Modern Etiquette: Good Ideas for Tough Times

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.

  1. Karen says:

    Dear Grace and team and all the friends in the D*S community in the US (I know we don’t know each other but the familiar nature of the postings makes it feel that we all know each other – I know you know what I mean).

    Your wonderful postings and the comments they generate are a daily pleasure, everything that’s good about the american spirit shines through them. I just wanted to say how much I have been thinking about you all this week in the aftermath of the Boston tragedy. Sending love and friendship from across the ocean in England.

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Thank you so much, Karen.

      Grace :)

  2. Ursula says:

    Great post. Grief is so isolating. You want people to care but yet you want to be alone. It is such a personal thing. But I love the suggestion you made; just to let people know you are there with a subtle email, letter or even a gift. That’s lovely. I’m 35 and have already lost both parents, a brother and a sister in the last few years. I too have been surprised by peoples reactions; some not in a good way. But like you said, some people don’t know how to handle grief and don’t know how to be there. I hope many people are exposed to this post, there’s a lot to learn from it!

  3. Shelly says:

    My family had someone reach out to us in our grief in such an unexpected way and it has forever changed how we respond to those who are in pain. My young cousin was killed in a car accident. A man in the community had read about the accident in the newspaper and showed up at the house with a catering van from a local restaurant. He had arranged for my cousins to have dinner every day for the next 2 weeks. It was over the top and generous but it made me realize that we can do the same thing on a smaller scale. It seems a little stalker like to arrive on a stranger’s doorstep with a meal but I’ve never been turned away. It probably helps that we live in a smaller town. I simply explain how someone loved on our family and we just wanted to pass along the favor.

  4. debra says:

    Thank you. I am dealing with a break up from my dream come true. I reached out to people at my hardest moment, when all I wanted was someone to tell me Im gonna be okay or maybe call me. I felt as if I would die inside and still can not stop crying at my loss. There is no one to talk to. I feel very alone and in a strange place with people I love all around. I love them so much that it gives me strength. But I doubt I will hear from any of them. Maybe it is just like with him, no matter how much you love people they really have their own lives and my grief over my loss of relationship, and my grandmother dying at same time is just too much to take alone. Id rather be alone than think some one cares only out of pity and not true friendship. It is all superficial so far from friends. Maybe it is the same as with him, I only think they care and they really don’t. It has been a real eye opener how much they admire the two timer and have no friendship or advice nor a word of comfort. Not even a phone call.
    D

  5. Deb says:

    It can be hard to see the depth of pain people are going through, I tell everyone I work with to get out even if it is just to get the paper, your in the fresh air and at least one person is going to smile and say hello. I am not good at doing what I preach but I know stay away from the crowed paces where everyone is oblivious as they rush to finalise some chore. Walk look at nature, get out the pretty things at home. Nature must be there to restore us. Pat a dog. It sounds glib I know but it starts to bring you back from grief. Find a stranger if needs be , to talk it out with, if no one else gets it. Every time I share a bench seat people share their stories. Your allowed to feel grief and your allowed to take the time to surround yourself with what gives you comfort during this time. You are going to be Okay! Your friends may have seen what this man was before you did and may be thinking it is better you know and not realise how deeply you are feeling. Your grandmother will always be part of you it’s hard to realise that you can’t call her however she has left a legacy for you to hold even if it is only what you see in the mirror. You will be ok. There are years that ask questions and years that give answers—Zora Neale Hurston

    Deb-

  6. marianne says:

    very thoughtful and good advice. Thanks for taking the time to do this.
    marianne

  7. Eileen Garton says:

    When our adult son that lived in another state was killed in an accident I just wanted to be alone with my husband and other 3 children. But early moringn my 2 nieces showed up at the door and stayed til late night. My husband that is ill would not leave the bedroom because of them. I spent all day checking up on hubby and nonsense chitchat with them. All I needed at that time was immediate family. I wished they had called first and gave me the choice of them visiting. I never even had the privacy to talk to my daughter in law and my grandchildren about their loss until the following day. The nieces know my husband is a very private person and doesn’t go to family functions other than immediate. Others did call and I just said we needed our privacy, had plans to make, etc. They all seemed to understand.

