For Years whenever I got news that a friend or loved one had passed away, I got into immediate panic mode on how I will show my condolences.
I have respectful parents, who together would attend the viewing or the wake the first day it was scheduled. They may have heard the news from a friend or family member or read it in the obituaries that day. They never challenged where it was or when it was, it was something that had to be done and they always have done it.
Me on the other hand, I felt that because I hated viewings or wakes, I would just not go, or be selective on whom I would go to see and who I wouldn’t, but I would always send a mass card or condolence card. I didn’t know what to say to the person who lost their loved one, so I would avoid calling them on the phone or seeing them.
I guess I just always felt, that if people kept bringing up or reminding the person of their loss that I would make them sad all over again.
My views on giving proper condolences have now changed. My Grandmother recently died and being part of a close knit family, I was involved from my Grandmothers care prior to her death to being with the family at the viewing and then the funeral.
I learned so many things about people during this time. I am the oldest of 8 grandchildren and I was very close to my Grandmother my whole life. It was a great loss to me as well as my family. I had cold sweats and sleeplessness day before the wake. My mother had announced to all of us when we got to the funeral home, “that she wants to hear no laughter, that this is not a party”. “We need to focus and be somber”.
I thought, here I am, the family mourning and people will be coming to see us all night and pay respect to my Grandmother. We all stood together to receive people as we stood next to the coffin…was I ready to relive her final days and trigger my tears and memories of her again, just when I’ve pull it all together for this final send off? Will I have a nervous breakdown before the night is over? I was scared to death as I watched the funeral home doors open and people started flocking in. The first people were old family friends who came with their baby grandson they had been babysitting all day.
I offered to watch the baby in the back seating area while they go up to see my Grandmothers coffin and visit with my family to express condolences. It was a mood breaker seeing this smiling baby in a room with so much death around it. I thought it was ironic. Here I was always afraid to go to wakes, and here these people felt perfectly normal coming and bringing this baby to spend time with us. They ended up staying most of the night with us.
My Mother thought it was disrespectful of them for bringing the baby, but I quickly defended the baby being there. I agreed that if the baby was crying or acting out that this was not the place to keep the baby and they should go home immediately after paying their respects. But, that was not the case. You never heard a peep in the 3 hours from this baby. I expressed that it felt good that they felt comfortable bringing this little baby to a place where most adults wouldn’t want to be 50 miles from.
Now just to be clear, I would not suggest that anyone bring their babies or children to a wake or funeral service. We were just lucky to have had a good experience with the baby in the room. Most situations would not go as well and you don’t want to run the risk of disrespecting the family and having the family tell you to leave.
The truth was that the fear I always had as the person attending the wake is just as scary as it is for the people waiting to receive them.
There were so many family members and friends that I hadn’t seen in so many years, I felt truly comforted that they took the time to come out and pay us their respects in person. I was so moved, I didn’t feel like crying anymore. I think my tear ducts were dry from all the crying we all had done for 3 days straight prior to my Grandmothers passing, while she was sick.
I felt adulation seeing all these people. I could not help grinning. At various times, there were lulls and I found myself, as did some of my other family members, going off and chatting with certain people. I caught myself laughing so many times. I thought, OMG my mother said no laughing. But I wasn’t sad being there anymore. I felt it was a natural gathering of people that were brought together for a common cause. I enjoyed so many conversations and seeing so many people I had not seen for as much as 20 years.
The next day was the funeral. We were tired from the night before and we had an early start, with a full Catholic mass and burial. The fear came back. Wishing the day was over, as I anticipated the tears and heart ache coming back with so many of the day’s reminders amidst. The church mass celebration was so peaceful and beautiful. My mother had requested “NO Singing or MUSIC” at the church mass. The priest reluctantly obliged, but expressed that the mass would be too quiet and we might need some music to lighten the air.
You could not talk my mother out of the ‘No music or singing’ no matter what he said. She was right about it though. The silence of the church and echo’s of the priest reading the scriptures made the funeral meaningful and gave the day the perfect closure.
Once we got to the gravesite, I knew we were finally at the end of this grueling day. During this ordeal, I realized there were certain things people did that were impressive and others that were not.
There were some people who did the bare minimum and others who were in the forefront the whole way to console us and be with us during this tough time.
These are the gestures that were appreciated that I want to share with you so that you don’t miss the opportunity to show proper respect to people you care about:
1. Send a condolence card. Be sure not to use one of the free one’s you get in the mail. Those are cheap looking and your heartfelt sentiments deserve a store bought card.
2. Find out what place of worship the deceased belonged to and go and get a mass card for them.
3. Where time and logistics make it impossible to get a mass card from the place of worship, there are mass cards that you can get in the mail from nonprofit organizations, that you can keep in a drawer and when you need one it is there for you and you just have to fill it out with the deceased name and mail in a donation to the organization when you use it.
4. Find out when the viewing / wake is and do your best to go to it. If you are out of town, look on the internet for the local newspaper of the deceased and find the obituary. The obituary will tell you when and where the wake will be as well as the funeral place and time.
5. If you want to call the family and express your condolences, do so after the funeral. Doing it prior to the wake and funeral stresses the family even more than they already are as they anticipate a grueling several days ahead until the loved one is buried. Call them the day after the funeral where your call will be appreciated better.
6. It is an extra kind gesture to bring a card to the wake with either a mass card in it, a monetary gift or a donation (the family will usually mention an organization they would like donations sent to in the obituary, sometimes in lieu of flowers).
7. Send something to the family. If this is a close friend this will be well appreciated. You can send flowers to the funeral home (call the funeral home and make these arrangements with them) or send a fruit basket or edible arrangements (look online to place an order) to the family. Don’t send table flowers to them. The symbol of flowers at this time will be isolated to the funeral home and grave site. Sending table flowers to the family’s house will give a mixed message and won’t be appreciated. If you have doubts… give money or donate to their charity of choice.
8. Additionally, if you have the time, bake a cake (dessert)or make a casserole (entrée) for the family and drop it off at the house the day before the funeral or after that. Some people have the funeral reception after the burial and others have it at a restaurant. However, the food is a nice gesture for the family if you choose to do this. Be sure to put your name on the food and reheat instructions.
9. In some cultures, making a house visit a week or two after the funeral is a necessary gesture of respect. However, we are in the United States, so cultural respect is combined or exchanged with doing one of the above mentioned signs of respect.
10. It is acceptable to send an e-mail to a family member of the grieving family before or/and after the funeral. However, this is in addition to the condolence card, attending the wake and or funeral. There is still the need to see and touch people during this time. E-mails can express a momentary sentiment, it cannot replace you and the personal time you took to express a sincere condolence to the family.
11. Most of the time after the funeral, the family will have a reception after the funeral. Don’t assume everyone is invited. If you happen to attend the funeral and then go on ahead and join the family at the grave site, don’t invite yourself to the restaurant or house afterward. There will usually be an announcement at the gravesite by the funeral director or the family will personally invite people. Sometimes families want to be alone and do not intend on having a festive mood after this long, hard day. Be sensitive to this and avoid being a possible mooch.