Death is one of those messy, hard things entrenched in stigma that many fear whispering its name in case for some reason it may bring it upon themselves. Now with religion aside because I am a strong believer in living in the moment, doing as much good as we can while we are here, because regardless of whats next, isn’t that just the point? But I digress.
I wanna talk about the time a high school classmate’s mom passed away and I brought ice cream. And the reason I bring mints to every funeral. And so many more.
My youth was entrenched with death. Not directly, no, but it surrounded us. My father a police officer, photographing homicides and more than a few times we thought he wasn’t coming home. A poignant memory was watching 4 men on a roof top covered in sheets after a helicopter went down. My dad was supposed to be in that helicopter. So elementary school me was staring at a sheet trying to figure out if it had the same shape as my dad. But I was lucky. My mom worked with the elderly and was always the go to when someone close to us had a family member in hospice. We understood what death meant and what it didn’t. We weren’t afraid to talk to the grieving or dying. No one wants to face their mortality, my mother always thought I would have made a lovely undertaker.
So now I want to share with you what I know about dealing with death.
- You are still breathing. And you will keep breathing until you don’t anymore. That being said whether you are ready or not life keeps moving and you do what you need to to exist. Sorry that one is tough but true. Grieve, forgive those that say the wrong thing, think about your sadness. Sadness will end and lessen. Depression will not. Ask for help if the tunnel is too long or too dark.
- Support your friends in pieces. Grief is a long process that never truly ends. You feel better, you move forward but it lingers. Dealing with someone in the grips of loss will burn you out. Be there as much as you can but take breaks, circle back and let them know its OK a year down the line for them to lament about how Christmas still really pisses them off or about heartbroken they are there is no one to have dinner with. Gently letting them know hey look its been 6 months I know you are doing really well but I’m still here if you want talk about xyz person and its still OK to have good days and bad ones.
- Games are great! I know sounds crazy but especially with terminal illness I like to kidnap the grieving, take them out of their comfort zone and bring them somewhere really fun. (See #4 for transporting those in grief) Now that may seem really crazy but say you have a teenager that has been dealing with a parents final days of illness for months give them a break, always ask a simple hey want to get out of here usually works. Make it a judgement free zone and take charge of the decision making even flat out tell them listen you need some air, some space to breath you are off duty for the next two hours lets go. When they go back they are right there in the thick of it. I once did this with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s for everyone and a trip to the arcade. Kids generally have limited experience with death and are terrified to talk to their friends experiencing it. Help them reach out like this.
- Ahh yes notorious number 4, transporting the grieving. Pretend like nothing happened and give them space. If you can bring someone and put the grieving person in the back seat. This is specific to someone who got the news and now needs to travel to the location of the deceased. No one wants to be that hysterical mess in an airport so by pretending like everything is OK, giving that person as much privacy as possible you are simply trying to get them from point a. to point b. once you deliver them they will be embarrassed by family, friends everything will hit them all at once. Let the shock where off in that moment with a full support system in place. Not with them trapped in the front passenger seat trying to figure out what just happened, all their emotions etc.
- Bring mints, Altoids are my favorite. You will find them in every funeral home and little trade secret they don’t just freshen your breath…they hold off tears. Slipping a pack of Altoids quietly to a grieving widower and whispering in their ear during your hug eat a mint it will help with the lump in your throat can make a huge difference. Works great for those in a receiving line, giving a eulogy etc.
- Ask questions. Most people will be terrified to mention the person who is gone. Don’t bombard them right away but in the coming days and weeks ask about their favorite memory, the funniest thing they ever did. Let them know that its still OK to talk about them. You’d be amazed how many people won’t do this. I asked this of my grandfather in law and I learned a story now one had ever heard before of his wife very poorly playing a ukulele and getting an entire bus full of hungover traveling companions singing and dancing and laughing like there was no tomorrow.
- Candy, favorite items, bring them. Especially if there are kids involved. If Grandpa always had a butterscotch in his pocket bring some and let your child put it in the pocket if its an open casket. Obviously you need to adhere to cultural and family beliefs but letting them know that their experience with Grandpa was valid is a good thing. I would recommend allowing children only brief attendance as this can be too much.
I know my advice may seem just down right crazy or even callus, but I can tell you every single time I have done this it has worked. I can’t tell you how many people have questioned me, even cursed me out, but when they saw me interacting with their loved one they very quickly changed their tune and would quietly ask me how I knew to do whatever it is I did.
The most important thing to remember is do not be afraid. Do not fear death, the grieving or the name of the dead. Be your best self and care a whole lot that’s the best you can do and always forgive the grieving they may be very very angry and can lash out at you understandably forgive them and support them.
Do you have any dealing with death hacks?