Mourning 101 – How to Pay Your Respects
There will be a time, many times actually, when a friend, co-worker or casual acquaintance will face the death of a loved one.
There will be mourning. There may be a visitation or memorial service, perhaps reflecting religious, family, cultural and regional traditions.
And you will wonder whether to attend one of these social gatherings — or you should — whether the deceased is a cousin you haven’t seen in five years or a co-worker’s parent whom you’ve never met.
“If it was your mother’s (service), would you expect to see your co-workers? If you can answer ‘yes’ to that question, then you should go,” says funeral director James Olson, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association (nfda.org) and owner of the Lippert-Olson Funeral Home in Sheboygan, Wis.
Such gatherings “are about the living and giving them a chance to express their grief — or it may be an expression of joy for a life well lived. For the person who is mourning, it is very important to know there are people who support them,” he says. “But it also gives the greater community an opportunity to share in that grief.”
We had a few more questions for Olson:
Do I have to dress up? “Out of respect for the family, put a little effort into getting ready,” he says, and wear something more than shorts and a T-shirt.
What do I do at the gathering? “Sign the guest book to let them know you’re there,” he says. “Then wait in line and express your condolences.
“You don’t have to stay, (but showing up) at least lets the family know you were thinking about them in their time of need.”
What do I say? “The best thing: ‘I am truly sorry for your loss’.” Also, if you can, Olson suggests mentioning something about the deceased: “I really loved your mother’s garden and her beautiful flowers,” or “I loved how your dad was always washing his cars.”
“Keep it simple,” he advises. “Stick to what you know.”
Are there things I shouldn’t say? Refrain from asking probing questions about the illness or death. A grieving family member may not want to keep repeating unpleasant details of her mom’s final days.
Also, don’t say things such as, “I know how you feel. I lost my mom too.” Your loss is different from someone else’s loss, and it’s not about you. “At that particular moment, to be honest,” Olson says, “someone doesn’t want to hear about someone else’s loss.”
What about cultural/religious/regional differences? “It’s my experience that families are not there at that time to judge you,” says Olson, adding that the funeral director is usually present to provide guidance to visitors.
Can’t I just fill in comments on the funeral home’s website instead of making a personal appearance? Online guest books are conveniences, especially for those who live far away, Olson says, “but those (websites) shouldn’t be the opportunity to opt out of attending a visitation or memorial service.”
Do I have to go to the funeral? “Unless you’re a family member or particularly close to the family, it’s not expected,” he says.
Anything else? Turn off your cellphone/smartphone. “There should be nothing more important than what we’re there to do,” Olson says, recalling a minister at a local church who, when someone’s phone rang in the middle of a service, stopped and said, “That better be God calling.”