Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What I Learned

Until my mother died suddenly and shockingly, I had never been in the inner circle of a sudden or shocking death. Oh, I'd had relatives and friends pass away, but most of those did exactly what the words say--they passed away in old age or in illness, when moving from the they're-here-with-us stage to the no-longer-with-us stage was expected.

Mom's death was different. She was old, but still wonderfully herself until the fall and traumatic head injury that took her in the Biblical twinkling of an eye.(Her body lingered another day, but she was irrevocably gone after the fall.)

Here's what I learned when Mom died:

1. Tears have a life of their own and do not respect your wishes. No amount of saying "I'm not going to cry," or "I'll wait until I'm alone to cry" will stop tears, and a friend reminded me to carry tissues at all times and for at least a year. Tears are not a bad thing, they are God's way of reminding us He is present. I did sometimes wish He would announce His presence in ways that were not quite so nose-reddening, but I was not in charge.

2. Even if it made me cry, I wanted people to talk about my mom. Among the most comforting moments of the entire week were the few seconds during the funeral home visitation when one of her friends pulled me aside.  "You know, your mother looked so beautiful at church Sunday that I mentioned it to Raymond," she told me. "It's almost like she had a glow around her." Even now, I smile (and, of course, cry) to think of that moment.

3. If you take food to the family, use disposable containers. Food is a wonderful and useful way to let the family know you're thinking of them. In the first few days much food will be brought in, though, and having to keep track of casserole dishes and platters is a stress that they don't need.

4. Here are some things the family will need: Food storage containers. Toilet paper. Paper plates and paper towels. Kleenexes. Coffee. Soft drinks. A notebook for keeping track of who has visited the house. Folding chairs for visitors. Stamps. Gift certificates for pizza, to get through the numb days that will follow when visitors have gone home.

5. Cards are comforting. Before, I rarely sent sympathy cards because I thought the Hallmark moment was just too impersonal. I preferred a hug and spoken word to comfort the grieving person. I still do that if possible, but reading a card in private, especially one that contains a hand-written note, has healing power as well. The note doesn't need to be long or beautifully crafted--"Your mom always smiled at me" or "I loved to hear her play the flute" is enough.

6. Everyone grieves on a different timetable. My boss gave me wonderful advice at Mom's funeral. "Don't try to come back to the office too quickly," he said. "Once you're at your desk, people will expect you to work." So, so true. Also, it's considered bad form to shriek "Seriously? You think I care which headline font you use? My mother just DIED."

 7. Finally, don't disappear. Be there, and allow the family to do whatever they need to do. They may cry, or need to walk away, or...well, anything. Don't be surprised. Just be there, with them in this sudden and shocking place they never expected to be.


  1. What a helpful list of things the bereaved family will need! I'd never thought about it, but DEFINITELY I would not want to go shopping for toilet paper right after a sad loss.

    A little hard to BRING such a gift. "I'm so sorry---here's a 24-pack of Charmin." Probably best to bring it in while people are milling around, and just sort of leave it in the bathroom without comment.

  2. You'd be surprised, Swistle. At that point we were surprised by NOTHING and would have accepted the toilet paper gratefully. Actually, at that point, much more gratefully than we would have accepted another cake.

  3. Oh I love this so much. Such great advice. My mom died just 24 days ago. While it wasn't unexpected it is something I don't think anyone can ever really truly prepare for. I am SO WITH YOU on the sympathy cards. The sweet stories about my mom from her friends and even my friends' memories of her were so welcome in those quiet moments. My family and I sat around reading the cards over with a big box of tissue. So helpful and healing. I will never again hesitate to send a sympathy card.

  4. Melinda, I'm so, so sorry. I had an 84-year-old woman come up to me after Mom's funeral with tears in her eyes, and tell me she still missed her mother. That is not an altogether bad thing--lots of good memories are mixed in, even when it hurts. Grace to you.

  5. Thank you for sharing all this. I will remember the toilet paper and pizza coupons next time I'm in this situation.

  6. One other thought in these times - Don't forget the friend(s) who's working behind the scenes. They are trying to keep the "house" running with all the wonderful, thoughtful items everyone's bringing and trying to keep the family from falling completely apart, all while grieving too. I had a very dear friend lose his father very unexpectedly in college and spent a week with his family in this role. I was exhausted, physically and emotionally, and I remember one person stopping me to ask how I was doing. I still remember that person's kindness.