A week into 2016 and it was David Bowie. Then it was Natalie Cole. And it seems that every year a number of news sources will publish a list consisting of “those we lost last year.” Now like so many others, I got an uneasy reminder of the reality of death in 2015 with the loss of my brother and, before that, vicariously through related stories of others.
No doubt, I wasn’t at my best during any of those times. And I’m not alone. We rarely are. Hard as we try, the right words always seem so trite, so futile, so never just right when it comes to empathizing with someone who experience the death of a loved one, or in graciously accepting the typical, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” or “he’s no longer suffering,” from sincere others when you experience a loss. And again, and like so many of you, I’ve been on both sides of these awkward expressions.
Now, a few years ago, I sat with a Chinese person who tearfully shared her pain over the unimaginable loss of close family members during the earthquake in China. After that, I sat with two others at a Starbucks and listened to how they both endured the pain of multiple personal losses in less than a year.
So, with all that as a backdrop, I decided to craft something that was both cathartic for me and, I hope, helpful in fostering an awareness of how others cope with death and grief and how caring others should appropriately respond. Although this is an issue for everyone, it seemed to make sense for me to focus this along cultural and religious lines, two significant variables in those stories.
Needless to say, death is one of the most sensitive topics to think about, let alone talk or write about. It’s largely a verboten topic, particularly in American culture. So please bear with me as I give this imperfect piece my best shot. (The reader is encouraged to correct anything here, or add different perspectives or other information).
Back in the “old days” in the U.S., death was a part of life. Families had funerals in their homes and buried their loved ones in nearby cemeteries. In my experience growing up in a small town in Virginia, “home-goings” for loved ones were pain-dulling celebrations of the life of the departed, complete with food, music, laughter and storytelling – lots of storytelling. After the burial, cemetery tours were opportunities to reconnect with other deceased and trade favorite anecdotes about those fading names etched on headstones. “See you again” was our language for “goodbye” – our way of verbalizing the temporariness of the physical departure and the spiritual reconnection later in Heaven.
That was years ago although much of that practice remains today.
But today in the U.S., our culture is more accustomed to dealing with long-term illness than death itself. When someone close to you dies, you’re supposed to “snap out of it” and be back to your regular self a week after the memorial service, according to my friend, a Tennessee-based writer.
Conversations about death, if they’re held at all, are truncated and hurried. We order flowers online, pick up a card at Walgreen’s or Walmart, and mail them and with them the uncomfortable reminders of death off as quickly as possible. We then return to “normalcy” in the form of Facebook, TV sets, Smartphones, traffic jams, everyday hustle and bustle and business that never stopped.
Let’s go a bid deeper with the notion of “grief.”
The American Society of Clinical Oncology defines “grief” as one’s inner-personal experience of and response to loss and “mourning” as the outward expression of that grief. “Bereavement” is the public/community acknowledgment of death.
There’s no correct or incorrect way to grieve. Customs considered strange in one culture may be normal ways of grieving in another. To find out more about the customs and mourning practices of someone from another culture, talk to a person from that cultural background. Most will welcome the sincere inquiry. You can also find books at your local library or search for information on the Internet.
Ethnic Variations in Dying, Death and Grief; Diversity in Universality (1993), by Irish & Nelson, was recommended to me. If possible, attend a funeral or memorial services for a friend or co-worker’s family member. You can’t take away another’s grief, but your presence lets the mourner know you care.
Further, here are some general guidelines for various religions. If you have questions about what is or is not appropriate, contact the funeral home or family directly. And keep in mind that each family may have their own preferences that should be taken into consideration. Of course, these guidelines are subject to further refinement and additional insight.
- Protestant, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon): Sending flowers, cards and charitable donations in the name of the deceased are appropriate expressions.
- Roman Catholic: Sympathy flower arrangements, standing flower arrangements, standing sprays, crosses and hearts are all appropriate expressions of sympathy. Food and fruit baskets can be sent to the home but not to the funeral home.
- Islam/Muslim: Flowers are not appropriate. Gifts of food are suitable. Since burials occur within 24 hours, it is best to send condolences quickly.
- Hindu: Flowers are not appropriate, but fruit is. A personal appearance is especially meaningful. Dress in white attire is preferred. Cremations occur within 48 hours.
- Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform): Flowers are not appropriate. Sweet fruit, desserts and food are appropriate gifts, but check to see if the food is Kosher.
- Buddhism: Flowers are appropriate, but instruct the florist not to use red flowers but white, the color of mourning. Food gifts are not considered appropriate.
Back at work, every effort should be made to keep the work situation as normal as possible for someone dealing with a loss. For many, work may be the escape they need.
Keep in mind that there’s no absolute timetable for the grieving process. In some cultures, the time needed to go through the grief cycle may be longer than in U.S. culture. It may be weeks or months before someone can get through the grieving cycle. During this time, the person’s behavior, attention span and energy level could vacillate.”At the very least I try to remember that if someone seems disengaged, not to assume it’s me or the task at hand, but that they may still be going through their grief cycle,” said a west coast friend.
So what should we not do?
“The shocking thing for me Terry was when I returned to work after my husband died of cancer, not once did my manager stop by to express condolences,” shared a person a while back. “In fact, he even emailed me while I was out.”
Are people like that insensitive? Maybe yes, maybe no.
As my west coast friend states, “Often if others don’t do what you expect, it may not be because they don’t care, but rather because they have different expectations as to how to acknowledge someone’s grief. Or, they honestly may have a difficult time with death, perhaps having recently experienced it personally, so they just avoid it.
In the end, the greatest gift is the gift of your time. And you don’t need a PhD in grief counseling or tutoring in the perfect vernacular to do that. “Sympathy sends a card, but compassion goes to visit,” a pastor said a few years ago.
In the end, and if nothing else, these two words will suffice:
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