  8. Ashley says:

    I would like to add one more comment about loss from suicide. I have lost one friend to suicide and another has attempted and is still recovering/coping with depression. It can be very easy to criticize the person who has commited/attempted suicide, or to blame friends and family for not “doing enough” to prevent it. None of these comments are helpful.
    I tried my best to be there for my friend while she was recovering, but I was met with very harsh comments from her family blaming me for her suicide attempt; it made dealing with her attempt and being there to support her so much more difficult. I really grieved over my friend’s attempt even though she lived; at first it seemed like she wasn’t going to make it and then when she did I was compounded with grief for her tremendous sadness, fear that she might do it again, guilt that I hadn’t done enough and anger that it had happened at all. I just wanted to talk through these feelings so I could be there to support her, but none of our friends seemed comfortable discussing it and everyone just kept telling me to “be there for her”… Well I thought I was before, had I not done enough?
    I would just remind everyone of one of my favorite quotes, “Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.”
    Thank you Grace, for such a thoughtful post.

  9. amber says:

    Thank you so much for offering this advice. I have walked with several friends down these sad roads, and there is so much to learn and surprisingly little information out there about what’s best to do. It’s the main reason why I started a blog (only updated periodically these days) about “what to do when” you find yourself or a loved one in tough times. I’ve written about miscarriage and the death of my friend’s 5-year-old daughter 7 years ago. Your advice to always make contact is the best advice there is. And, like you said, following up and reminding people that they are not forgotten weeks, months, and on the anniversary of an event is super special too. My friend lost her husband in a tragic death 14 months ago, and in some ways the time surrounding the 1-year anniversary of his death was even harder than when it occurred because she was no longer surrounded by family the way you are immediately afterwards, and she was back at work doing “normal” life but still not feeling normal at all. I write events down in my planner and copy them from year to year so that I remember anniversaries and birthdays.

    Thank you so much for putting thought into this and sharing it with us. Very, very meaningful. xo

  10. Julie says:

    Although I did announce my mother’s death on Facebook last February) mostly to quickly inform family members overseas who it’s hard to call re: expense, time difference) and my old neighbors and friends from where I used to live. I got some lovely comments and messages. However, many of my close friends are not on FB and I called them and they expressed their condolences. However, I did not receive one card or plant or anything from any friend. I found that very, very odd. I live in a place where people who are just acquaintenances send cards with money. Although I certainly am not upset because I didn’t receive money from my friends, the lack of any formal follow up really did upset me. Is it because I called/Facebook’d and they expressed their condolences that way, so I shouldn’t have expected the customary former follow up?

    Also, you mentioned “invitations” to funerals–where I live it’s announced in the local papers in addition to my phone calls so anyone can attend. I suppose if I were to throw a special dinner it would be invitation-only, but the funeral should be for anyone. Maybe it’s just a custom in the upper Midwest?

  11. kim says:

    What is the proper method to ask for family heir looms or a couple personal mementos for given to the immediate family members. By brother in law past away and I thought we were a fairly close nit group. So very reluctantly I asked his girlfriend when she was ready to allow the family to select a small moments from his personal items that would have some sentimental value. I had indicated that an annual fishing trip would be now a memorial trip and that it would be nice to give the brothers and father some type of memorial gift from the tackle or possibly maybe even have a trophy manufactured from the tackle. She took 2 finger prints one for her and 1 for the family before his passing that would allow us to order custom jewelry from his finger prints. We have not been able to order the jewelry as she is in possession of the waxed prints. I asked if I could make arrangements to have them sent to the supplier so that I could have pieces made for my mother in law and my 2 children. In asking this she felt it was bizarre that I would want to give these items to the family and that it was not my place to ask or even consider putting any of these items into action. I apologized for saying they would be gifts from me, but that they would more accurately gifts from her and our lost loved ones. She was not happy with that apology and figures I owe her for even asking at all. I am so confused and do not know how to handle the situation. I did clearly say that when and if she would be ready it would be nice for her to give the immediate family an opportunity to have a keepsake. I asked that if he did have any family heir looms from his decease grandparents, great aunt/uncle and cousin if at some point she would consider returning them to someone in the family. But she feels there are no sentimental items that would be for the family and it is bizarre that a sister in-law would be asking for such things. I am broken hearted by the whole situation.

