Funeral Etiquette 101

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Kumusta ka? How are you?

Sometimes this can be the most awkward question to someone who has just lost a loved one.

My friend Kaye Ericsson, who heads her own grief support group based in the U.S., compares grief to a duck on water. The duck may look calm and collected above water but underneath they’re paddling their feet like crazy. So when she asks her members how they are and they answer, “Ducky,” she knows what they mean.

In the weeks and months after Bruce’s death, I would sometimes answer that question honestly and say, “Still coping,” or, “I miss him,” or, “I can’t believe he’s gone.” Other times, I’d dish out the dishonest answer, “I’m OK,” just to get it over with.

A friend once said to me that I look fine on the outside with my usual smiling self, but my eyes betray I was hurting on the inside.

Insensitive Comments

Some people, especially those who are not familiar with grief, can be insensitive without knowing it. They may have good intensions but their words can hurt.

Someone once asked me how I was, and before I could answer, she said, “O, dapat OK ka na ha. Three months na kaya” (You should be OK by now because it’s been three months). I tried to brush off her comment but I never forgot how bad it made me feel.

“Should” or “dapat” are words that must be avoided at all times, especially with fresh grief. Again, each grief is unique and there is no timetable as to when you’re supposed to even start moving forward.

Wakes are a landmine of insensitive comments, gestures, and unsolicited advice just waiting to explode, and you’ve probably heard them all.

Here’s my collection:

• “At least you still have your other son.”

  • “Why, Rosario (my real name), whyyyyyy???!!!” said in a loud voice by an elderly uncle while he held me on both shoulders with his face a few inches from mine. That kinda freaked me out!
  • Gawa ka na lang ulit ng baby”( Just have another child). Hmmm, there are so many things wrong with this comment. First, I’m a solo parent in my 40s without a boyfriend. I don’t want any more children even if I had a partner, and as if I could just replace my son by getting pregnant.
  • This one just takes the cake: “I know how you feel. My dog just died too.” No offense to pet lovers who treat their dogs like their children, but it’s still not the same. AT. ALL!
  • “At least he didn’t grow up to experience the bad influences from this world. He would have probably ended up in a bad place, with bad friends, and that would’ve given you more worry.” Wow, think positive naman. I’d still want my son alive even if he ended up in jail or rehab. This advice came from a priest.
  • An elderly woman told my eldest son, Bam, “Now you’re the only one left. You have to be strong for your mom.” Nope, that didn’t help.

But the one that hurt and bothered me most was: “ That’s a hard lesson to learn.” That line planted a lie in my mind and made me think that I wasn’t a good mother.

For widows and widowers, there are more “ugh” comments like “O, pwede ka na mag-asawa ulit” (You can get married again). Or, “Now you’re single and ready to mingle.” And, “Isa ka nang offcial na dalaga, o binata, muli” (Now you’re offcially single again).

Platitudes Do Not Help

“Ano yon?” asked the members of our grief support group, and out came the cell phones to ask Google. According to Merriam Webster, “platitudes” are “dull one-liners with moral content used as if it were fresh and profound.”

Here are the classics. Although they may be true, during times of deep, fresh grief, these words gave me and my other grieving friends no comfort or consolation. They can actually make you feel worse.

  • “Now you have an angel to look over you.”
  • “Everything works for the good.”
  • “He’s in a better place.”
  • “God has a plan; it’s God’s will.”
  • “There’s a reason for everything.”
  • “He’s just here with you at all times.”
  • “She’s now happy in heaven where there is no pain.”
  • “Let go mo na.
  • And there’s the all-time favorite na nakakapanting ng tenga: “Mag-move on ka na” (You gotta move on).

My friend Angeli heard all the platitudes and was fed up with everyone trying to cheer her up. She said to herself, “Yes, I know, I know she’s in a better place and she’s now an angel looking over me, but can’t you just let me be sad for now? I just lost my daughter. Let me be sad.”

Don’t Move On, Carry On

As my good widower friend Roy says, “You do not move on; you carry on.” I hate it when people say you should move on, because I take this to mean that you leave the one you lost behind, in the same way that you break up with a bad boyfriend and friends say, “Move on and forget him. You deserve better!” But grief is a different thing altogether. You can never move on from it because it’s something you will carry with you forever and can never forget. Yes, the load becomes lighter, but you’ll always love that person and keep them in your heart. I’d rather use the term “move forward” or, as Roy says, “Carry on.”

Shake It Off

I’ve found that it helps to just ignore all the unhelpful comments, letting them enter one ear and out the other immediately. Don’t allow the negative comment to park in between the ears and overstay in your brain where you’ll constantly chew on what that person said. This will just make you angry with them, stress you out, and distract you from mourning your beloved.

