My maternal grandfather died a couple of hours ago. He was 96 years old and had escaped from death’s door many, many times (including the time he and a cobra stared each other down when he was in India during WWII). He lived a full life and literally danced like no one was looking (he was quite popular with the ladies because he loved dancing so much).
One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that people are unsure of how to act around those in mourning. My default is to send a copy of the How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies book by Therese Rando. It helped me immensely when my father died and am always gratified to find out that it has helped others, too.
Being a researcher/academic/geek, my method of processing my grandfather’s death is to explore what the etiquette books say about mourning. Lillian Eicher Watson (1948) says that a close relative–not several relatives–should take charge and be given full responsibility to avoid confusion and pain. This person is responsible for seeing that the family’s privacy is respected and to take care of all of the “unhappy details of arrangement.” This person is also responsible for making sure relatives and friends are notified and “that the funeral ceremony is carried out in strict accordance with the family’s wishes.”
In 1948, intimate relatives and friends were notified by telephone or telegraph. Although we don’t have telegrams any more, I somehow don’t think sending an email to those closest to the person who died is appropriate. And, when Johnson and Johnson heiress Casey Johnson died an announcement was via Twitter. It was considered in really bad taste by just about everyone. For others, the news was to be made via a paid announcement in the paper. Unfortunately, I doubt most people read the obituaries in printed papers anymore. I think this may be where a discreet email announcement could be sent on behalf of the family. The key, though, is that those closest to the family should know about the death before the email announcement is sent. I was appalled, last week, when I read on MSNBC.com that they were withholding the name of the Olympic athlete who died in that terrible accident because his family hadn’t been notified. Well, hello! Every other detail about him had been given. How would I feel if I found out about my family member’s death that way!?
Mrs. Watson goes on to describe that friends and neighbors should leave cards and fruit baskets at the door but should not expect to be invited into the home. Indeed, she describes different colored crepe or ribbon streamers that should be hung on the door to indicate that there has been a death and that people should not intrude. I’m not sure how I feel about this, to tell you the truth. One thing that has always impressed me about church deaconesses is their ability to organize the church community to deliver casseroles, Jello salads, and hams when a member of the community is grieving. I joke that I’d never seen so much green Jello as I did after each of the deaths of my paternal grandparents and my father. But I’ll tell you what, I was grateful for the generosity of spirit each of those salads symbolized. That food reassured me that there were others that understood the pain, they couldn’t make it go away, but at least I wouldn’t have to worry about how people were going to be fed.
Mrs. Watson ends the chapter describing how old traditions about mourning have been eliminated and that people should return to normal activities when they are comfortable. I think it is a shame that a standard period of mourning has been lost and I think this may be why people are unsure about how to behave around someone grieving. When we knew that the grieving period was for a year, we weren’t trying to “force” people back into “normal” activities before they were ready. The grieving process often lasts longer than a year but the intensity of the grief starts to subside after all of the “firsts” have happened (first birthday, anniversary, holiday, etc.).
My grandfather was the Energizer Bunny. Seven years ago, his doctor told my mother that my grandfather’s life would be ending within weeks. Several times over the ensuing years, the doctors told my mother that his passing was imminent and then he would be up and about within a matter of days. Truthfully, when he was hospitalized earlier this week, we all just assumed he would be out again by next week.
Rest in Peace, Granddaddy.
Henry Lee Royer, 1913-2010
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