Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Etiquette Lesson: How to Conduct Yourself When Someone Dies

When someone v. close to you dies, it's relatively easy to know what to do - be a hot mess and go through the motions of putting together whatever kind of funeral rite the person would like to have. When you're not immediately tied however (immediate family, best friend, etc.), I have noticed a lot of times, this is when shit falls apart.

I think a big part of this problem is that the first world is v. shielded from death. I know people in my age group (30 something) who *still* haven't lost someone close to them besides perhaps a grandparent (and old age makes it somewhat more expected, though no less grief intensive) and . . .I can't relate to that at all, honestly. My first memory is at age six losing my grandma and seeing my dad cry for the first time (quelle surprise I'd be picked up by M. Corbeau). I lost my dad at 18 through a very long, painful battle with cancer (We were both struck silent/ me from the grief/ him from the throat cancer) and the hit parade sort of goes on from there. I've been to significantly more funerals than weddings, the piece de la resistance being my engagement year where I put seven people in the ground, the last being my cousin Anthony a week before the wedding. He was only five years older than me, his widow was my age.

So, having a vast array of funeral rites in every stripe and color that I've attended, I've had plenty of time to be appalled by my generation and the generation after me. Less strict parenting has led to some teens thinking it's okay to do anything from read, text, have a toothpick in their mouths, pants that reveal one's boxers, be overly boisterous, etc., etc. (oh yes, this has all happened in my family. There was a lot of talking through my teeth to them and reminding them that x family member may seem old to them, but s/he was my generation's mom/dad/etc. We're Italian, in my family it's always appropriate to step in if the parents are otherwise occupied and you're the closest elder).

If you've had the fortune to not have to go to many wakes, funerals, memorial services, etc., that's a blessing. But it may make you unsure what to do in that setting when you do need to go. If it's only been people you've not been close to, you likely know to slap on a suit, shut off your cell, pay your respects and then go about your business. But it can get stickier if it's someone closer to you, or if it's someone close to someone close to you (best friend's parent, boss' spouse, etc.).

Tips on How to be a Standup Person During the Grieving Process:

It is always the right thing to do to send a sympathy card. It doesn't matter if you were fighting with the person who passed or their loved ones or if you're not sure how close you are to the deceased or the grieving. It's very hard to offend someone by sending a sympathy card.

Pick a card with an appropriate sentiment. This might sound confusing, but if you aren't close to the bereaved or the deceased, a more generic card is appropriate. If you were close to the deceased or the bereaved, you may want to pick a card with a more personal sympathy sentiment. If you're not sure what to say, it is always appropriate to say, "I'm so sorry for your loss. I am thinking about you and your family in this difficult time." Grieving people are preoccupied with their grief, they're not grading you on your creativity. Don't over think it, just send the card. They probably won't remember what was said, just that you were kind enough to think of them in their difficult time.

Inquire with the family about the arrangements. If they say it is a very small service for close family and friends, don't be offended. Everyone grieves differently. Inquire if the family is receiving donations to the deceased's favorite charity, mass cards (if Catholic), or flowers. If yes, then find out the funeral home's information so that you may do so. If no, simply send a card to the family, as outlined previously.

Generally, there is some sort of wake, shiva, or calling hours for people who want to pay their respects to the family or the deceased. If you do not consider yourself very close to the family or the deceased, but still would like to pay your respects (and your respects are welcomed by the bereaved), you would attend the most public part of the funeral rites. For example, the wake but not the funeral, the shiva but not the funeral, the memorial service but not the funeral, etc. Generally the funeral is the most private part of the rites and it's typically by invitation only.

It is very important that you are dressed properly for this. Many times, the death of someone comes as a surprise which is why it may be helpful to have an outfit for death rites that is always ready to go. Dress in a dark color and make sure all of the lines of your outfit are conservative. Women, no cleavage, knee length if wearing a skirt. Men, no white socks, no "fun" ties. Suits for both genders are always appropriate. I personally always have a long black skirt, an appropriate neckline black short sleeved top, and a black wool cardigan with pearl buttons. I always wear this for death rites only (I find that it helps me to not have the jhor/death energy on my other clothes, but that's a personal choice. I also don't like having psychological associations with death on my other clothes), I dry clean it/hang it up immediately after and don't touch it unless I need it. It's always appropriate year round and it's one less thing for me to stress about.

