Q: My Japanese- American sister-in-law’s father died in Japan seven years ago. She will return to Japan in the fall to mark the special occasion with her family. What can we do for her to show our support?
A: Most Japanese people use a mixture of Buddhist and Shinto rituals when honoring their departed loved ones.
The seventh anniversary service is just one of several important rituals for Japanese people mourning their loved ones.
Though memorial-service protocol has loosened a bit in recent years in Japan, the country’s funeral rituals are still much more structured, with stricter etiquette rules, than in the United States.
For instance, don’t send vibrant-colored flowers.
“White flowers are preferable and we avoid red, yellow or pink, because people are not in happy moods,” explained Masahiro Ando, director of the Japanese Cultural Center at Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute in Spokane.
And be careful with clothing choices, too, if you attend a Japanese funeral or seven-year memorial service, either in the United States or Japan.
Black and gray are OK. But again, Ando said, avoid any bright colors, especially red.
A gift of money would be appropriate for your sister-in-law because “it is customary to make a monetary offering to those holding ceremonies to ease the financial burden of such events,” according to a recent article in Japan Times.
Elaborate and costly meals are served to those gathered after each ceremony.
Ando said to keep in mind that monetary gifts should be given in odd-numbered amounts – $50, for instance, rather than $60 – because Japanese people consider odd numbers lucky.
Avoid all even numbers, but be especially aware of the number 4. In the Japanese language, the sounds of the words “four” and “death” are nearly identical, which has created an unease around the number, stronger even than the unease in the United States about the number 13.
Some hotels don’t have fourth floors in Japan, just as some U.S. hotels skip floor 13.
And here’s another twist: The number 9, though an odd number, is also considered unlucky, because the sound of it is similar to the sound of the word meaning hardship, Ando said.
Don’t let all these “rules” intimidate you. Reach out to your sister-in-law. She will appreciate your supportive gestures as she travels back to Japan for this important ritual commemorating her father’s passing.
Q: At what age should I allow my young son to visit dying loved ones?
A: While we wish a magic age exists, it does not.
What is the relationship between your son and the dying loved one? If he has a close relationship with Uncle Ed, he will be eager to visit.
However, if Uncle Ed lived across the country until six months ago, do not expect your son to have your sense of obligation for a bedside vigil. If you insist he visit, your son could feel awkward and confused sitting with a relative stranger.
Help your son understand the situation through simple details, then listen to his response. A young child will not comprehend that Uncle Ed’s tumor has metastasized and spread to vital organs, but will understand that his uncle is very sick with illness a doctor cannot fix.
Demystify hospital settings by describing the scene: Uncle Ed sleeps most of the day and has a little mask on his face that gives him extra air to breathe.
Give your son permission to say anything and ask questions, then respond. Children are remarkably direct, so don’t appear shocked if your son says, “Uncle Ed’s room smells stinky and I don’t want to go in there.”
Acknowledge that the room does smell different from your home, explain why, but do not make him go into the room.
And explain your emotions, because they send signals. If you ignore your feelings, your son may create his own version of events: “Mom is crying and will not stop. If I visit Uncle Ed, then I will cry all the time, too.”
Assure your son that sadness is a normal feeling we have when someone we love is very ill, but you are still reliable and can care for him.
If you decide a visit isn’t appropriate, your son can still offer comfort. Ask him to draw a picture or select a stuffed bear for Uncle Ed to send with you when you visit.
When we explore and honor our children’s feelings, we respect them and their worldview. And by simply witnessing your compassionate behavior toward critically ill people, your son will soon learn how to reach out with his own meaningful gestures to a dying loved one.