Some things I’ve learned (mostly the hard way) about death etiquette.
Recently, a friend of mine went through an horrific experience. Her dad died in freak accident and she witnessed it. I mean, what the fuck do you say about that? I remember reading about “funeral” etiquette and how it’s not okay to say “they’re in a better place” or “thank God they aren’t suffering anymore”. In my opinion none of those things are appropriate but I do have some respect when they’re used if you’re comforting a religious person about a loved one who died after a long hospitalization from a terminal illness. That most certainly was not the case with my friend. When I went to the funeral I just didn’t say anything. I hugged her and let her cry and felt myself wanting to say, “you’ll be okay” but I knew she wouldn’t, you don’t ever come back to normalcy after something so tragic. I just said, “I’m here for you”.
When I was nineteen, my best friend completed suicide. I can’t even count the number of people who didn’t know him at all that called me so that I could comfort them… that was most definitely not okay. I needed to get away and couldn’t get fast or far enough until I packed my bags and went to Hawai’i for an extended vacation 3 days after his death. It was perfect, I was with a lover and some of his friends and they had that “magic Hawai’i” way about them in which nothing they said was wrong. If it was, how would I notice? I was in Hawai’i! I could forget – for brief moments. That worked for me and I came back with a scorching sun-burn and some of the very best memories of my life while my friends and family had stayed for a funeral during which an obnoxious amount of people who never gave a fuck about my friend showed up to mourn him. I couldn’t have gone through with that without punching someone. By the time I got back, the false friends had moved on to other dramas in their lives and my close friends and I were each ready to experience our own grieving processes. Aside from that first day – before I went to Hawai’i, I didn’t cry at all. I did stop eating for a while but apparently that’s how my body reacts since I lack outward emotion.
Years went by and some older relatives died of various terminal illnesses and I simply couldn’t cry about it. I remember one death in particular – my aunt had incurable cancer and had been in a coma for a week and I was in the room with my other aunts and my mother when she died. Not “passed away” not “went to heaven”, she died. They were all crying so much and I stood there, awkward and uncomfortable. I told them I’d go tell my grandma and one aunt got mad at me because clearly she hated that I wasn’t crying and she thought that the sisters should tell grandma. Apparently they’d forgotten that my grandma is as emotionless as I am when people die… we all went together to tell her and grandma just said, “well, I figured it would be today or tomorrow”. Emotional genetics… powerful stuff. Even though it fit the criteria, I still refused to say “she’s in a better place now” because that’s not what they needed to hear. Their sister was dead. Never having experienced a sibling’s death, what do I know? Besides, I’m an atheist, how fucking disingenuous would that be? As much as they hate me for being so “coldhearted”, I have come to believe that they were grateful at least someone around had the rationality to write an obituary and figure out funeral arrangements because they certainly were passed the point of being logical. At least, my mom has told me as much. I think my aunts still distain me.
So what is it that we are all supposed to say? I think that when people are dealing with so much sadness, it kind of doesn’t matter what you say because their mind is in some other place. But what about after? What do I say to my friend who saw her father dead after a freak accident? What do I say to my mother about her sister dying? What do people say to me after my best friend killed himself? Actually, since I haven’t experienced anything but the latter, I do know what not to say. Except, never ever tell a friend of someone who’s completed suicide that they are where they want to be. No they’re not! They had some major mental health issues that either went undiagnosed or untreated or something in their brain just switched the wrong direction.
Just hug and say, “I’m here for you” and “just ask what I can do and I’ll do it”. Maybe you can’t do anything. Maybe all they want is their loved one back and you can’t make that happen. But you can do anything an should do everything in your means to help them along the grieving process. Maybe… they just need a friend.