My mom died suddenly when I was 17 years old. The oldest of five children, I was thrust into a role I never anticipated as I chose her casket, helped write the obituary and pick out the plot, and did her makeup. Her funeral was certainly not the first I had attended, as I had previously lost my grandmother (her mom) as well as a couple of friends. This was, however, the first opportunity I had to really be behind the scenes and see the hands that helped the grieving in a very real way.
Over the years, I have attended many more funerals for friends and family alike. An observer by nature, I have come up with ways to help the grieving that are not so often thought of and yet lend a small measure of comfort to the grieving family. I will be forever grateful to my mother for teaching me about trauma response, and to those ministering angels to attended to my family in our immediate time of need.
In no particular order
1. Have someone stay at the home. Would-be-thieves will scan obituaries and rob the homes of family members (or the deceased) while they are gone at the time given in the obituary. No joke. I knew someone who had this happen to them. I cannot imagine the feeling of returning home from a long day to that. A trusted family member, neighbor, friend, or church member can offer to house-sit during the services. It's a small thing but it offers a peace of mind.
2. Take photos (even video). The day of the funeral may seem like one that will not want to be remembered, or that may never be forgotten. However, it can be pretty foggy for the closest family members involved. Take photos of the service and the people there. Capture photos of the arrangements and who sent them. Funerals sometimes bring together otherwise estranged family members. Capture that. There are emotions that can be captured in little moments that will, years down the road, be a welcome memory. Additionally, this preserves the experience for little ones and for parents to share some family history. Another suggestion is taking video. Someone secretly set up a video camera at the back of my mom's service and recorded the whole thing, leaving the tapes for us later. It was a beautiful gift. Is it something I like to sit around and watch? No. However, it's nice to know that I have that to turn to when I want to recall the peace I felt that day or the kind words and stories about my mother that others shared. I've also known friends who were unable to attend the services of their loved ones due to distance, and were immensely grateful for the technology that allowed them to participate via streaming services.
3. Arrange for the flowers to be delivered following the service. Sending flowers to loved ones is always a gracious gesture. What about the ones that are sent to the funeral home, as most are? They are displayed during the funeral but then what? Most funeral homes can only fit one or two large arrangements in with the casket to take to the gravesite. It is nice to have flowers at the gravesite both during the burial and to leave for afterward. That often leaves many unaccounted for arrangements and, speaking from experience as a temporary floral deliverer, flower arrangements take up a lot of room and are tricky to transport. Take remaining arrangements to the home of the loved ones so that they can divvy them up to other friends or family as they choose. This will also give them the opportunity to save special cards or ribbons from the arrangements. One friend of my mother's gathered some flowers from all of the arrangements and took them to a local place that professional dried them and made them into wreaths for us to keep. Taking one of those wreaths with me to college made me feel like I had a little part of her with me.
4. Place flowers in the luncheon area. If there is a meal being served for the family members following the service, consider moving some of the flowers into that area before taking them to their house. This gives the friends and family of the deceased an opportunity to browse the condolences sent and adds some warmth to the area.
5. Supply tissues. The first few rows of any chapel are often set aside for the closest friends and family of the deceased. Scatter small packages of tissues, or large boxes even, among the seating areas and they will be grateful.
6. Make a blanket or other keepsakes. Following the tragedy at Columbine High School, comfort blankets were sent to the students and surviving family members. These simple but handmade blankets or quilts served as a reminder that others out there were thinking of them and sending them their love. It also served as a sort of hug as the blanket could be wrapped around them. When my mother volunteered as a trauma responder, she would carry angel pins that she would give to those who lost a loved one. I have one of these pins and I wear it sometimes, even hidden on the hem of my shirt, as a reminder that my Angel mother isn't far. Other mementos we received were a laminated copy of the funeral program, as well as a laminated bookmark with the hymn 'O My Father' on one side and a cut out of the obituary on the other. We later received a book put together of memories of my mom shared by friends of her. This was a precious gift, and receiving it at a later date was especially thoughtful as it reminded us that we, my mother, and our grief for her, were not forgotten.
7. Think of meals & food aside from dinner. Consider visiting family and friends. It can be hard to even function in the days following the loss of a loved one. Feeding yourself sometimes gets forgotten. I can't tell you how grateful we were for the plates of sub sandwiches dropped off at our house. This was particularly great since we had family visiting and sometimes spending the day at the house to help care for the younger children. Having snacks, like protein bars, was another great thing for everyone at the hospital. You don't want to leave the bedside of a dying person to go get food. Food is likely the last thing on your mind. But you need the nourishment and so having some readily available is immensely helpful. This is also true for the day of the service when there can sometimes be several long hours between when the family has eaten breakfast in the morning before having to be there early for visitation services prior to the actual funeral which then gets followed by the graveside burial.... It's long and draining and requires food (& water) for blood sugar levels and sustenance whether it's thought of or not.
8. Show up. In the weeks following the loss of a close loved one, many more matters of business have to take place. Some small, some large. Just show up and be with the grieving. You don't have to have words of wisdom or say much of anything. Just be there as someone to hold their hand or give them a hug. It is a hard thing to sort through belongings and the last remaining pieces of the person. It feels immensely personal to be a part of that, but it lightens a load to simply have another person to converse with as you do so. You might talk about regular stuff, hard stuff, funny stuff, or be someone that they can tell the memory to of that shirt they can't decide whether to keep or donate. In being there, you allow them to share this special person and maybe keep them alive a little bit longer, and you help them to not feel so overwhelmed by this monumental task.
9. Talk about the loved one. Share your memories of the person who has passed away. Let them talk about their memories of their loved one. It lets us know that they were important to you too, and that makes us feel better. Talking about them keeps them alive in our minds and hearts as well. Sometimes it's painful and sometimes it's not, but there just is no way to really tell which it will be. Always, it is healing.
10. Entertain the younger children. When little children are closely involved with the loss of a loved one, it can be very difficult for them to process their own emotions and those of the adults around them. Some may feel the need to 'be strong' so that their other family members don't have a harder time and feel more sad because of their sadness. Take them out for dates out of the house so that they have a safe place and opportunity to feel those hard and heavy feelings without worrying about the impact on others. On the other end, also provide some normalcy and fun opportunities for them. They need a break and their parents need a break from worrying about their mental health as well.