I first shared this post in 2018 after my younger sister’s death on my old blog and social media pages.
Sometimes it takes going through something yourself to make you aware of what is the right thing to say or do, and what is not.
A friend lost her sister recently and when she told me how some folks just don’t understand how insensitive their words or behaviour can be, it took me back to 2018 all over again.
There is no complete handbook to grieving. Yes, resources are available and do help but we need to remember it is not a cookie cutter version for all. We all grieve differently, and need to be more sensitive to those who have lost loved ones by being there, and letting them grieve the best way they know how.
Here is what I shared back then and I think it’s still applicable.
Grief Etiquette 101
In no particular order:-
• When you visit a bereaved person be conscious of what you say and ask. Let them speak first if they want to. If they do not want to give more information on what happened, DO NOT PRY. It is perfectly fine to sit there in silence.
• It is not the time to bring gossip and what other people are saying into a grieving home. Why would you even do that? Why?
• Do not say “ I know how you feel,” you don’t. You may have lost a loved one too, but the pain is different. You could have both lost spouses or children, and can console each other on the same without assuming the pain and anguish is the same.
• Do not force the grieving person to tell you what they will do next. If a spouse dies, do you tell widows and widowers to change beds and houses immediately? It is NONE of your business, and they most probably haven’t even gotten round to thinking about it.
• Don’t tell a grieving person “vumilia!” (Meaning ‘be strong’ in Swahili) If they want to laugh, scream, wail, roll, let them do it as long as they are not endangering themselves and others. There is no textbook way to mourn.
• Respect the grieving person’s culture. Every culture has a way they deal with grief and bereavement. Do not be condescending. Seek clarity from a friend familiar to that culture instead, if there is something you do not understand.
• Grieving is not a platform to compete about who knew the deceased better and who knows the family more. Hatushindani kwa machozi tafadhali. (meaning, we are not competing in who grieves best). Be sensitive to the loss. With increased social media use, when a person dies, there seems to be a competition online on who knew the dead person more and who posts more photos with the deceased. Appalling to say the least.
• Some help to the family goes a long way, be it financial or just helping take out trash, stock groceries, cleaning up, cooking them a meal, running some errands for them etc. It does not hurt to also ask HOW you can help. In my culture, arranging a funeral takes about a week. At this time, there are people visiting to console the family who have to be catered to. This help doesn’t have to be food, even soap to wash dishes, serviettes, extra tissue etc, they all go a long way. Check and ask how you can be of assistance to them during this period.
Please, for the love of God, help from the heart. You do not have to help if you do not want to. Do not give any kind of help and expect to be rewarded for it. You help from the heart. Don’t expect a medal for it!
• Let the family determine the legacy they want for their loved one. AT their own time. Do NOT rush them into making decisions. God knows I can write a whole book on this!
• If the deceased person had indicated how they would want to be disposed. RESPECT IT! Who are you to question how and why someone is being cremated or buried in a certain way or at a certain place?
• After the funeral, it is ok to check on the family but don’t linger. Sometimes they also need some privacy in their mourning and as they try to cope in the absence of their loved one. If I’m bereaved and you come and find me out shopping, don’t accuse me or make me feel guilty for doing normal things.
There is no textbook way to grieve so if a long drive, retail therapy, or swimming will help me cope, let me be! Stop making bereaved people feel guilty for doing normal things. Life continues for them no matter how hard it is.
• Be silent and open to non verbal nuances. If the bereaved person wants to talk about the deceased, let them do it at their own time and shut up and listen. Do not offer opinions and answers unless asked, as sometimes the person just wants to be listened to.
• Confidentiality and sensitivity is so important. Recording committee meetings or conversations taking place, taking photos and sharing them without express family permission is a BIG NO! Only vile human beings derive pleasure from sharing others anguish. Are you the type? Please stay away from grieving families if you answered yes.
• There are different stages of grief and family members and friends who have lost a loved one are rarely at the same stage at the same time. Respect that too.
This is not an exhaustive list. I came up with this as a result of what we experienced as a family back then, and with talking with others about what they have gone through.
Grief and loss really bring out the best and the worst in us humans. Let us strive to do better, be better, more helpful, more sensitive and less judgmental when those around us lose their loved ones.
Presently, the Covid 19 pandemic has affected they way we mourn and grieve.
We cannot gather as we are used to, our loved ones are dying and being buried in our absence, which is not an easy thing for the bereaved.
We can however choose to show compassion to those who have lost their loved ones, and support them in many other ways. We just have to remember to be kind and sensitive. A little thoughtfulness goes a long way.
It is not too much to ask, is it?