Illustration by Anna Emilia
Today’s etiquette topic is one that’s near and dear to my heart. I’ve been through some pretty major life changes in the past few years (Divorce, major health issues and several family deaths, among others) and I’ve been both pleased and surprised by the way people around me have reacted. I was moved and touched by the way that both complete strangers and dear friends stepped forward to support me and saddened by the way some people chose to shrink away, out of fear, confusion or not being sure what to say. So, after hearing from a dear friend who reminded me of a floral arrangement I sent after the death of her mother-in-law, it inspired me to tackle the idea of bereavement. It’s a sad topic, but one that we all deal with at one time or another. And I truly feel that most people want to support people in tough times, but often don’t know the best way to handle the situation. So today I thought I’d cover a few guidelines that will help you support the people around you- and help teach them ways to support you when you’re going through a tough time. As always, I welcome and wholeheartedly encourage you all to respond with your thoughts. It’s hard to know how all of these situations feel until you’ve been through them, so I hope those of you who’ve been through some of these tough times can let us know what would have been the best way to support you in that moment. xo, grace
The full article continues after the jump…
*Please note: These ideas are just suggestions and clearly some people will respond differently or want a different response. This discussion, and the comments below, are merely to get a dialogue going so we can work together to find a better way to support those around us and avoid anyone feeling left alone or hurt during a time of need*
Ten Things to Remember
1. When in doubt, make contact: The biggest thing I’ve heard from friends who’ve gone through tough situations is how alone they felt. People (including me) tend to feel scared of how to respond and assume that giving people space is the best tactic. But I’ve found that more often than not, a call, hand-written email or thoughtful email is incredibly appreciated. You may not hear back right away, but people remember when others take a moment acknowledge the tough time they’re going through. One note: I think making contact is different than demanding time or attention from someone dealing with a loss. Make your contact brief and leave the door open for further communication. That way you can tell if they do in fact want to talk, or if they’d prefer some time alone.
2. Private matters are best left private: Whether or not someone chooses to announce something on Facebook doesn’t mean you should respond in kind. I think very serious matters deserve a serious response. This is not the time for emoticons, abbreviations or YOLO dropping. If someone announces the death of a family member online, it’s perhaps best to respond with an email, call or written letter if you can. If not, a private message that’s heartfelt is best.
3. When in doubt, send flowers: I was raised by parents that sent flowers for just about every occasion. Engagements, birthdays, anniversaries, births, deaths – you name it, we send flowers for it. I know not everyone loves flowers, but I’ve seen even the most curmudgeonly person smile at the delivery of a plant or flowers that acknowledge a tough time. Clearly this should be tailored for the occasion (a dozen red roses aren’t great for a death), and this guide to flower symbolism is handy if you need help choosing an appropriate arrangement. Though I’ve found that if you just ask the florist, they know what to do, too.
4. See how you can help: Without being pushy, try to see what your loved one most needs. Do they need someone to help with meals? Someone to pick up the kids? Or maybe just a shoulder to cry on? Ask what they need and give just that- no more and no less. This is a time to focus on what’s best for them, and not what you think they should be doing. (i.e.: After a death, some people want to stay indoors and mourn. Insisting your friend go for a jog and get outside to shake things off may be well-intentioned, but if they say that want a few days to grieve, listen to them.)
5. Don’t Make It About You: One of the things that most frustrated me when I went through a divorce was the way people immediately launched into marriage advice based on their relationships. Without even asking what I was dealing with, they assumed my situation was exactly like theirs and they knew just what to do. When someone is dealing with something tough, it’s best to let them ask for advice if they want it. And if they choose to grieve in a way that seems different to you, let it be. A dear friend of mine lost her mother and chose to honor her with a meal of her favorite traditional dishes from South America. I was shocked that some of the attendees made a big stink to everyone about “all the meat’ being served. I respect someone’s right to not eat certain foods, but you can easily participate in an event without compromising your beliefs. Skip the meat and just be present for your friend and support them with your presence and listening.
6. Keep in Touch: An initial out reach is great, but one of the saddest things that happens after a tough situation is the way people can forget and drop off quickly. That’s often the time around which most people start re-entering normal life and it can feel like everyone forgot about you. Whether you use a Google calendar reminder or another method, make a date to check back in with your friends and see how they’re doing a few weeks later. They may need some time to grieve, but letting them know you haven’t forgotten about them or their loss a few weeks later is often very appreciated.
