• When to Stay Silent
  • Creative Etiquette Solutions
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When to Stay Silent

Dear Didi,

A friend of ours died in a car accident recently and we’re not only at a loss for words, but we’re at a loss for the right words to say to his family and friends of the family. They have a child who is in school with one of our children and it has been difficult telling them what to say and what not to say. Please, give us some badly needed guidance.

-Anonymous, Newport, Rhode Island

Dear Anonymous,

When in doubt as to what to say and what not to say it is advisable to say as little possible. The best thing to say is that you have been thinking about them. The worst thing to say is "How are you?" Obviously, they are not feeling great and you cannot take away the pain. They just lost their father or husband. Your feelings of helplessness shouldn't keep you from reaching out and encouraging your children to reach out to their friend. Don't underestimate the power of love. Words give us power, so let the adult or child find the right words. Most importantly, tell good memories. Children dealing with loss have many of the same feelings and needs as adults, but fewer resources and coping skills to deal with their feelings. Any way to ease the pain of mourning is welcome. We all mourn in our own way and in our own time, and have individual patterns and outlets for grief. Sometimes it is best to say nothing and just be with the person, or give a big hug instead of saying anything. If you have a favorite memory of the deceased, share it. Or simply say: 'I am sorry for your loss,' 'I wish I had the right words, please, know that I care about you and your children,' 'I can't say that I know how you feel, but I'm here to help any way I can.' It would be insensitive to ask for details about the accident, such as, 'Was he wearing a seatbelt?' You simply wouldn't ask a question like that. Someone will probably tell you, anyway. Or say things such as, 'He is in a better place,' or 'There is a reason for everything,' or never 'You're still young you can marry again,' or 'I know how you feel.' Stay clear of bringing in God and religion, because you never know, the survivor could be very angry at God right now. Let the widow know you're thinking about her and check up on her from time to time, because, after all, when the out-of-town family and friends have gone home and she is alone, your friend will need you most. When the children are back in school and she is alone with her pain -- and her memories. Let her know that she and her children are in your thoughts and prayers and that you're here to help.

~Didi

  • To Attend A Funeral or Not
  • Creative Etiquette Solutions
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To Attend A Funeral or Not

Dear Didi,

Would it be improper to attend the wake of and old girlfriend’s dad whom I have not seen in forty years?

-Jason, T., Woonsocket. RI

Dear Jason, T.,

The fact that you're asking means you want to attend, but feel awkward having not seen the deceased in a long time. You would be attending his wake in support of the deceased's family and because you liked and respected him. Wakes can be a social occasion and an opportunity to catch up with old friends and acquaintances. If your gut tells you to go, then attend, because it would not be improper.

~Didi

  • A Friend's Possible Suicide
  • Creative Etiquette Solutions
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A Friend's Possible Suicide

Dear Didi,

Yesterday I read a very, very brief obituary of an old friend who died three months ago. There was no mention of his life, wife, where to send a contribution in memory, how he died or cause of death. Only two sisters were listed as survivors. Both of whom I know and who must have paid for the notice in the New York Times. He grew up in Manhattan, but had lived for many decades in the northwest. I contacted a good mutual friend of one of the sisters to find out what she knew. She said she had called and written to the sister months ago and still had not received a response. She assumes the sister is deeply saddened.

Somehow a commercial sympathy card seems too impersonal. That sister lives abroad so sending flowers would be prohibitive as well as too late. What would you recommend?

-E.C., Newport, RI

Dear E.C.,

Had the sisters not wanted their brother's death known, they would not have placed their brother's obituary in the New York Times. Try sending a condolence message through the New York Times Obituary Guest Book. No doubt, the paper will forward messages from any signers of the guest book to at least one of the sisters. Caution. Don't be tempted to share the New York Times Obituary Guest Book or obituary on Facebook. Let the family control the news on all social media, especially because the cause of death has not been announced. It could possibly be suicide. Nonetheless, there is no deeper heartfelt expression of sympathy than a handwritten note. To outlive a sibling is a tragic loss.

~Didi

  • Wife’s Family Control Funeral and Asks to Be Paid
  • Creative Etiquette Solutions
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Wife’s Family Control Funeral and Asks to Be Paid

Dear Didi,

My brother just passed away. My sister-in-law and her family made all the arrangements without any input from us. My mother and I live cross country from my deceased brother so it would have been helpful to give us a little time to make travel arrangements. We were not asked if we needed a little time instead we were told when the funeral was taking place so we had to book very expensive flights with very short notice. My other brother wanted to contribute photos to any presentation that would occur and he was rebuffed by their family. He asked if there was going to be a video stream and he was told no. They communicated to us that as per tradition there would be a luncheon after the cemetery service and had me communicate that to my relatives then they turned around and withdrew the invitation saying it was for immediate family only. At first they said all were welcome to the memorial service then they said it was also private but after my vehement protest they allowed my relatives to attend. At the service there were photos and video stream pretty much exclusively of her side of the family. The coffin was a very expensive one. My wife and I ended up taking all of my relatives to a separate eatery and treated them to lunch. Sorry to ramble but all this was necessary to help you to help me answer my question.

At the conclusion of the family only luncheon the boyfriend of my sister-in-law’s sister approached my uncle and said that our family should shoulder the some of the cost of the funeral. My sister-in-law’s father is a multi-millionaire who owns several lucrative properties in NYC as well as overseas. My mom is living on social security and with savings she and my dad penny pinched all their lives to save. We are outraged and feel like neither my mom or any of us should be obligated to pay. What do you think based on all that went on? Thank you very much.

