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Make it easier on family in time of grief

By JUDY STARK

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 26, 2000


No one likes to think about it or talk about it. But it's absolutely guaranteed: At some point, all of us will be involved in planning a funeral.

My family and I experienced this in August, when my brother John's wife died unexpectedly.

In that emotional and stressed-out week we were the recipients of great acts of kindness and generosity from my brother's friends in New Orleans. My mother and I parachuted in from out of town; we knew no one, and we were unfamiliar with the city and with local customs. Carol's friends set aside their own loss and grief to take care of us.

Several of Carol's women friends, for example, insisted on arranging for the reception at the house after the funeral. They knew just where to call for sandwich platters, fruit trays and cookie plates, and they provided the beverages. My mother and I, as strangers in town, would have had no idea where to start. We can never thank them enough.

Out of our experience, here's a list of suggestions that may help when you find yourself planning a funeral or attending one.

Find the words: It's so hard to know what to say when someone has died. So here's a sentence you can memorize and have at the ready: "I'm so sorry for your loss." That magical sentence, straightforward and thoughtful, is all you need to say. Grieving survivors can respond, the ice has been broken, and you've expressed your concern appropriately.

How did you know her? As I met my sister-in-law's friends, I asked each one to tell me how he or she knew Carol. I learned wonderful things. One woman remembered how Carol insisted she learn to play golf, dragged her off to the course -- and now it's her favorite sport. Another recalled meeting John and Carol soon after they moved to New Orleans and turned out for a Saturday morning bicycle-club tour of the city. A third talked about the book group Carol helped to start. In every case, I got a new picture of a part of Carol I didn't know, and they had a chance to talk about their own happy memories.

Make a specific offer. Thoughtful friends often say, "If there's anything I can do, please let me know." A grieving family sometimes can't think of anything on the spot, or hates to be a burden. Yet there are services the family needs.

For example, my mother and I did not have a car (I didn't want to try driving my brother's van in the busy traffic of unfamiliar New Orleans), so we were limited in our ability to get around and do errands. I hated to ask my stressed-out brother to do the driving, but I had to. Step forward and say, "You'll probably need to go to the grocery store. I'm available all day tomorrow. I'll give you a call in the morning to find out what time you'd like to go." Or: "You're flying home on Saturday? Let me drive you to the airport. I'll check with you that morning to set the time." Or: "I know you're packing up Carol's things. I can come over tomorrow and take a load to Goodwill."

Household chores. A family planning a funeral and reception might welcome a neighbor's offer to handle some basic chore they're just too strung out to accomplish, such as cutting the grass or washing the car. When my father died 26 years ago, the morning of the funeral I looked out the window to see our neighbor from three doors away mowing our lawn. We didn't ask; he didn't offer. He just knew we needed it, and he did it. All these years later, I remember that kindness.

Relaxation helps. A thoughtful friend of my brother's made a mental note when John told her he was taking the family to a certain restaurant the night after the funeral. When we got there, she had arranged to have a bottle of champagne sent to our table, one last chance to toast Carol. What a lovely thought! We were also amazed to find on our table a sympathy card signed by the entire staff of the restaurant, where John and Carol had been regulars.

I can picture that out-of-town relatives arriving here in Florida might welcome a family friend's invitation to "come on over and hang out around the pool," or the offer to take small children off parents' hands for an afternoon or provide congenial activities for bored and uncomfortable teenagers.

Post a sign. My mother taped prominent notes at all the phones in my brother's house: The address here is ... The phone number here is ... The funeral home name, address and phone are ... and the service there is at ... The church name, address and phone are ... and the service there is at .... As out-of-towners we could hardly remember where we were, yet we were answering phones and trying to convey information to concerned friends. Having it in writing in front of us made that easier.

Be responsible for yourself. We didn't have this problem, but friends have experienced this, and it isn't nice: The immediate family is not there to play chauffeur or travel agent for others coming in from out of town. Take a cab or the limo in from the airport, or rent a car. The immediate family is likely too exhausted or too busy to be shuttling back and forth to the airport or may be too stressed to drive at all. Friends of the family who wonder if there's "anything I can do," here it is: Offer to pick up relatives at the airport. Similarly, the immediate family have their hands full making funeral arrangements. Don't add to their stress by expecting them to find you a motel room.

Know when to go. If you stop by the house to visit, or you attend a reception at the home after the funeral, don't make a day of it. This isn't your party. Don't be the last guest hanging around 45 minutes after everyone else has left, while an exhausted family sits around making polite conversation wanting nothing so much as to change out of their dress-up clothes and be alone for a while. Find an exit line. Get out of there. Go home.

Think about two weeks from now. That's the time to make a phone call or pay a visit or extend a dinner invitation. When the crowds have left, when things calm down, when the survivors are dealing with the grim reality of grief and anger, that's when they need friends. A casserole or a cake may be more welcome now than at the time of the funeral, when so many people bring food. Give a gift certificate for a meal somewhere. Invite the survivors out for lunch. Include them in activities. Be available if they want to talk.

Life doesn't go back to normal the Monday morning after the funeral when we all return to work. We have to redefine what is "normal" now. An invitation to go shopping or swimming, or to go to a ball game or come over and watch TV helps the survivors begin to create that new definition of normal.

The valley of the shadow of death is a long and lonely one, and the walk through it doesn't end on the day of the funeral. All of us who experience the loss of loved ones -- and that's every single one of us -- need the support of friends as we make that walk through death and back to life.

- Judy Stark is the Times' homes editor. Write to her c/o St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

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