Grief adds an extra layer – or twelve – to communication.
Losing a beloved one marks the hardest passage we encounter as humans. Death comes wrapped in a bundle of emotions, from pain and incredulity to guilt and anger. On top of everything, grieving families are asked to become event planners at a time when many cannot stop weeping.
Death often makes those in the “supporting cast” uncomfortable, particularly those who are younger or have not experienced loss. I’ve watched otherwise conversational family and friends become tongue-tied in the face of death. Worse still, not knowing what to say, some choose to say nothing at all.
As many of you know, my father-in-law passed away earlier this month. I was honored to spend the week with my husband and his family celebrating and mourning as we prepared to say goodbye to someone who wore many hats: husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle, CEO, director, trustee, mentor and friend.
Losing a parent brings with it a special layer of grief – and finality. I lost my mother unexpectedly 26 years ago and my father a decade ago after a long illness. While my father-in-law’s death was not unexpected, I told my husband a truth told to me many years ago: You are never ever prepared for the death of a parent.
As we welcomed family, friends, former colleagues and community partners for my father-in-law’s services, I had the chance to reflect on the extra care needed when communicating with those struggling with grief. My best practices list would include:
- Show up: One of the most comforting things for a grieving family comes from simply showing up. To the house, if you are close enough. To the visitation. To the funeral. For my father-in-law, family and friends drove across Michigan and flew in from Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, South Carolina, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C. My husband and his mother cherished seeing each and every person who came to the services, especially those who traveled great distances to pay their respects despite our unpredictable Michigan winter. Your presence speaks volumes in the face of grief.
- Reach out: Of course, distance, illness, schedules and other reasons can prevent travel, even when someone dear has passed. My husband said he found tremendous comfort in texts and emails that often boiled down to: “I’m thinking of you and just wanted you to know. No need to respond.” My mother-in-law received many kind voicemails from friends who shared similar sentiments, along with offers of assistance. I, too, received texts of support and daily attagirls from the dearest of friends. Those messages were so appreciated, particularly when the caller, emailer or texter spelled out “no expectations” for a response.
- Tell stories: It can be difficult to know what to write in a condolence card or to say during visitation. From experience, I know much of what is said won’t be remembered by the grieving family, but recognize many still struggle to find just the right words. A good solution is to share a story about the person who has passed. After the first visitation, my mother-in-law said “the stories took away some of the sadness.” My husband later affirmed he enjoyed hearing short and often humorous stories about his dad, many of them for the first time.
- Go beyond words: Love can be shown in many ways that don’t require words. Food is a primary language, and one I often default to in trying times. During the final weeks of my father-in-law’s life, I cranked up my “production kitchen” on weekends and sent dozens of meals and sweet treats with my husband when he traveled to see his parents. The day after my father-in-law passed, a friend of the family arrived with pumpkin bread and chocolate Bundt cake. And when Jeff and I returned home to Grand Rapids after a very sad week of saying goodbye, two of our dearest friends landed on our doorstep with a beautiful homemade meal fresh out of the oven, a bouquet of tulips and two Manhattans, complete with still-visible smoke. Of course, it doesn’t always have to be food. Our family received a remarkable number of floral arrangements, plants and memorial contributions. Three dear friends shared tributes at the funeral. Six family and friends served as pallbearers. My phenomenal team at SPR made a pact early in the week – and my email traffic slowed to a crawl.
- Offer thoughtful assistance: “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” goes hand-in-hand with condolences. While a kind gesture, this puts the onus on the grieving family to come up with a task at a time when most aren’t thinking straight. Instead, suggest something you can contribute, such as running an errand or helping with calls. A friend of our family offered to help address thank-you cards. She spent much of this past Saturday afternoon with my mother-in-law, Jeff and me, not only addressing cards but tracking down addresses online, suggesting language, creating return address labels and mailing the finished cards. She turned what could have been a sad task into a pleasant afternoon of memories.
- Don’t make it harder: Death and grief are hard enough without ill-considered words or actions making things harder. Our family welcomed hundreds of people through the receiving line during an exhausting afternoon and evening of visitation. One couple reached my husband and said, “I bet you can’t guess who we are!” and then proceeded to make him guess. While I suspect they were well-intentioned, it was poorly timed. Jeff wasn’t even too sure who I was by that point in the evening, let alone identifying people he hadn’t seen in three decades.
Death and grief complicate communication. Recognize that what you do or say doesn’t have to be inspirational or flawless. Those who are grieving either forgive or fail to remember awkwardness. Our family likely won’t recall every word that was said during visitation for my father-in-law, but I guarantee we appreciated every story, every hug, every phone call, text and email, every tear, every smile – and every slice of pumpkin bread.