Most of us who have lost a loved one seek comfort from our friends, family, and community. So, it might come as a surprise to learn that some bereaved are not seeking solace and prefer to be left alone. I learned this when my friend’s mother-in-law died. I offered her my condolences and asked where I could send a donation in memory of the deceased. My friend shared that her husband had a toxic relationship with his mother and was not interested in any reminders. She suggested I do nothing and I followed her request.
It is unusual to learn that someone who is bereaved has no interest in condolences and while it is rare, it does happen. I recently met Kathy, a woman who chose to share her personal story. Kathy’s mom was diagnosed with schizophrenia and her father walked out on the family. When Kathy was twenty she assumed responsibility for her mother and her personal/financial affairs. Kathy managed to marry, have children, and work, all while shouldering the responsibility of an erratic and difficult mother. She eventually placed her mother in a care facility and when she finally died at the age of eighty-four, Kathy was relieved. She had her mother’s remains cremated and disposed of the ashes. She let two close friends know and she was ready to close this chapter in her life. But her husband leaked the news. He let colleagues know his mother-in-law had died and Kathy received condolence notes and flowers. She did not want them and asked me how to handle them.
We assume that all bereaved are sad and as caring people, we want to comfort them in a myriad of ways. And that’s what happened to Kathy. She wanted to close this chapter, but now others had reached out and she wondered what to do. I suggested she acknowledge the condolences simply with, “Thank you for the condolences following the death in our family.”
How will you know if you are faced with someone like Kathy who wishes to handle their loss in private? You won’t unless you ask as I did with my friend. Just because someone had a difficult relationship with the deceased doesn’t necessarily mean they wish to grieve alone. Take your cues from the bereaved. Ask, “What can I do to help you?” or “Where can I donate in memory of your loved one?” Determine from their response how to reach out. And if they tell you they want nothing, honor their wishes. Keep in mind this is their grief, not yours.
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 as e-books for "Illness & Death," "Suicide," "Miscarriage," "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