7. It’s Always Ok To Say I’m Sorry: Mistakes happen and sometimes people panic when something bad happens to someone close to them. Whether it makes them worried about their own marriage or fear their own mortality, sometimes losses make people shy away from staying close to the people dealing with the loss. But it’s never too late to step back in and say, “I’m so sorry I wasn’t there for you when [XYZ]. I should have been and I’m sorry. I’m here now and want to do whatever I can to support you. How can I help?”. A heartfelt apology can solve a multitude of problems. And no one wants to pile the loss of a friend on top of another tragedy.
8. Every thought counts: I read a lot of rules in old etiquette books about who can and cannot contact someone after a death, etc. And that ideas frankly feels wildly out of date to me. Through social media, blogs and every other form of virtual connection, we’ve made contacts with people in other parts of the world who care about us- even if they don’t know us well. While it doesn’t make sense for all of them to assume an invitation to a funeral, it does make sense to assume they can all reach out to express condolences. I think this goes for co-workers and anyone else who knows what you’re dealing with. A short and simple, “Hi Dave, This is Cathy from accounting. I know we don’t know each other well, but I heard about your loss and just wanted to tell you how sorry I was to hear about your mother. My most sincere condolences to you and your family.”. I received some truly special emails from D*S readers after my grandmother died- people I don’t officially “know”- that meant as much to me as emails from my dearest friends. Mainly because they were heartfelt and supportive. You can never go wrong with something simple and genuine like that.
9. Never say “aren’t you over that yet?”. Just don’t. That is never going to go over well. If the person who is still struggling with something is very close to you, perhaps you can bring up the idea of how you could help further (Are they interested in being connected to a counselor? Would they want someone to accompany them on their first big night out after a divorce? Do they need company to visit a loved one’s grave for closure?). But unless that person is very close to you, it’s best to let them grieve on their own time. Some losses (like the loss of a child) can feel constant and ongoing, so rather than judging their process just see what you can do to help.
10. Keep the ball in your court: No matter what the situation is, it’s always polite to be the one who proposes plans until someone is ready to re-enter their regular life again. Rather than leaving a message with an open ended “Call me if you need something”, do your best to stay in touch and propose actual plans like, “Would you like to join me for tea?”, that give someone the chance to accept and move forward. Sometimes taking that first step out of the house is the hardest, and sticking with it and offering small but concrete plans is helpful. Simple outings like walks, meals, a movie, etc. are great because they don’t take a lot of time and give people a chance to dip their toes back into things without feeling overwhelmed.
Good Gifts for Tough Times
These ideas should be tailored to what the person in need wants most, but they’re good jumping off ideas for helping a friend.
1. Flowers: Sending flowers to a funeral, a hospital or a family home is always a thoughtful gesture. Even following up with a small bouquet or plant after a few weeks have past can be a nice gesture to brighten their day.
2. Homemade meals: Sometimes meals are the last thing on someone’s mind when they’re dealing with a tragedy or tough time. See how you can help, or even set up a meal tree with other friends, to ease their load in the beginning.
3. Chores & Cleaning: When someone is going through something tough, holing-up indoors feels like the safest thing to do. If you’re able to help someone run simple chores like grocery runs, drugstore runs, cleaning up around the house or going to the post office, it can be a big life saver. I knew a friend who dealt with the loss of a child and just simply wasn’t able to deal with taking care of home matters for a long time (understandably). A good friend of ours checked with her and then decided to come once a week and clean up the house, do dishes and wash clothes for her. It not only helped her out, but it gave the friend some time to connect with her and talk once a week, too.
4. Babysitting: Dealing with children when you’re grieving can be hard. Offer to babysit, take their kids to the park for the day, etc. There’s no need to imply or talk about the parents not “being up to” doing these activities, but instead frame it from the perspective of, “I haven’t gotten to spend time with [children's names] for a while and you deserve some down time to yourself, so how about I take them to the park and out to lunch and you relax today?”
5. Hand-written letters: Checking in with someone or sending encouraging notes in the mail can be a kind surprise, and a way to check in without invading their need for privacy or space, for someone grieving. I got some very thoughtful hand-written cards after I got divorced and I still remember every to this day.
6. Anniversary of event: People re-live tough moments when an anniversary passes (the death of a loved one, the year they lost their job, etc.). Offer to spend time with that friend on the anniversary if they don’t already have plans. A lot of the time those anniversaries feel just as tough as the original event, and having some company- or a distraction- can be a big help.