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Bereavement Questions and Answers

What do I write in a condolence note to my co-worker who lost her brother? I talk to her mother on the phone sometimes. Would it be OK to send a note to her as well?

SL_bereavement_WOThere is no set formula as to what to say. Only one rule should guide you in writing letters of condolence: Say what you truly feel. Your clear expression of sympathy and caring for your co-worker is what matters the most. Sit down at your desk as soon as you hear of the death and let your thoughts be with your coworker as you write to her.

Add your tribute to her brother. If you knew him, some kind words about him - perhaps an anecdote, would mean a lot. If you didn't know him, you could mention something special you've heard about him. Ask, or offer, to be helpful to her, perhaps by helping her with her workload the day of the funeral or memorial service. Close with warm words, such as "With deepest sympathy." Surely, a note to the mother would be welcomed as well.

Don't forget that you can also e-mail your co-worker to express your thoughts before you write your condolence note. E-mail is a immediate way to reach out and say, "I'm sorry. I'm here for you." And unlike a phone call or a personal visit, e-mail doesn't require an immediate response from the recipient. E-mail shouldn't replace a handwritten condolence note, but it's a nice way to remind your co-worker that you're there for her.

My neighbor down the street lost her husband. I just moved here and I don't know this family well, but want to attend the memorial service. Would it be inappropriate to attend?

With regards to the memorial service, check with another neighbor or look in your local newspaper for a death notice. A notice would either state the hour and location of the service, which would mean that it would be appropriate for you to attend if you wished, or it would be listed as "Funeral Private."

Even though you're new to the neighborhood, your neighbor would likely appreciate your expression of sympathy. You could certainly send her a personal note and even offer to help. In many locales, those who don't know each other well rally to assist bereaved neighbors in some way. Perhaps it's with a gift of food: a casserole, a fruit basket, or some brownies for the family and their visitors. Sometimes a neighbor offers to house out-of-town relatives or friends. The circumstances vary greatly, and you'll need to go with your intuition as to whether to do something and what it is you feel comfortable with.

My best friend lost her adult son. She's asked me to help plan the memorial service. What do I do?

Consider it an honor to help your friend during this painful time. And then, get organized. Develop a list of questions that you will need your friend to answer. Does she want the service in a certain place of worship? Is there particular member of the clergy she has in mind for performing the service? Does she want a private or open service? Who else would she like to have involved to do Scripture readings and serve as ushers? Would she like to have a reception somewhere for some or all of the attendees of the memorial service? Decide upon the best way to get the word out to friends and relatives about the service. Elicit help with phone calls and preparation of a newspaper announcement.

Then get to work to put her plans and ideas into reality. Visit, or at least speak with, the clergy person. Ask for his/her input and checklist of what needs to be decided and completed. Keep your friend informed and get her feedback. By merely being there, listening and taking care of the details, you'll undoubtedly be a great help to her during this trying time.

I've lost a very close friend. Her family has asked me to give the eulogy. I'm not sure whether or not to accept. What if I break down in the middle of it? How can I honor my friend in a dignified way?

This is so personal. The decision is truly yours, as it's an individual one. Some people are able to manage the delivery of a eulogy with aplomb; others can't even bear to think about doing so. Before making your decision, digest their request. Think through how you truly feel about it. Talk to your friend's family. Are others going to be speaking about her? Then go with your intuition. If you decide you want to do it, fine. Write your talk from your heart. Think of some light, special stories about your friend. Practice your talk. Have a shortened version ready in case you find yourself breaking down. Ask the clergy person who will be officiating at the service for any tips on preparing/delivering a eulogy.

If you're completely overwhelmed by the prospect, and feel that you must decline, it's OK to do so. Thank the family for offering the honor to you. Explain that you don't feel you can do it, and be honest as to why. They'll surely understand. Offer your help in other ways: if you partake in the service, you could read a Scripture passage. You could offer to help the family with plans for the service and for any reception afterwards (if there is one). Maybe you could take on the project of preparing and printing programs for the service.

