Friday, January 13, 2012

Funerals 101: A Public Service Announcement

My college roomie, Polly, recently lost her father.  I emailed her last week and told her I wanted to take her to lunch.  She has taken some time off of work, so she was home alone, and I just knew that she was sitting on her couch, in her sweats, unshowered, and wallowing in her grief. 

And that’s okay. 

I know because I’ve been there.

During our lunch, (which Polly attended under duress when I basically showed up on her doorstep uninvited . . . that’s how I roll,) we started discussing funerals, death, grief, sympathy, and all sorts of *happy* topics. 

“I’m surprised at how disappointed I am in some people,” she confessed.  I knew exactly what she meant.

“People I thought for sure would show up at the viewing didn’t even send a card,” I told her, referring to my own mother’s passing six years ago. 

“You know how on the TODAY show they do that eat-this-not-that segment?  They point out that you might think you’ve been eating the right thing, but all along you’ve been eating crap.  That’s how I feel about some of my friendships.  I guess they weren’t what I thought they were.  Now I feel . . . “

“Betrayed,” I answered.  

Hey, I know that feeling!  I had a girlfriend whom I had known for a long time, (but with whom I had lost touch,) who told me years after my mother’s passing that she had read the obituary in the paper, and yet she had never acknowledged my mom’s death.  I had assumed she simply didn’t know; but she had known all along and hadn’t reached out to me.  We had a shared history of slumber parties and carpooling and general adolescence, and she knew my mom, and yet she ignored this monumental event in my life.

Polly and I decided there needs to be an etiquette lesson for death – kind of like for a wedding or birthday or anniversary, except much, much sadder and with less festive clothing.  

I present to you, on behalf of BoyMommy and her trusty sidekick, Polly:
A Brief Guide: Do’s and Don’ts for That Funeral You Don’t Want to Attend But You’re Gonna Because It’s the Right Thing to Do.

1.  Don’t say "I don’t do funerals."  Nobody does funerals.  Funerals suck.  They’re sad and you make your ugly-cry face, and you realize you forgot your tissues and you have to borrow from the granny sitting next to you who has them stuffed up the cuff of her sweater.  Even if you only speak to the grieving family for a brief moment, or even not at all . . . they will look at the guest book later and know that you were there.  I was so out of it on the day of my mother’s funeral, I couldn’t tell you who was there; but I can sure as hell tell you who wasn’t.

2.  Acknowledge the death.  Send a card.  Send a plant.  Send an email.  Just act like you got the memo that your friend is grieving.  When you find out about a death, unless the person specifies otherwise, tell mutual friends and colleagues.  It’s not a secret, and it’s not gossip.  It’s information that needs to travel quickly.  This removes some of the “burden” from the family and it helps alleviate awkwardness when the grieving person returns to work after an extended absence and colleagues ask how her vacation was.

3.  Don’t worry about saying the right/wrong thing.  Grief is heavy, man.  Words can’t fix it.  So don’t try to come up with some phrase that will make it all better because NOTHING you say can make it better.  Say “I’m sorry you’re hurting.”  Say “I’m thinking about you.”  
I don't own this picture.
Probably shoulda asked first . . . 
On the other hand, please don’t say “she/he’s in a better place.”  F*ck that.  I don’t care right now – I want my loved one here with me because I’m feeling selfish and sad and I’m thinking about how much my whole life just changed.  

[A little personal anecdote: as I was headed to the restroom before my mother’s service, a woman I didn’t know offered her condolences and then added, “it’s too bad she didn’t quit smoking earlier.”  Yes, my mom was a smoker and yes, she died of lung cancer, and maybe it IS too bad she didn’t quit earlier, but she didn’t deserve to get sick.  No one does. ]

4.  Remember that grief doesn’t end after all the funeral festivities are complete.  You may be returning to work and school and your normal life, but your friend is still deep in grief.  Call to check in every once in a while, because she’s sitting there wondering how can people be filling their cars up with gas and buying milk at the grocery store?  Don’t they know my entire world has fallen apart?

5.  Show a little sensitivity.  When she does finally return to work, don’t send an email that begins “Sorry for your loss.  Now I need you to complete task XYZ.”   Separate emails dude.  Separate emails.

6.  Remember that funerals are for the living.  Just because you didn’t know the deceased doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to the funeral.  Funerals are a time for the grieving family and friends to be embraced by their community, and this community is made up of MANY people: family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, former classmates, friends of friends, neighbors . . . MANY. 

7.  Share fun memories of the deceased.  People often shy away from telling stories because they worry that it will make the survivor upset.  Guess what?  She’s already upset.  Recalling a positive experience helps her remember the life that was led before sickness arrived. 

8.  Make some sacrifices and set some priorities.  Funerals are never convenient.  They are not generally scheduled around your personal timeline.   SOME things are more important; the rest of your life (with some exceptions, of course) can be rescheduled.  I know you think no one will miss you if you don’t go.  Perhaps not – but it will be significant to the grieving family if you DO go.

Trust me, my peeps.  I know of what I speak.

1 comment:

  1. Here's an odd comment, and it has to do with our own feelings of self-worth and lack thereof: Remember when Linda's sister died? All these people from the department were going to the viewing and I thought, "Why?" and then Linda was so grateful we all came.
    I didn't go to your mom's funeral. It's just that I cannot imagine why anyone would want me there. So what I'm saying is this is a GREAT blog post. I love you.


Be nice, kids.