Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Fathers & Funerals

With a five hour solo drive to my former hometown and back, I had plenty of time to reflect on my dear friend's loss of her father and his funeral.

Just last week, this same friend told me that her Father-In-Law died the same June day an ultrasound revealed that their expected baby is a boy, the first grandson. Her husband was thrilled to have the opportunity tell his dying father of this happily anticipated son/grandson.

I immediately answered this sad email, and she soon responded that her 56 year-old dad died on Thursday night of a sudden heart attack.

I only met her dad once or twice, but I really admired him from my friend's stories and her wonderful traits that so many people attributed to her dad (a ready laugh, enthusiasm, and deep compassion for everyone). Her dad's love of history influenced her from early childhood on. At a young age, she began slipping tiny notes, missives to the future, into nooks and crannies- behind light switch plates and into architectural gaps of their home.

From the time of her birth (she is the oldest of three), her dad kept a faithful journal for his kids of their early lives. A few years ago at Christmas he had his ongoing journals unbound, reproduced, and bound into volumes for each of his three children. With this amazing gift of daily writing, my friend can see what her father was thinking on her 6th birthday, the day she became engaged, or the days her daughters were born. That's an amazing, daily gift of devotion.

Knowing the immeasurable void this gentle man's death leaves in my friend's closeknit family made me want to do something for her. And what I could do was less than remarkable, but important.

So, here's a brief guide for young Americans (us, not our children) to deaths and funerals .

1- Acknowledge the loss. This may sound completely obvious, but a lot of people in our generation simply don't know what to do. Plus, we're afraid to mistakenly do something painful and end up paralyzed with indecision. There are many ways to acknowledge a loss (card, flowers, memorial donations, food for the family, visiting the family, or attending the funeral). Sooner is always better, but a late condolence is better than none at all.

Sometimes your presence can be a gift to the survivors. We learned this firsthand when our college friend died just a year after graduation of diabetic complications. His college roommate called to inform us of the death and the funeral details. The roommate called so many people from our college days and many of them responded with "I didn't know him that well" or "Oh, hunh." When we arrived at visitation, the roommate met us in the parking lot. The three of us were the whole college contingent. We felt incredibly awkward and inadequate when we entered the small town funeral home teeming with lifelong friends and family.

As we approached our friend's parents, his mother brightened upon seeing his roommate and said to us, "You must be from the university too." They were cheered by our presence even though we were a flyspeck compared to the actual number of their son's college friends. It was important for them to know that in those college years (which amounted to almost a fourth of his total life) he was happy and loved.

What did we say? Not much in the way of originality or complexity. "I am so sorry." "He will be missed." "His smile was contagious." But we stood there to represent those independent, lesser-known-to-them years of their son's short life. Being there was most important thing we could do.

2- Don't feel like you have to answer the age old questions of death or grief. No one's really found a good soothing response thus far, so it's probably not going to come to you spontaneously.

"I'm sorry," is enough. If you want to say more- mention a favorite memory or trait or offer assistance (immediate or delayed). It's amazing how long people often stand during visitation. It's okay to offer a chair, a drink, tissues, or some other immediate assistance to the grieving.

Please refrain from all impulses to "fix" the situation (death) unless you can actually resuscitate the dead in a healthy, sound non-zombie state. If you have such powers, feel free to intervene.

Analysis of the situation can also be hurtful. Everyone has to answer "Why?" in their own time and manner. The answer that soothes you might make someone else powerfully angry or sad. Proceed here only with extreme caution.

3- After the funeral, don't avoid mentioning the individual who died (especially if they died in tragic circumstances). A mom who lost her 21 year old son in a freak and tragic accident told me that it was incredibly painful when people stopped mentioning him to her. She even started wondering at times if his life had been real or made any difference. It's important let her know that we remember him and miss him too. He's easy to remember and miss. I asked him once what he was doing for college spring break: "My little sisters are singing in church this Sunday" he said, beaming with brotherly pride. It was a unique Norman Rockwell moment in my university office- one imprinted on my memory.

The thing that impressed me most at this funeral is how proud my friends' father would have been of his family's graciousness and concern for others even the midst of grief. This fine father left to the world three incredibly brave, caring, and intelligent children. They are a true and lasting testament to his excellent parenting- and that's something we can all aspire to (Great work, Jeffrey!).


Sarah said...

Are you SURE you're not a pastor, Adrienne?

What a wonderful article. I especially like the way you point out that the things we say to comfort might actually cause more harm. This is so true. Things like "she's in a better place" or "it was God's will" can sometimes be much more upsetting than comforting.

Thanks again for another great piece!

Sara said...

GREAT advice! I lost my brother in a tragic car accident when he was 23, and I wish more people had read this kind of advice. One other thing I would add: if you're close enough to the family to offer any type of help, either just go ahead and do it or offer something very specific. People who are grieving are in no place to make even minor decisions or to tell people what they think they should do, but usually appreciate any and all gestures.

debra said...

My father had a massive stroke on Father's Day and died on July 2. Your words are important ones. think that the only wrong thing to say to someone who has had a loss is nothing. People say they don't know what to do--it's the being rather than the doing. After all we are Human Beings, not Human Doings.