How do I select honorary pallbearers and what do they have to do?

The role of the pallbearers is often an honorary one since many services are often planned without the presence of coffins. The member of the family who is in charge asks six or eight people who were close friends of the deceased to be honorary pallbearers. This may be done when they come to pay their respects, or by telephone. When someone has been prominent in public life, there may be eight or ten of his or her political or business associates as well as six or eight lifelong friends. Members of the immediate family are never chosen, as their place is with their family.

Honorary pallbearers do not carry the coffin when a coffin is present. This service is performed by the assistants of the funeral director, who are expertly trained. The honorary pallbearers sit in the first two pews on the left, and after the service leave the church two by two, walking immediately in front of the coffin.

Honorary pallbearers serve only at funerals, not at memorial services.

There are almost never any honorary pallbearers at the funeral of a Christian woman, but in the Jewish faith both men and women may have honorary pallbearers.

One cannot refuse an invitation to be a pallbearer except for illness or absence from the location in which the funeral is being held.

My co-worker's obituary states that the family has requested donations in lieu of flowers. I know his mother is particularly fond of lilies. Would it be wrong for me to send her a bouquet of lilies with a condolence note?

It's best to stick with their request at such a sensitive time. If you want to do something now, send a donation as suggested by the family. Your personal condolence note would be especially kind, too. Since you know that his mother likes lilies, you might want to wait a bit—until the activity immediately following your co-worker's death settles down - and then send her the lilies. It would surely be a meaningful and caring gesture.

I've received almost 300 notes of condolence. Do I need to write a thank-you note to each person who sent me a note?

Notes of condolence should be acknowledged with a handwritten note. The only exceptions to this obligation are when the expression of condolence is simply a printed form with no personal message, or when the writer asks that his or her note not be acknowledged (a thoughtful thing to do when writing a close friend, or when someone you know well will receive a great number of condolences).

There is no official time frame for writing notes of appreciation to those who have extended their condolences and kindness to you. The important thing is that you have received comfort from the many who have helped you. For some, writing notes is helpful as they work through their grief; for others it is too difficult to get much done for some time. The best thing is to work things through at your own pace. Another option is to ask a close relative or friend to write some notes on your behalf. It's up to you.

It's been a few weeks since my neighbor whom I am friendly with lost her husband. She's been fairly reclusive. What can I do to help her without being too intrusive?

Just letting her know that you are thinking about her can be helpful. See if you can ask somebody who is close to her for ideas of how you might help. In her own time and way, she will start to venture forth more. She'll let you know, when you ask, whether or not she wants to see you and do anything. And, offer specific assistance: "I'm going to the grocery. Can I get anything for you?" "Would you like to have lunch with me next Tuesday?" Don't give up. Drop her a note periodically, or even an e-mail, to let her know you're thinking of her.

My daughter is 10. Should she attend her uncle's memorial service?

Most 10-year-olds are ready for this type of experience, as long as they are accompanied by a parent or someone else close to them. If you decide to let her attend, prepare your daughter by letting her know what the service involves and address any questions she may have. It's worth noting that some communities and faiths choose to use an open casket for their funeral services. If you don't feel comfortable having your daughter view an open casket, skip the viewing and simply attend the service. This is also an opportunity to teach your daughter how to write a sympathy note.

I am Catholic and am attending a Hindu funeral. What customs and traditions should I be aware of so that I can be respectful?

Hindu funerals usually take place within 24 hours of death. Friends may call or visit family members of the deceased to offer their condolences upon hearing of the death and may bring flowers to them at that time. The flowers are placed at the feet of the deceased. The body usually remains at home until it is taken to the place where it will be cremated. The funeral ceremony is conducted at the place of the cremation. The coffin is generally open, and guests are expected to look upon the body and be seated in the room for the service, which is conducted by a priest or a senior member of the family. Guests may attend the cremation, but if they do not want to, they may depart after the service.

After the funeral, friends may visit the bereaved, usually bringing gifts of fruit with them.



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