Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Thursday, August 5, 2010

After the Funeral: Sam Fan

Sam Fan died after a year-long battle with Hodgkin's disease. He was one of the good people, always ready with an encouraging word and smile, and who loved life, his scientific research, his wife, good wine, running, and playing his cello. At the memorial service today, his friends and colleagues spoke of his great spirit and their love for him. A string quartet played in his honor. We find it hard to accept that he is gone.

Memorial services and funerals focus on the people who died with the aim of giving them a good send off. Speakers summarize the dead person's life, noting their successes, personal quirks, and failings. This is proper and needed.

They also offer the community of friends a time to collectively grieve, and remind people of the presence and possibility of death. They provide an opportunity for us to reflect on what our own legacies might be.
Funerals acknowledge the intense grief of the immediate family. But after the reception, most of the rituals to help those who are grieving ends. In our society, unless we belong to a tight cultural group, there isn't much that is done in an organized way to help grievers cope with what they are about to face. 
This is where we come in. The individuals.

If we were casual friends of the deceased, our grief probably does not go deep and we mostly feel sadness. For the surviving family and close friends, grief is already excavating their hearts. 
Up to the day of the funeral or memorial service, there has been a great outpouring of sympathy through phone calls, emails, and cards. This continues after the funeral for another couple of weeks and then it stops, because most people don’t know what else to say. 

In the coming weeks and months, as survivors continue to step away from normal activities to deal with their grief, do not forget them. 
They will need reminders that they are still part of our community. 
They will need our acceptance to let them grieve in the time and way that they need. 
They will need our willingness to let them question, cry, and despair at any time. 
They will need our permission to go to parties and sit quietly on the side instead of dancing. 
They will need us to listen to their thoughts and feelings without trying to find answers.

What else can people do? 
We can offer to help with specific chores around the house, go grocery shopping, or mow the lawn. They will welcome the food we cook, even if they don’t eat it right away. Invite them over for coffee, dinner, or a concert out, and keep on offering even if they always turn you down. They will accept when they are ready. What they need most right now is to know that they are still part of a community.

Continue to talk about the one who died. Survivors need to know that the one who died was also important to you. They want to hear stories they don’t know. Call and send notes to let them know that you are thinking about them. Do this now, and more importantly, do this in six months. That is when the loneliness can become almost unbearable and starts becoming a shell.

Do not worry about finding something to say that will dismantle their cages of sorrow or fold away their layers of pain. There are no magic words that can do this. 

Your friendship, your acceptance, and your presence are what they need.

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