Grievers shouldn’t have to apologize

Q. My 22-year-old daughter died suddenly three years ago, and I still run into some of her childhood friends who didn’t hear about her death, either because they now live out of town, or they live in town and don’t read newspaper obituaries. Many have expressed great sympathy but one or two had this weird reaction: They were mad at me. They wondered why I didn’t tell them, and I found myself apologizing, even though I felt angry that somehow they felt it was up to me to inform everyone. Should I have been more honest?

A. The language of grief is like any foreign language. It has to be taught. Obviously, your daughter’s friends hadn’t been taught and therefore had no clue how their words upset you.

Fredda Wasserman, author of “Saying Goodbye to Someone You Love,” is the clinical director of Our House, a Los Angeles grief counseling center. She told EndNotes that their anger likely covers up harder emotions of guilt, remorse and embarrassment.

Embarrassment that they didn’t know about your daughter’s death. Remorse and guilt that they couldn’t be part of the memorial service.

Being honest with them about your anger will make an awkward situation even more awkward. What you want here is acknowledgment of your grief.

You will come against this again and again, Wasserman warned. She suggested saying something such as “I can hear how distressed you are. We are distressed, too. This is harder than anything I could have imagined.”

The comment places the focus back on you and may alert the young people that their anger is adding hurt to your pain, Wasserman said.

Apologizing is the last thing you need to do. Grieving people, Wasserman pointed out, “shouldn’t ever be put in the position where they have to apologize.”

Q. I have been asked to help plan a funeral for a friend who is dying. Are there resources that will guide me? Is it inappropriate to begin planning before my friend actually dies?

A. Now is the perfect time to organize your thoughts – with your friend’s help.

Creating a final farewell to honor a person’s life requires thoughtful planning. Collect stories about her passions, how she lived – how she always gardened before ever cleaning the house – and details from her adventures.

Ask her: “How do you want us to celebrate your life when you are no longer here?”

And take time to reminisce about special moments you shared: “Remember when we skipped school senior year and went to the lake?” Give your friend a chance to talk about her memories. You will learn what she deems meaningful.

However, if she can no longer communicate, listen to her family tell stories. “Where is that blanket? The one she just had to buy when we went to Mexico?” Ask about the Mexico trip. The details in a person’s life define them.

At home, write down everyone’s stories as well as your own thoughts. Notes now will be guideposts later. Include funny and silly events, too, and her traditions like “she always puts pink tulips on the table” or “every holiday she makes lemon bars.” You may want to decorate with tulips and serve lemon bars at her funeral.

After your friend’s death, consult family and friends and perhaps clergy, if appropriate, when arranging logistical details like the setting. Assign responsibilities, too. If her nephew creates video presentations, ask him to assemble photographs, adding music. Give grieving children simple, but inclusive, roles.

Writing down memories and stories now will give you the details needed later to create a memorial service that authentically celebrates your friend.

Catherine Johnston, a health care professional from Olympia, and Rebecca Nappi, Spokesman-Review features writer, welcome your questions about what to do in times of illness, dying, death and grief. Contact them through their EndNotes blog at www.spokesman.com/blogs/endnotes.

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