Keep yourself grounded. It may be helpful for you to have a hematite stone or a small pouch of salt on your person. A family piece of jewelry can also do the same thing for you. It's okay for you to be sad, feel grief, etc. too! The tricky part is managing your own grief while still assisting the grieving family. Processing your grief with someone else prior to the wake may help. Doing something you find comforting after the wake may help too. Personally, what keeps me somewhat sane is going out the night before, drinking two or three martinis, having a big piece of red meat, and smoking a few cigarettes. All the things that could kill me bring me a strange sort of peace in dealing with death.

If it is a religious rite, do a quick search on what is typical for that religion so you know how to act appropriately.
Follow the lead of the bereaved at the rite is the best course of action. Some families prefer quiet and some prefer to be more boisterous to remember the deceased. Again, everyone grieves differently. Obviously, this is not the place to try to impose your personal religious views on others. If you don't feel comfortable participating in any of the religious rites going on, just sit quietly. If you want to say a little prayer in your head in your home religion, feel free.

If you are close to the bereaved family or to the deceased and you decide to attend the burial, follow the instructions of the funeral director for the procession. Find out beforehand if the cemetery is far from where the wake/memorial service/etc. was held. Make sure you have enough gas beforehand and that you've used the restroom so that you can follow the procession without needing to stop elsewhere. Get directions too just in case.

Help the living. This is probably the hardest step. Often, if we ourselves are somewhat removed from the grieving process (if it was an acquaintance, or a loved one's deceased we didn't know v. well, etc.), once we work through our own process (which will be faster than the bereaved's), many of us want to go on with the business of living. For the bereaved, just because it's been a month or two doesn't mean that their worlds still aren't shattered. This is where being helpful is critical. The transition back to daily life after the acute grieving stage is very difficult. The modern world expects people to go back to "normal" after a few weeks - working, taking care of the house, paying bills, taking care of themselves and their children (if applicable), etc. If you are nearby, ask if they need any help running errands, if you can do their dishes or walk their dog, or if they need someone to talk to. Look at pictures and photo album of the deceased with the bereaved (*if* the bereaved wants to), offer to help pack up the decease's personal items and help figure out what can be kept and what can be donated. Take the bereaved to do something fun but low key - mini golf, dinner out, for a drink, etc. If the person seems receptive, talk about your life (but keep petty grievences about the bereaved or the bereaved's family to your damn self), talk about the book you're reading, celeb scandal, whatever. A lot of times they want a distraction. But you need to judge this carefully to see if the person wants a distraction or wants to talk about their grief or the deceased. Just being present helps a whole lot, even if you don't know what to say. Ask if it's okay to drop off a casserole. Many people make food for the grieving in the first week or two, but many people aren't ready to make dinner every night for themselves in the first month or two. Dropping off a casserole three weeks after the deceased passed can be really helpful. If you're far away, you may want to consider having a food service deliver to the grieving family. I personally use this one (US based) when I need to send food.

Most of all, don't be an asshole.
This list includes:
* Having your cellphone on at the wake/funeral/etc and/or texting
* Trying to pick up any of the bereaved
* Being overly self absorbed during this difficult time (admittedly, this is another tricky one, especially if you're part of the bereaved's primary support structure. It's a delicate imperfect process, but it's okay to draw boundaries so your life doesn't completely fall to shit in the process too, it's okay to vent to close friends or family about the bereaved when you are stressed and upset, it's okay to take care of yourself. You need to or you're no good for anyone, yourself included. See here for articles on caregiver stress and here for an article on caregiver burnout)
* Chewing gum, having a toothpick in your mouth, being inappropriately dressed
* Appearing bored at the wake including asking people "what are we doing after this".
* Starting fights of any kind with any of the bereaved
* Calling undue attention to yourself, including starting "pity party" wars (it was worse when MY dad died)
* Not calling or showing up or sending a card
* Not following up with the bereaved with at least a text/email/phone call
* Any behavior you even *think* for a second would be questionable and/or you wouldn't want someone to do when *you* are the bereaved, don't do it.

Fail-Safe Vegetarian-Friendly Super-Fast Barely-Homemade Ziti
The death happened v. quickly or unexpectedly? Need to be part of the first rush casserole brigade? Don't know what the bereaved's family eats? Need to get a casserole done in a hurry and on a tight budget? Ziti is the thing. Again, you're not being graded on your creativity here, the bereaved is barely going to remember to eat let alone what they ate. Unless the bereaved is vegan, Celiac, or has a tomato allergy, this is the thing.