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      kim

      i’m so sorry you’re dealing with this situation. i would give her a bit of time to cool down and then have another member of your family approach her. long story short, if that doesn’t work, i’m pretty sure that legally those items belong to whoever he declared in his will (she is not his wife or commonlaw wife, yes?), or members of his family if none are specified. but that depends on the state you live in. i would continue politely checking in (with different members of the family) to see what you can have returned to you that belongs to your family.

      grace

  12. Arthur says:

    How do you approach a friend who refuses to open up? I have a close friend who is currently going through something but I don’t know what it is. All I know is it occurred between christmas and the new year. Everything was fine and then all of a sudden she wasn’t replying to any of my messages and I ask her if everything is ok and she told me to leave her alone. I did just that as I didn’t want to anger her so I gave it a few weeks and check in again and the same thing. It has been 6 months now and still she refuses to open up at all. I have tried to do what I can but nothing seems to work. I have reminded her that I am here for her if she needs to talk, I have offered to catch up to either talk about what happened or just to get things off her mind, offered to babysit and due chores for her. And still absolutely nothing. She has opened up about her parents getting divorced two years ago so I struggle to see why she won’t talk to me. She had a baby last year so I am worried something may have happened. I feel like I may have annoyed her by accident by consistently checking up on her instead of just leaving her alone. It’s so hard to deal with something knowing that a close friend is going through something horrible and being completely helpless. What can I do?

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Arthur

      It sounds like you’re doing the right thing. Reminding her, not excessively, that you’re here for her is the right thing to do. But it does sound like you’re assuming something happened to her and not knowing that for a fact or assuming any role in what that reason for the brush off might be.

      I would suggest a friendly sit down over coffee, nothing too high pressure, and tell her that you noticed a while back that she seemed to push you away. I would make the statement short and simple. Something like “Karen, your friendship means a lot to me and I wanted to talk because I noticed that about a year ago I felt as if you pulled away from me. I wanted to give you the time and space to discuss things on your own terms, but since we haven’t spoken about this change, I wanted to see if there’s anything I’ve done to upset you and to see if you’re ok?”.

      If you ask directly and make it about you and not her (your concern, not her problems/issues) and she STILL doesn’t open up or acknowledge any issues, I think you need to let it go. If she just had a baby she’s going through a LOT of changes and you may need to just back up and let those happen. Things are rarely about us as much as we think, so this may be related to something she’s dealing with privately and on her own terms. I would give her space to do that and try to just adjust to this new normal for the time being.

      Grace

  13. Nodae says:

    My family and I just lost our aunt to ovarian cancer, who we moved to our home from another state to take care of her during the last part of her journey here on earth.
    We live in a small communitycommunity, kids still in school, where word travels fast. Everyone knows we had our aunt living with us. We don’t belong to the ‘in’crowd that every small town has, so, therefore, our family isn’t one who they ‘chose’ to extend any kindness to, in any way … a meal, sympathy card, flowers, etc … This is something I have always done, helping out by making a casserole, running ‘friends’ with cancer to and from chemo or radiation treatments, sending sympathy cards, etc … We received a few cards, one meal (from close friends) and nothing else. The ones I supported through cancer and deaths of loved ones, I never heard one peep …which hurts terribly.
    There’s is nothing good about a small towntown anymore that I can see. I see nothing but exclusion, gossip, and no compassion–except if you belong to the ‘in’ group …
    It makes my heart really sad. We are good people, with good hearts who have always extended our hearts, hands and money during times of need and support to others in similar situations in this community. I just don’t understand …

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Nodae

      I’m so sorry to hear about both your loss and the treatment you’ve received from other people in your town. That is heartbreaking and I’m so sorry you didn’t receive the support you would have liked in such a tough time.

      Grace

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