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What to do when someone has died.

In the past few days, several friends of mine have lost a parent or family member. Having been through that myself, and hearing what they’re going through now, I was reminded about a blog post I was planning to write: advice on what to do in these situations, depending on your position. So here goes.

If you are a friend of the bereaved

I heard from several people that they “didn’t know what to say” to me when my dad died. Maybe you will disagree, but I think the worst thing you can do is say nothing. Well, unless you’re a real asshole and come up with something horrible about the deceased, but at least you’re paying attention. I had some friends disappear when I told them my dad had cancer last year. Haven’t heard from them since. I guess they assumed I wasn’t going to be any fun anymore and they moved on. They can go fuck themselves, frankly.

But my heart was warmed by the care that everyone else showed me. Just a note on Facebook, a text message, a phone call, a card; it doesn’t take much effort, really. I got some really nice messages from the spouses of friends of mine, who I didn’t really know that well. That was unexpected and special.

So, don’t disappear, tell the person you’re sorry for their loss, that you’re thinking of them, whatever is sincere. Believe me, it will help.

If you want to do more than that, bring them food. Flowers are good too, though less edible. Offer to help in some way. Just be there for them. You don’t need to know what to say or do; just be a friend.

I suppose there was one annoying thing that was said to me by well-intentioned guy friends when I informed them of Dad’s cancer: “Take this opportunity to spend as much time with your father as you can, and cherish these last months together” or some such nonsense. No, really? I have to wonder what they thought I was going to do. But seriously, that’s the worst I got, and they did mean well.

If you are a friend of the deceased

Regarding the period of time when the dying is still alive, but on their deathbed: if invited, come and say your goodbyes, and then leave. Don’t come back the next day to say goodbye again unless for some weird reason you’re invited. This is such an intimate and overwhelming time for the family, and your showing up multiple times is disrespectful to them. I think I tweeted something about it not being a buffet, back in March.

If you are there in the hospital room, and the family asks you to leave, and the person in the bed can no longer express an opinion on the matter, leave. Your grief, though extreme, is not the same as theirs, and suggesting that your loss is on equal terms with theirs is selfish, even if you think it is.

After the death, don’t tell the family in detail how much you’re suffering while not asking them how they are doing; you’ll sound like an ass. Your pain is not their burden, and they are trying hard enough to keep themselves afloat. And yes, this means that you should remember them and their feelings in what you do in the following days. Don’t make yourself feel better at their expense.

If you are the bereaved

Don’t let anyone tell you how you’re supposed to grieve. I was told, the week of, that I was doing it wrong, that if I was grieving properly I’d be crying with wild abandon instead of suffering stomach cramps and insomnia. Well, the stomach cramps disappeared a half hour after the memorial, and the crying finally came last week, nearly two months later. Everything short of throwing a burlap sack of puppies off the overpass of a highway is probably an okay way to deal with loss. And who would do that to puppies?


  1. Tom Krouper says:

    Someone really told you that you were grieving wrong? That is ballsy. I can’t imagine having the gall to say that to anyone, ever. (Well, unless they start chucking dogs off overpasses, then I might say something.)

    I probably didn’t say it at the time, but I was thinking of you at the time when I saw your tweets. But wasn’t sure knowing someone you only know online saying they were sorry would help. Maybe it would have. If it would have and I didn’t say anything, I’m sorry.

  2. alexis says:

    Thank you for writing this. I think it’s great. I learned some stuff and want to share it with others I know who can relate to it.

  3. Brigette says:

    I said it before and I’ll say it again now. I am so very sorry for your loss, Gill. I can’t imagine the level of grief you’ve been going through. All I can offer is *hugs* and any support you may need. I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately and hope that you are doing okay.

  4. Sue says:

    Thanks for writing this, and applying your usual grace and humour to a painful topic.

    Hopefully I can ask this without coming across like an ass… sometimes it feels so inadequate to say “I’m sorry for your loss.” Is it actually helpful to hear that?

  5. ann says:

    Thanks for writing this, Gill. I hope you are well :)

  6. Gillian says:

    Tom: I didn’t mean to suggest that everyone who knows me at various small and virtual levels should’ve sent me their condolences; that would be expecting too much. It’s just that people who are friends in meatspace seem to find themselves worried about saying the wrong thing, and therefore avoiding the person entirely. I also don’t think there’s a statute of limitations, really, so I appreciate your sentiment now :)

    Sue: Well, I did suggest that maybe people would argue with me that the worst thing would be to say nothing :). But I just think it’s important that you let the person know you’re thinking of them, because in the face of that loss, one can feel very alone. It helped me to know that I had friends who cared about me during that hard time, and how would I know that if they ignored me?

    Brigette: Thanks, I’m doing okay. Sometimes grief comes in waves, but most of the time I’m cool.

  7. Beth says:

    This is a great post, Gillian. Thanks for sharing it. I’ve experienced a very similar thing – I remember saying “I’m sorry for your loss” to people who had lost loved ones and thought that it must seem so inadequate, but then being on the receiving end of those messages I, like you, found that they really helped get me through a tough time.

    I also appreciate your sentiment of “don’t let anyone tell you how to grieve.” No one actually told me directly that I was grieving wrong, but they heavily implied it. It’s really reassuring to hear this from you – even though I know that everyone grieves in their own way, I did start to question myself when the one millionth person said “You are back at work ALREADY???”.

  8. Evelyn Funk says:

    Dear Gillian: Thank you for your wise words. The next time Guy and Anna cross the pond we hope you will join us for dinner and we can cry together.

  9. I’m sorry for your loss.

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