Yup, it’s easier said than done. Of course it would bother and annoy the hell out of me! The nerve of that person to say that. Doesn’t she know that it doesn’t really help? I guess not, that’s why people say these things — and you can’t prevent them from saying them. So before shaking it off, take time to be still, say a prayer, or sing a worship song in your head. (I sing “Hail Mary.”) I discovered that you can’t stay mad while praying or singing a worship song. Breathe some more, count to 10, and calm down. Maybe you can express what you went through with your best friend and even have a laugh about it, then let it go. You’ve got bigger issues to deal with.

Hugs Are the Best

The best comfort I received were not even words. A quiet, heartfelt, long, tight hug was what tugged at my heart and allowed me to cry.

A week before the boys died, my friend’s son was also in a fatal car accident. I knew this boy; he was very dear to me. He was a friend of my son, and all the moms and kids loved him. He was a sweet, kind, and handsome young man in his early 20s. I can’t praise him enough. He died on Mother’s Day. His mom, fresh from his burial just a few days earlier, was courageous enough to attend the wake of my son and the other boys. I saw her and I cried out her son’s name when I saw her. She just gave me a long mom-to-mom hug. We understood each other’s pain and stood still in each other’s grief. She didn’t say a word, but her presence gave me the most comfort at that time.

Empathy and Presence

Three weeks after Bruce’s accident, I accompanied my mom to her doctor. When her doctor heard the news of my son’s death, he held my arm, looked at me with such compassion and empathy, and said, “My heart goes out to you. I may not have lost a child but I do have a son.” It was so simple but so heartfelt and sincere that I just lost it. The waterworks started to flow again.

Your empathetic presence is enough. Really, it is. Even if you don’t say anything and just sit in a corner, or maybe say a little silent prayer, it brings comfort to the bereaved. As long as I know you took time to be with me during the most terrible time of my life, it gives me much consolation and love. I remember all my friends and relatives who took the time to visit. It really meant a lot to me. I also remember being disappointed at those whom I expected to be there but couldn’t — with no real, good excuse.

When Pope Francis visited the Philippines, he consoled a grieving father who lost his only daughter, Kristel, when she volunteered for the Pontiff’s visit to Tacloban. A large scaffolding fell on her, killing her instantly. Face to face with Kristel’s father, the Pope said, “What words can you give to someone who has lost his only daughter?” Then he gave him a warm, loving hug. The Pope knew that being present, even in silence, was enough.

If you say to your grieving friend, “I’ll be there for you,” or, “Nandito lang ako para sa ‘yo,” you better mean it. Offer to do some of their errands, do their grocery shopping, bring the kids to school, cook a meal, bring some of their favorite food, drive for them, watch a movie together, give them a nice book (like this one you’re holding), or lend a non-judgmental ear for them to vent their sorrows. Be a shoulder they can cry on.

Stories, Memories, and Prayers

Somehow, the Filipino translation of “condolence” was more meaningful to me. Our driver said the simple words, “Nakikiramay po ako.” It was good to know na may karamay ako sa pagluluksa ko, that other people share my grief.

Another gesture I appreciated was when a friend gave me a picture of Bruce with his son. He said he’ll always remember Bruce and their sleepovers. Or some of my friends would say, “Remember when Bruce was with us in….” Stories and memories would cheer me up and were a welcome change from hurtful comments disguised as comforting words.

Simple words like, “I’m praying for you,” or, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” or just, “Condolence po” are appreciated. Texts, e-mails, and private messages with touching words from those who knew my son or me also felt good to my heart.

A friend of mine would text me a few times a week just to check up on me and say she was praying for me. Small things like these made me feel her care and love.

Break of Dawn

  • What do you answer when someone asks, “How are you?” Are you truthful?
  • What are your preferred words of consolation or actions from people showing their sympathy?

*This excerpt is taken from From Mourning to Morning: Your Partner in Grief and Hope by Cheri Roberto.

Featured photo from Unsplash.com.



Will Your Grief Ever End?

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It’s a tragedy that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. But it has befallen you. Death has taken your loved one, and your life, and your heart is shattered forever. Everything, everyone, places, events, and the smallest of things remind you of your beloved, and just when you think you are OK, you find yourself crying in a mall because a song triggered that lovely memory of what used to be, and how you long for those times. You miss your loved one so much that you feel like you’re going crazy.

Right now, it may not seem like it will ever end but somehow, miraculously, it does get better. Your healing is in your hands, and holding on to God’s hands through the grief process helps even more.

In this book, you will learn:

• It’s OK to cry.
• What you’re feeling right now – it’s normal.
• The importance of grieving.
• The importance of laughing.
• There’s no use dwelling on the “what ifs.”
• Funeral Etiquette 101.
• Forgiveness, gratitude, and acceptance are keys to healing.
• You are not alone.

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