Q. I’m thinking about inviting an old friend, whose mother recently died, to lunch. I haven’t seen this friend in a while and didn’t attend the funeral. Is this an appropriate thing to do? What should I say when I call? This friend often complained about her mother, who was very cold and critical of her.
Yes it is appropriate to invite the bereaved to lunch or dinner (or coffee, for that matter) a few weeks or more after the funeral. By then the calls of concern have stopped or waned. It’s healthy for the bereaved to get back out in the world, and she may appreciate a diversion. If she doesn’t, she can always decline.
However, be careful not to make any assumptions about how this person feels about her mother’s death, no matter what she said in the past. Reactions to loss can be unpredictable. The best approach is to open the conversation as you would in the case of any death. You might begin with “I was sad to hear about your mother’s death”—even if you suspect she’s relieved by it. There may well be relief, depending on the circumstances, but that doesn’t mean the person feels no grief or sorrow. It’s actually common to idealize the deceased, regardless of past history.
In one case, a casual friend called the bereaved a month after the death of her emotionally abusive father. The caller did not express condolences, laughed and joked, and seemed to make light of the death. The lunch sounded like a party. The bereaved, who felt furious, coolly rejected the offer. She told me, “I was so offended. My father was still my father. I felt pain. Also, making the funeral arrangements revived sibling rivalry issues between my brothers. It was awful. She didn’t have a clue about I was going through. I never spoke to her again.”
How different the outcome would have been if the caller hadn’t done most of the talking, instead of listening, and had opened with something like, “This must be a difficult time.” (A death is hard on survivors, no matter what the circumstances are.) A long pause after that statement would allow the bereaved to respond and set the tone for the rest of the conversation. Always play it safe by letting the survivor take the lead and guide you.
If you have a question for Florence, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes a.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a new blog for bereaved spouses and partners.
Image Source: Flickr Creative Commons/Herr Zoepli