The only way I can explain why you shouldn’t call the day of an unexpected death is to explain a little of what going home from the emergency room was like for me after the death of our son. It was already evening. At bedtime, my husband went to sleep, but I felt like someone was disemboweling me alive. I kept waking him up and bunching his shirt in my fists saying, “You have to wake up and say something comforting to me.” He tried to wake up and say something, then he went back to sleep. I couldn’t let him go back to sleep for more than an hour before I was shaking him again saying, “You have to say something to help me!” He would try again to talk to me, until I finally decided that the only way I was going to let my miserable husband sleep was if I got away from him. I got up and went downstairs and walked in a circle in my living room literally all night long hugging my stomach. I begged God all night to raise my little boy from the dead. Obviously, this was not a time to visit people I didn’t know well.
I would say that the day of an unexpected death is the time for a pastor, parents, or very close friend. The following chart may seem like it shows a large gap between how a very close friend should behave and how a casual acquaintance should behave toward a grieving person, but there are good reasons.
When a very close friend or family member came, I knew I was not expected to engage in polite conversation and to smile. Casual acquaintances require politeness and all the expected social niceties from the bereaved, which is the last thing a grieving person needs. The only exception, perhaps, is if they bring a very helpful meal and very little expectancy to engage in conversation. To try to be cordial is a hardship at this time. For myself, I was in shock and horror, and it was a time to be around people with whom I felt very comfortable being shocked and horrified. A good idea for you to do might be to drop by flowers, give a silent hug, and walk away, or perhaps just have flowers sent.
This, of course, only applies to the first few days or week after the death. After you have given them a couple of weeks or so, it is perfectly appropriate to approach them at work or church and give kind words. In fact, I would encourage it. It’s helpful to know that others are hurting, too, and that the deceased is not being forgotten. People that I was not very close to said some very lovely things to me as time went by, and I cherished them. But I wouldn’t recommend them on the day or days after the death.
On the other hand, if my very close friends and family had not showed up or called on the day or days after Mathias died, I would have felt the opposite. Instead of being relieved, I would have been deeply hurt. So it’s important to categorize yourself properly when someone you know loses someone very close to them:
Are you a very close friend? Then you better get on the phone the next day.
Are you a good friend she sees somewhat regularly? Give her three days and then call.
Are you a casual acquaintance? Leave her alone. To talk to you now would be a burdensome obligation. Send a nice card. A paragraph on how much you admired the lost loved one would be nice, or to write how heartbroken you are is appropriate. Don’t mention that the person is in a better place or is not suffering any more.
When is the Funeral?
The harsh reality is that, even though the bereaved has just had the most horrific shock of her life, in the midst of it she has to pick out music, visit the funeral home to make arrangements, pick out and call pall bearers, answer questions from the person giving the eulogy, decide what the deceased should wear and what items to display, and other things that require time. A long visit from you too close to the funeral may be an added stress for her. Instead of a long sit-down visit, you might sit for thirty minutes and then ask what errands you can do, and insist she be honest and give you something to do.
Should I Cry or Smile?
Many people feel like they should not cry in front of a grieving person. They think they should smile and look upbeat in order to “pick up” the hurting person. But for me, the opposite was true. I felt the most appreciation for those who broke down and cried in front of me, and felt like those who smiled were behaving a little too light-hearted for my situation. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that they were just trying to lift my spirits. Despite their intentions, it was the crying friends that I felt closest to. Acknowledge that this is a tragedy for this hurting person, even if you secretly feel that the deceased is better off not suffering. Just keep that to yourself.
Ongoing Friendship with the Grieving
When I was grieving the death of our two-year-old son, I was keenly aware of the fact that after three or four months of talking about him to others frequently that they might be getting tired of hearing about my pain. So I began to shut up about him, not because anyone told me to, but because I thought I needed to give everyone a break. I carefully put on my smile at church and in other public places, but no one knew that very often at night I would wake up with an intense urge to take a butcher knife and stab our mattress over and over from the sheer helplessness stemming from the inability to bring back my son. I never felt more helpless in my life. At least when your child is sick, there is hope, even if it’s just a little, that he might recover someday. But death feels hopeless. Once in my rage I took a stick that I used for my self-defense class and went into my room and beat the floor over and over. No one knew, not even my husband.
“Frankly, I Just Don’t Want this Friendship Any More.”
If you are mad at or fed up with a grieving person, this is not the time to criticize or express hurt feelings toward someone who has experienced this kind of loss. It’s not even the time to avoid them. (Most people know when they are being avoided, incidentally. They just don’t show it.) Even though the grieving person is not showing her grief, there is a good possibility, even more than a good possibility, that she is struggling just to get through each day even more than one to two years after the death.
I believe in gentle confrontation with others when they are offensive, but in this situation I would say that the opposite is true. To summarize, if you are offended with a grieving person, keep it to yourself. Give him plenty of room to fail you for a good two years at least. If you are tempted to cut off friendship with him, also wait a good two years to sever ties. For his healthy mental state, try to hang in there with him, and try not to be easily offended. The last thing he needs now is to deal with the loss of a friendship on top of the loss of a loved one.