While in my twenties, a close friend’s mom died. My friend shared the time and place of the visitation and yet I chose not to attend. I had good excuses; I was living in a large city and was unfamiliar with the part of town where the visitation was held. Also, my faith does not hold visitations and I had no idea what to expect. I chose to write a condolence note and I stayed away. The day after the visitation, before my note arrived, my friend called. During our conversation, she told me that an acquaintance from work had showed up at the visitation. She shared that even though they weren’t friends, she had embraced her warmly and was so glad to see her.
This experience taught me the importance of making that initial connection with friends and loved ones following a death. It’s like breaking the ice in any situation; it may feel very awkward at first, but once you make contact, communication becomes easier. For example, a few years ago, a member of my congregation experienced a terrible loss. Several weeks after his wife’s death, I saw him sitting alone before services. I approached him and gave him a hug and told him how sorry I was for his loss. When I returned to my seat, other members of the congregation followed my lead. It seemed as if they needed someone to show them that it was okay to make contact.
So how do you break the ice? And is it always okay to give a hug? If you are physically nearby, show your support by attending the visitation, the funeral or memorial service, and the reception. And speak to the bereaved. If the family is accepting visitors at home, pay your respects. If you are uncertain about whether it’s appropriate to give a hug, it might be best to ask, “Is it okay to give you a hug?” as not everyone is receptive. Condolence messages, whether by card or note, as well as donations are always appreciated.
But what if you are neither nearby nor close to the bereaved? It’s still appropriate to write a note or send a card. And if you’d like to remember the deceased with a donation, that’s okay too.
Once you’ve broken the ice, your support in the days ahead will be welcome. You might make a phone call, just to say hello and let them know you’re thinking of them. If they don’t answer the phone, leave a short message. E-mail is also a great way to keep in touch.
It’s very caring to offer to bring lunch or dinner, or visit the bereaved. We sometimes shy away from visiting because we know the bereaved are very sad. But visits should be short and all that is really required from you is companionship. The most helpful thing you can do is to let the bereaved know you care, and then listen, allowing them to guide the conversation. It’s not your job to distract them from their grief. If they’d like to talk, listen. And if they don’t want to talk, just sit and keep them company. Your presence is all that’s needed.
Robbie Miller Kaplan is an author who writes from a unique perspective as a mother who has lost two children. She has written How to Say It When You Don't Know What to Say, a guide to help readers communicate effectively when those they care about experience loss, now available in three individual volumes: "Illness & Death," "Suicide" and "Miscarriage." Additional titles are available as e-books: "Death of a Child," "Death of a Stillborn or Newborn Baby," "Pet Loss," "Caregiver Responsibilities," "Divorce" and "Job Loss." All titles are in Amazon's Kindle Store. Click here to order.