wanted to make sure someone was paying attention, to catch them if need be. In a literal sense. I've also wrangled children to allow the parents a few minutes to grieve without worrying about where the kids are and what they're doing.

Out here in nowheresville, when someone dies, you bring food. Everyone always ends up with way more food than they need, but it's a concrete way of communicating sympathy and caring. It's a way to ease other burdens than the grief.

You bring food, or coffee (people are always hanging around houses where someone has died, and the family is never sleeping enough... It's easy to run out of coffee) or disposable plates, cutlery, and cups. You ease the family's burden in regards to food, or clean up, to give them one less thing that they have to pay attention to. They've already got their grief, and funeral plans, and simply dealing with the number of people who want to help but don't know how. Bring them food, and they don't have to think about cooking. Bring disposable things to use and that takes care of dishes.

Those are things that help reduce the burden. Not the burden of grief, you can't touch that, so accept that you can't. The burden of daily life. You don't have the right to tell them not to be sad, and you don't have the right to take any of the funeral burden from them, unless they specifically ask you to. You can say "If there's anything you need, let me know." That's ok, as long as it is an honest offer made without expectations. Don't say it if you don't mean it, and I mean three am they want someone to come hang out with them and make cookies mean it, just as much as "hey can you pick up my dry cleaning and bring it by" mean it.

I think it's awful that people don't trust the real offers because they know so many of them don't mean it, not all the way. And yes, I have gotten out of bed at three in the morning to drive somewhere so that I can be with a friend and make cookies. That's what they needed. Mostly to not be alone at that hour, but the process of making cookies helped them too, and that's what they asked for.

Don't hover. I spent days at Jeff's parents house when he died, but I was never hovering. I was making myself useful. I brought food when I showed up, or ran errands for them, or herded the kids, or shaved the dog. They asked me to help with some of the funeral stuff, so I did. I helped put together the music, and the photo slideshow. I helped write his obituary. I did exactly as much to help as they asked me to, in regards to the funeral. Then I stopped, and did some daily chore, or got something done so they wouldn't have to worry about it later (like shaving the dog.)

That is the way you behave around a grieving family. If you can't figure out some way to be materially helpful, express your condolences and walk away. It's not rude, it's not awful of you. If you're not part of the close family, or friend enough that you might as well be (Put it this way, if I weren't close enough to this family that Jeff's mom would tell me "Go find your dad" referring to Jeff's dad when she was distracted, I wouldn't have been around nearly as much) then they don't need you. If they do, they'll let you know. Otherwise, feel free to express your sadness for them, and move on.

Trust me, they'll appreciate that far more than you hovering over them and getting in the way.


Old NFO said...

Well said. Each of us handles grief differently, and actually DOING something productive to help the family means more than all the words...

Jess said...

I appreciate your post and your links.


Jennifer said...

Yes, exactly. Grief takes so many different shapes, but it doesn't make the daily burdens go away.