1 box ziti pasta
1 jar tomato sauce (I prefer Francesca Rinaldi's Sweet & Tasty)
16 oz shredded mozzarella
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 pack disposible containers (Gladware, etc) Big Bowl: 3 Containers & Lids
(6 CUPS / 48 OZ) or Entrée: 5 Containers & Lids
(3 1/8 CUPS / 25 OZ)(I prefer this over the huge aluminium tray because it takes up less space and can be heated in the container and the bereaved doesn't need to worry about returning it to you)

1. Preheat oven to 350.
2. Make ziti according to the directions on the box. Add olive oil and salt to the water so your pasta is flavored and it doesn't stick together.
3. Drain pasta.
4. Mix pasta with sauce.
5. Mix pasta with 3/4 of your shredded cheese. Put the rest of the cheese on top.
6. Bake for 20 minutes.
7. Put into containers.


Lonnie said...

That was a wonderful post, and one everyone in my generation (I'm 33) should read.

I just went through the hardest grief I've ever faced. My best friend was a Type 1 Diabetic Category brittle. We hung out as usual on back on Sunday March 21st, talking about everything from the chaos known as life to the Dresden Files books.

The next day, I wake up and read a new chapter in Dreden Files Book 5. It's all about death stalking us blah blah. Fast forward that afternoon, and I'm asked by another friend about who the collectors of souls are in various mythologies. An hour discussion begins. That evening, he wasn't where we meet up. Nobody had seen him. He wasn't replying to texts or calls.

I sped across town, and found my best friend dead on his apartment floor. Some creepy scene on his TV had a woman looking down and weeping uncontrollably when I walked in. That of course was Monday, March 22nd.

I went through a cool calm shock for the next 12 hours or so. Then it went to hell. I'm still not quite right. It takes time folks. Especially when you lose your rock.

I wish I had this post to hand out to many of the people who generally sucked going through the process. Great and helpful information for an inevitable life event. Kudos!

Any readers in Central Illinois? Join us in a walk designed to raise funds for The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation! October 3rd! http://www.facebook.com/pages/Dan-Rothrocks-Walk-For-Diabetes/119147308106049?filter=3

Dossy Shiobara said...

Wow, looks like you're on fire with this blog - I'd like to think it's the awesome design that really inspires you, but hey, I can pretend, right? ;-)

Having gone through probably the worst grieving I've ever done in the last few weeks, I have to say that the many pearls of wisdom you capture here in one single, entertaining but succinct post ... is incredible. Thanks for putting this down in writing in a form that's easily shared with others.

Lavanah said...

A good list for a society that tries so hard to not think about death (except in that romantic novel, goth way of the too young to experience it...) If you haven't been close to the person who has died or to someone who was close to that person, it can help to ask questions, too. For example, at my Grandmothers funeral the only people wearing black and somber colors were the funeral home employees. My Grandmother was an artist (and came out of the broom closet some 5 years before her death) and hated seeing people in black. We all tried to wear her favorite colors. It was what she wanted.

Deborah Castellano said...

@ Lycan - Thank you for your kind words, I'm v. sorry for your loss.

@ Dossy - Well of *course* it had something to do with your kick ass layout! I've had you and your family in my thoughts and prayers these past few weeks. Thank you for your kind words.

@ Lavanah - I definately agree! I've been to one or two wakes where there was a similar situation and I do try to get the full version of the story before I'm (internally) like omg, what are these people doing? However, I would say when in doubt, just dress in dark colors and conservatively. I had been to a wake where the only person in the family I knew was the deceased's husband and I didn't want to bother him. However the deceased was known for her beautiful goth outfits. I wasn't sure which her family would find more comforting so I wore a conservative outfit, but also tucked a tiny piece of brilliantly colored crochet into the coffin (she taught me how to crochet and would have loved the colors) with permission.

Unknown said...

As a twenty-one-year-old in family that doesn't like to talk about death and in a culture that has no instruction manual, this post is extremely helpful. I've only been to one funeral in my entire life, my father's last year (cancer sucks), and I wasn't really in any condition to be paying attention.

Then my roommate's grandfather died, and I had no idea what to do for her other than not be an a**hole. Reading this has given me lots of ideas, many thanks.

~ Mari said...

one of my aunts got arrested at her son-in-law's funeral six years ago. same woman almost got arrested at her father's funeral in 2004. after her mother died in 2000 and the fiasco that ensued, i sent her a bumper sticker that said, "things haven't been the same around here since that house fell on my sister". it's still on her truck.

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