Good Grief: Learning the Etiquette of Death
Here are some of the dumb things to avoid saying.
When someone close to you dies, you become a member of a club you’d rather not join.
My initiation five years ago when my father passed away was both a revelation and a lesson in etiquette. Before that, I had no idea what to say to people in that situation; I was sure that any mention of their loss would cause more pain. Turns out “I’m so sorry” is usually enough; philosophizing on how God must have needed another angel is way too much.
Before performing a funeral, a clergyman I know typically asks the deceased’s loved ones what was the dumbest thing anyone has said to them about their loss. The answers range from “God wanted her more than you did” to “Do you think you’ll remarry?”
But for most of us, the problem is not so much saying the stupid thing but rather getting to the funeral to say anything at all. I’m at the stage of life in which funerals and calling hours are no small part of my social life. It seems like just the other day that it was weddings and baby showers crowding my calendar.
Since my father died, I understand how much it means to people that you show up. Deirdre Sullivan, a National Public Radio contributor, put it better than I can in her essay for the feature “This I Believe.” Sullivan said her father told her to “always go to the funeral” as a kindness to the family.
“ 'Always go to the funeral' means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don’t feel like it,” she said. “I have to remind myself of it when I could make some small gesture, but I don’t really have to and I definitely don’t want to. I’m talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy. You know, the painfully under-attended birthday party. The hospital visit during happy hour. The Shiva call for one of my ex’s uncles. In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been good versus evil. It’s hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.”
And sometimes doing good means screwing up the courage to ask someone about their departed loved one. Everyone grieves differently, but I’ve been struck by how much my widowed mother hungers for the chance to talk about my father. Even when she gets choked up, it’s a price she happily pays to help keep him alive in us.
For those of us with membership in this inevitable club, the life has ended but not the love.