My dad died yesterday at 9:26 a.m. in his living room with my mom, my brother, and me all touching him and his cat laying under his bed.
In the past 36 hours we have interacted with a lot of different people, pretty much all of them wonderful, and I know that we will have much more interaction between now and his memorial Monday evening. Grief is draining and stressful and I need to direct my mind somewhere else for a bit as a diversion. We are all pretty much emotionally ravaged here. As a minister I am used to visiting with people at their best and their worst moments so I thought right now as a way of zoning out for a little while I thought I would post my personal recommendations concerning visiting with someone who has just lost a loved one. Realistically this is just a way of me concentrating on something else for a few minutes. I need that right now.
Before I begin let me stress that visiting someone who is mourning is a wonderful thing. It is a good and honorable thing. I think whenever someone visits someone in mourning they have typically already done something good and caring. My thoughts are just practical ways I think we can be even more caring in our visits.
So here are my thoughts on what I try to do when I visit someone who is mourning:
- Remember who the vist is for – I know that might sound odd, after all you want to visit to tell your friends/family how much you love them, hurt for them, and share in their grief, but sometimes we can get can get so concerned with showing our love that we don’t stop to consider if it is actually being perceived as love or not. I like to ask myself “Why am I doing this?” This helps me to consider if my actions are about my need to show love or about the person I am visiting with receiving love. Am I talking because it helps them to drown out the pain for a little while? Or am I talking just because there is a lot of silence and I feel uncomfortable? Visiting or making contact with someone in grief should be about them and not us. So I try to act in such a way that it is really about them.
- Call or text first – Don’t just drop by. You might think you are good enough friends to just show up. That might be true, though it also might just be simply what you think, either way it is so much more polite to call or text first. Calling or texting first gives people a chance to be ready emotional and physically for the visit. It also gives people a chance to say “No” to your visit, which might be the best thing if they have just gone through 3 straight hours of visits. Mourning is stressful. That is part of its nature. Having people around can and does help. Yet for some of us (I am talking about my somewhat introverted self here) having people around for extended periods can sap our energy. I appreciate more than I can express the people who have come around, but still I need breaks. I know other people do to. Call or text. It is the caring thing to do.
- Figure out what the appropriate length of stay is – Basically two things concerning how long to stay. First, don’t walk into the house already making excuses to leave. “I’m sorry this will have to be a quick visit. I have another commitment but I wanted to drop by first.” Thanks but that might make me feel unimportant. Sorry to have been a burden on you. Second, don’t stay too long. The days following a loved one’s death are usually utter chaos. There is a lot to do when someone dies and all that activity falls on the very ones who are mourning. Don’t make it more difficult on the family by visiting forever, no matter how caring you think it is. Instead, actually make sure the length of your visit is caring. Sometimes the most caring thing is to say is “I know you have to be worn out, can I bring by (whatever) for supper, and then really visit with you tomorrow, or next week, at such and such time?” If I visit someone as a minister I like to have set times in my mind of how long to visit. If I suspect that there will be lots of visits I stay 10-15 minutes. If I suspect there won’t be as many visits I stay for 20-30 minutes. I then start to dismiss myself and only stay longer if it becomes obvious that they really want me to and need me to stay longer. The length of my stay has to be about their needs, not mine.
- Bring food but consider the portions and variety – Food is wonderful. It is awesome. It is a true help not to have to think about getting something to eat. It is even better when there are small portions of different varieties of food in containers that you have no interested in ever getting back. People bring big things because they want to make sure there is enough food for all the family that is at the house. It is easier to develop one large dish for everyone than it is to develop lots of small containers of food. The problem is that often grief reduces the appetite and suddenly the mourner is stuck with WAY too much food in really big containers. You don’t want to offend your friend by not eating completely, because after all you are truly thankful for what they brought. Yet, it can be a burden. Why not consider making lots of really small portions of a variety of different foods. Small portions can always be doubled up if someone is really hungry. Small portions can be frozen and eaten a week later when everyone has disappeared and the grieving really begins. Also, I know ham is the national grieving dish but really turkey is also good or maybe cold cuts. I promise these are just as good for grief as ham. Possibly consider bringing something specific that you know the mourner really likes, and probably won’t get because everyone knows you are supposed to bring ham. If someone brought a case of Diet Cokes to my mom’s house during their visit that would say a ton about them knowing us. Nobody ever thinks “Wow they have to be hurting, I am going to bring them some Diet Cokes”, but I promise for the Terrell house that would be the food item that was remember two months into our grieving. Or pulled pork BBQ sandwiches. That would be awesome food for grieving. Why are you bringing food? If it is really about the person grieving then make sure you bring food in the manner that is most helpful to them.
