Death Follows Life

The day which we fear as our last is but the birthday of eternity. ~Seneca, Roman philosopher

The dreary gray days of winter always seem to bring a flood of deaths.

Obituaries crowd the pages of our daily newspaper. Local funeral homes bulge with mourners paying their respects to the dying and doing what they can to comfort the left-behind family. Endless processions snake their way through town en route to one of the cemeteries.

None of us wants to think about dying, but let’s be realistic. We don’t get out of here alive. And before we go, chances are we’ll have to attend a wake or two. So what’s proper to say at a visitation to those who are grieving … and what’s not?

Please don’t say:

  1. “She looks just like she’s sleeping.” How do you know that? And even if you do, is a visitation the place for you to announce it?
  2. “He’s in a better place.” Not necessarily. None of us knows where anyone else will spend eternity.
  3. “She looks so natural.” Seriously? Since when is death a natural state? And since when can any mortician apply makeup and style hair like the deceased did, especially when they’re trying to cover the pallor of death?
  4. “He had a good life.” Maybe, maybe not. That’s not for any of us to say.
  5. “She doesn’t have to suffer anymore.” True, but we don’t get to choose the miseries life hands to us or our loved ones.
  6. “You’re so pretty. You’ll find a new husband.” Yikes! The deceased isn’t even buried, and well-meaning friends are already planning a wedding?
  7. “Yackety, yackety, yackety…” There are others in that receiving line, so give them, too, a chance to pay their respects.
  8. “I know how you feel.” Even if you’ve suffered a loss of your own, you don’t know how another feels. Remember, this isn’t about you.

On the other hand, do:

  1. Dress nicely. No jeans or athletic wear, no cleavage or mile-high skirts, nothing ostentatious. (See Guideline #7 above!)
  2. When going through the receiving line, sincerely clasp hands (or hug) family members; introduce yourself to those you don’t know.
  3. Offer a short explanation of how you knew the deceased or a touching memory.
  4. Tell the family you’re sorry for their loss. Assure them their loved one was special and inspired/helped/encouraged many people.
  5. Keep your voice down. You might not have seen someone in years, but it’s rude to shriek, guffaw, and make a spectacle of yourself.
  6. Sign the guest book.
  7. If you can’t attend the visitation, consider sending a condolence card, flowers, food, or a memorial contribution to the family’s designated charity.
  8. Leave your cell phone in the car.

Okay, it’s your turn. What haven’t I covered that needs to be included here?

24 thoughts on “Death Follows Life

  1. Debbie, I think you pretty much covered it all. I remember 4 years ago when my mother died and we had a memorial for her, and what I greatly appreciated were the people who attended that didn’t really say anything. They simply came to the memorial, shared condolences by staying present, and silently shared the love in their hearts as support, because I could actually feel it. In situations like a funeral/memorial, often times (and this is how I personally feel) nothing you say can help in someones grief. I would rather just give someone a warm hug that says, “I love you, and I’m here for you.”

    Again, this is how I personally feel. Sometimes silence speaks louder than words.

    Have a FABULOUS week, my friend! And happy First Day of Spring!

    • Ron, I feel the same way. At life’s difficult moments, just the presence of someone who cares and understands makes all the difference. But you know, there’s a BIG part of me that appreciates the way funerals are handled in New Orleans — with a happy, jazz parade, singing, dancing, and celebrating!! Finally … Spring! xo

  2. It’s always difficult to find the right words and it often depends on how well you knew the deceased or their family. Personally, when I’ve been “the bereaved” in the dreaded line-up, I’ve been almost entirely unaware of what people have said to me and, as you say, a hand-clasp or a hug says pretty much everything that needs to be said. At the wake, I agree that the best thing is to share affectionate memories of the person’s life. As an atheist, I never appreciate being told the person has gone to “a better place” and even worse is to be told that it’s a “blessing”. But since I know how difficult I find it to say anything appropriate, I accept it in the way it’s intended – as a well-meant gesture of support. Let’s hope none of us have to attend too many funerals this year… 🙂

    • I’ve been on both sides, the bereaved and the visitor, and you’re so right in saying neither is easy. I don’t recall anybody doing or saying anything too unusual when I was on the bereaved side, but as a visitor, I’ve cringed at some of the comments I’ve heard. Even as a believer, I find it in poor taste for somebody to assure a grieving widow that her beloved is in “a better place.” And to hear somebody’s cell phone ring while they’re lined up, then overhear them talk about inconsequential things for several minutes … well, just no!!

