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Bereavement Etiquette

{ Sunday, March 9th, 2014 }

Last month, many in the community in which I live, were shaken by the death of a young child from cancer. They are a large family, and it seemed that all of us had a connection to some branch of their family tree. For many, people came to me as the, ‘what’s the right thing to do?’ person. Although I knew what the textbooks say is appropriate, it still seemed so wrong. Maybe because it was a child? I don’t know. Nevertheless, the following week, I received this Blog from Etiquette Moms. The timing was almost eerie. I have included it here. I still say, do what feels right for you. But, never avoid the family.  That hurts more. And, though it may seem uncomfortable, speak of the individual that died. Refer to them in conversation. Do not avoid saying their name or sharing a story about them. Families long to keep their memory alive…

Bereavement Etiquette

Assisting a family who is grieving is not only a kind and loving act, it is an honor. Sadly, we don’t always understand what to do or say to be helpful. One of the most natural and common questions intimate friends and family members ask themselves is, “Am I intruding?” The last thing anyone wants to do is to bother those in mourning. Unfortunately, sometimes people shy away from the bereaved believing that providing them space is most helpful.

Those in mourning need support, and intimate friends and families can be of tremendous comfort. Using kindness and sensitivity those closest to the bereaved can help to make the first days and weeks after a death less traumatic.

There are many rules of etiquette for loss that help to support the grieving appropriately. Below are some basics.

Pay a sympathy visit within the first few weeks

A sympathy or condolence call or visit is when one goes to the home of the grieving family to pay respects to the deceased and offer support. People often feel uncomfortable making a condolence visit because they fear they will be interfering. Sympathy visits are significant and appropriate and family members and close friends should make the effort. Death is traumatic and people need support from those they love.

A condolence call speaks volumes to those grieving. It assures the family that they have not been abandoned during their time of mourning and reminds them that although they have experienced a heart wrenching loss they are still  tied to the living.

It is appropriate for family and very close friends to visit the grieving family as soon as they hear the sad news. At this juncture family and intimate friends can provide support and volunteer to help with the necessary activities surrounding the passing. Cooking, babysitting, contacting loved ones, carpooling, accepting visitors and keeping the home tidy are all activities that can help the family in mourning navigate the first days and weeks after a death.

Make it a short visit

A fifteen minute stay is long enough to pay one’s respects. If requested to stay beyond fifteen minutes by the bereft one could choose to stay longer. It is important to be sensitive to the family’s verbal and non-verbal social cues.

A visit might elicit tears, understandably. Emotional upset is nothing to be uneasy about and is a normal part of grieving.

Proper communication 

Speak kindly and sympathetically to the family. Listen attentively and allow the family to discuss how they are feeling. Allow the conversation to be about the family and the deceased.

Because a condolence visit is made to provide support don’t say:

  • How did he die?
  • Her death was a gift because she was suffering.
  • You’ll find someone to marry because you are still young.
  • She was sick for so long so you have already grieved.
  • I went through exactly what you are going through when my father died…
  • It could have been worse…
  • It is a blessing that he was taken so quickly.

Nobody is comfortable making conversation during times of extreme stress and grieving. “I hear you” goes a long way. Use tact and discretion when speaking, edit out comments that might contribute to someone’s suffering. It is helpful to put oneself into the shoes of the bereaved and really consider what he or she might be experiencing.

Don’t judge the words or behaviors of those in mourning. Everyone reacts to grief differently, there is no right way to mourn for a loved one.

A small gift is acceptable

It is not necessary to bring a small gift however a little something is kind and appropriate. A lovely card with a warm sentiment, a small plant or tasteful flower arrangement or something edible are all ideas that are tasteful and will help express sympathy.

Drop off a meal

Volunteering to deliver a meal is helpful in feeding the immediate and visiting family members.  Choose a hearty dish that requires little more than reheating in the oven. When dropping off the meal consider including items for breakfast and/or cookies to serve visitors. There are online scheduling services to help simplify meal coordination like

A word about flowers

Flowers are beautiful, meaningful and usually provide comfort. Flowers can be sent to the family before or after the funeral. Flowers can be sent to the funeral home before the funeral.

Don’t send flowers:

  • To a Catholic church
  • To the family who requests that no flowers be sent
  • If the family asks that donations be made in lieu of flowers
  • To an Orthodox Jewish funeral

If unsure of an appropriate floral arrangement ask the florist. If unsure about the role of flowers in a particular religious, cultural or ethnic situation call the funeral home.

Monetary gifts

It is not appropriate to give money to the bereaved. A gift of cash could make the family very uncomfortable. However, a family left destitute by a death might appreciate help made in the form of a contribution. A group of caring friends could consider collecting a fund but must be very sensitive to the family. Don’t assume that just because a family has suffered a loss that the family is now struggling financially.

Memorial gifts are not considered cash gifts and are appropriate. Often a family will notify friends and family of a specific charity or memorial fund set up in the deceased’s name. It is okay to let the family know of the contribution in a warm note however the amount of the contribution should not be mentioned.

The most important etiquette rule to remember is to treat those in mourning with kindness, warmth, love and respect. When a family member or close friend experiences a loss reach out and provide support. Nobody should have to experience bereavement alone.

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