- Be okay with silence – I know silence can be uncomfortable, but when you visit someone that is grieving that is your problem not theirs. The visitor has to be the one who gets used to the silence, the mourner shouldn’t be responsible for putting up with random chatter just so a visitor feels more comfortable. In visiting a mourner hospitality reverses itself. We go to a mourner’s house to help make them comfortable, rather than them making us feel at home (something else on this later). You might need to talk to cover up the silence, but the family might just need someone to sit with them in the midst of their pain, rather than interrupting their pain by just making noise. I really like the concept of sitting shiva from Judaism and try to use much of it it in my visits. One of the customs of shitting shiva is that when someone enter’s the house of a mourner you enter with the mindset of remaining silent until the mourner initiates conversation. If the mourner wants to talk then you talk with them, if they don’t start talking then you sit in silence and are just present. If I begin to feel uncomfortable with the silence for some reason and I realize I am talking too much in response, I will often start forcing myself to slowly, silently count to a specified number before I say anything else. It slows down the conversation and leaves room for the mourner to say whatever he/she wants, or to say nothing at all. If I noticed they aren’t saying anything I go back to silence myself and just sit there with them. I always try to determine whether I talk or I remain silent based on what I perceive the needs of the mourner to be rather than my own needs. After all, the visit is about them, not me.
- Come with a story – The next two things are going to sound like I am saying the exact opposite of being silent. I mean both of these next two points to happen if a mourner initiates conversation. If you can, come with a story about the person who is being mourned. One of the things I love hearing right now is what my dad meant to other people and stories of things that happen when they were with him that I might not know about. Several people have come with stories of dad and I have loved and appreciated each one. Fun, sad, meaningful. I don’t care which. Just talk about my dad instead of some story you heard on the news. Usually I would love to hear about the bad service you had at the electronics store, but not when I am in mourning. Telling stories about the one they love is a wonderful way of helping the mourners, or in this case my mom, brother, and me, in their grief.
- Come with a question – Give the mourner a chance to tell their own stories about the one they lost. When I visit I like to come with a question in mind about the one they lost. I don’t mean by this a broad range question like “What did you like the most about your dad?” That is too much pressure and requires to much effort. Instead I usually try to come with a question about a story that I know a little bit about already. “Hey, I remember how cheap Floyd was, wasn’t there some story about the length he went to for a ‘watering can.'” In this case, this is a quick story of my dad going shopping with Pam and me. I love telling it because it reminds me of who my dad was. In this case he was the guy that drug Pam and me to three different stores to find a “water can” for his plants that was cheaper than $3. We spent $5 in gas before he decided to stick with the milk jug he had been using. This story gives me a chance to talk about my dad. Actually it does more than just giving me a chance to talk about him, it encourages me to talk about my dad. That’s good. I like to come to a house with a question that will enable to the mourners to talk as much or as little as they want about the one they love.
- It is okay to be served – I know this might sound odd but sometimes the best, most caring thing you can do is to let someone else serve you. I know I earlier said mourning reverses hospitality, but sometimes the most hospitable thing you can do for someone is to allow them to serve you in the midst of their own time of need. When I go into someone’s house who is mourning I will sometimes let them fix me something to eat if I perceive that that is what they actually need most right then. Why, well because it can be overwhelming to have everyone else doing something for you and you not be allowed to do anything for anyone else because they are trying to protect you. I know it feels nice and serving to tell someone who is grieving “No you just sit down and I will take care of everything, what can I bring you,” but sometimes the greatest act of service is to say “Why yes a scrambled egg sounds wonderful right now,” and then eat that scrambled egg with great enjoyment and gratitude for the mourner who just served you. Every now and then the act of service is to be served.
I am sure there are other things I could post about this but these thoughts have been enough of a distraction for the moment and I need to get back to working on a video of my dad for Monday. Thank you to all of my dad’s, mom’s, brother’s, wife’s, kids’, and my own family and friends who are helping us grieve. Y’all mean the world to us and have been more help than I can express to you. Your notes, messages, texts, calls, and other things have been wonderful and needed. What you have done by helping us mourn is a good thing in and of itself. Thank you.