  3. I am attending a devastating wake/funeral this week. A client/friends 22 year old stepson died of a stroke, It was congenial. No warning. The kid had everything going for him — graduate school, bright future on the horizon. My friend couldn’t have loved him any more if he had been her own and her husband is beyond devastated. There are simple no words so I won’t try other than to say my usual — “this really just sucks.” She asked me if she would ever stop asking why, and I told her No but in the future she might ask it less. I knew she would find comfort in my words. And she did. Cole and I have been the recipient of all kinds of condolences. Some made us laugh, some touched us deeply and some were tasteless but heartfelt. We just took them in the spirit they were intended. You offered some great suggestions: leaving your cell phone in the car, and I think everyone appreciates hearing how special their loved one is. The “Yackety, yackety, yackety…” can be trying, for sure.

    • Oh, Kb, how incredibly sad. No one imagines a person in their early twenties passing from something like a stroke. Please tell your client/friend how sorry I am.

      Yes, some things just suck. Time helps the healing process a little, but wondering why remains. I think the best condolences are the most sincere ones. Sometimes a genuine hug will do it; other times, a special memory, an offer to pray, the preparation of some food. But the cell phones and the folks who monopolize the time of the bereaved at visitations … not helpful at all. Thanks for your thoughts!

  4. I think you got most of them. I think the one that always made me cringe is the question directed to a survivor, “How are you doing?” Sheesh How do you think they are doing they just lost a loved one.

  5. I’m not sure whether there’s any “wrong” thing to say if the are family or close friends. Otherwise, something as simple as an “I’m so sorry” is enough.

    But you’d exactly right about those phones. Turn them off, or at least turn off the ringer. And that yackety-yack is awful no matter where it takes place.

    I do have one other observation: if you haven’t told your family that you’ve remarried, even though you aren’t divorced from your first wife, don’t bring number two to the visitation, and let both wives confront each other in front of the casket. I suppose I shouldn’t write about that one until they’re all dead and gone.

    • Good suggestion — sounds like it might make an interesting short story to me (but there I go, being a writer again, ha!) Seriously, I think you’re right — “I’m so sorry” conveys exactly what we’re trying so hard to say and finding the words impossible. Sometimes we tend to prattle on to fill the silence when perhaps it’s better to just *be* there.

  6. Debbie, this is all very good advice. I couldn’t think of anything else to add. Death is always hard, I find it is even more so during winter. Perhaps because it is already gray and somber, and feelings of sadness add to the already dismal state. Death is truly difficult, for some reason, I write about it quite a lot…maybe as a good way of working through my feelings.

    • I think writing about stuff helps us process it, Lana. I’ll never admit how many times I’ve done just that, whether it be a truly nasty letter that I’d never dare send or a poem I’d never want published! Death is hard for the bereaved, no matter the weather (though I agree that grey days make it that much harder).

  7. Yep – it’s hard to know what to see and I’ve had many conversations with my Dad in the last few months since my mother passed away, and he’s bothered by so many things people say to him. I assure him they mean well. I know he’s hurting. I don’t think there’s really anything to say except, like you listed, “I’m sorry.” And many people wrote to me of kindnesses or memories of my Mom – those mean so much I’ve saved every one of them.

    • I did, too, Barb, when Daddy passed on. It’s wonderful being able to “see” a loved one through somebody else’s eyes and to know how much they touched other lives.

  8. I have always grappled to find the right words to say at wakes and funerals. I know what not to say but I am never sure what to say that won’t sound superficial. Thanks for such good advice.

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