-N/A

Dear N/A,

A funeral can be a minefield of unexploded emotions that lead to demands over money and control. Your brother's family made it clear that they didn't want any help with the funeral, then disinvited your family to the luncheon, and now they want money to defray funeral costs. If your brother's family had needed help to pay for his funeral, they should have mentioned it before making elaborate arrangements. Since you don't think they really need help, tell them that your family will be honoring your brother's memory in their own way and in their own time. In memory of your brother, find a school, charity or non-profit organization that, for instance, can arrange to plant a tree or install a park bench in his name in a park, nature reserve, or fishing location where he spent time as a child. Take as long as you like to create a heartfelt expression of your family's feelings toward your brother, and then let his wife know the specifics after it is in place.

~Didi

  • Memorial Service and Luncheon Invitation
  • Creative Etiquette Solutions
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Memorial Service and Luncheon Invitation

Dear Didi,

My mother passed away and her memorial service will be held two months later with a luncheon at a restaurant afterwards. I am sending invitations to the memorial service and a restaurant luncheon afterwards with directions and a copy of my mother’s obituary, if they did not see it.

With family and friends who live a couple of states away and some who are elderly, I want to let them know they are invited, but I also do not expect them to travel the distance to attend. I would let them know their caring is a great comfort. My intention is to let them know I would understand if they did not come. I do not want to be inappropriate. Is it okay for me to say something like this?

-GBW

Dear GBW,

Most of these family and friends who live a couple of states away will have been in a similar situation before and will know how to respond. It is sweet of you to want to let them off the hook, but they'll know you won't expect them to attend your mother's memorial service. In their own time and in their own way they will mourn your mother, even if they don't attend the memorial. A way to encourage them to attend would be to find friends who would be happy to put them up in their homes, alleviating much of the expense. You have two months to work on that. In my opinion, you would save letting them know their caring is a great comfort personally for your acknowledgement for their expression of symphony, when you respond to the card, flowers or handwritten note they sent. This is all part of the mourning processes. What you can do is to send out the invitation along with information about where to stay, and simply say that you have reserved a block of rooms in a nearby motel at a discount, or you have friends who will put them up. If people would like to attend and are looking for a place to stay, they will call you for advice. Again, in my opinion, I would not be too mushy, because it can come off as sounding like a guilt trip. State the facts, acknowledge and appreciate, but don't overdo it.

~Didi

  • Acknowledgements
  • Creative Etiquette Solutions
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Acknowledgements

Dear Didi,

My family had a memorial service at church on May 29, 2014.  It is now October 8, 2014. Is it too late to send out acknowledgement cards? Do I send acknowledgements to everyone who sent sympathy cards to my family? Do I send an acknowledgement card to everyone at my church?  I did but a thank you in the church bulletin.  I also sent acknowledgement cards to many of the church members. Should I continue to send out cards to everyone?

-A.M.

Dear A.M.,

It sounds as though you have already acknowledged many expressions of sympathy from fellow church members and friends. Condolences could continue to trickle in for awhile. Buy a box of acknowledgement cards at a stationery store and use those. Alternatively, you can have a simple card made up on which you can add a line or two before signing your name. The card would read something like this, with the lines centered on the card:

The family of Theodore Delano Roosevelt deeply appreciates and gratefully acknowledges your kind expression of sympathy

Yes, people would expect to be acknowledged for their expression of sympathy and there is no time limit when it comes to saying. I am sorry for your loss. Those who read your acknowledgement in the church bulletin will not expect further attention.  

~Didi

  • Funerals Where Cultures Clash
  • Creative Etiquette Solutions
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Funerals Where Cultures Clash

Dear Didi,

My mother just passed away; she was a very private person and did not want a public funeral service or obituary. My brothers, sisters and I have respected her wishes. She lived far away from all of us, so we all met at her hometown, and honored her privately.

A member of my wife’s family sent out a mass email to her extended family (cousins, etc.) announcing that my mother had passed away. None of these people knew my mother. My wife says this is customary and that people need to know so that they can send condolences. I’m sure they mean well, but this feels like our desire for privacy wasn’t respected. Is it really OK and “customary” for people other than the immediate family to send out announcements of this sort?

-E. B.

Dear E. B.,

When cultures clash, social nuances are not always recognized or understood. Your wife's relative acted from the emotions of her culture where families encourage a lot of comforting through condolences and sympathy cards. A culture that does not reflect your mother's request for a modest and private mourning. Your wife's relative made a mistake in your mother's culture, but in your wife's culture her family would have felt slighted if they had not been informed and allowed to send their condolences. Funerals and burials are so emotionally charged that we have to make allowances for everyone to mourn the deceased in their own way and in their own time. Even if they didn't even know the deceased. Don't forget, your wife's family strongly believe that condolences are obligatory. On the other hand, you cannot keep this resentment bundled up inside of you. Take your wife out for dinner and have a relaxed evening talking about your mother and explaining how in her culture she took great pride in being modest and unassuming, because she didn't feel the need to call attention to herself--in life or death. Tell her you would like her family to honor these beliefs going forward, if you feel as she did. Be sure your wife learns from your explanation and doesn't just reply with a lot of meaningless words--albeit well-meaning. It is important that she learns the significant nuances of your culture---and you of hers---and you're the only one who can teach her. Of course, the condolences from her family will have to be acknowledged. Let your wife mourn your mother in her own way by having her write the thank-you notes to all of her family members who sent cards.

~Didi

  • Death of A Sibling
  • Creative Etiquette Solutions
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Death of A Sibling

Dear Didi,

My brother passed and I am receiving cards and baskets at my home addressed to me from my friends and organizations.  Please give me some advice as what to write in a thank you note.  Should I mention the his family is thanking them?

-Morrison

Dear Morrison,

When there are a lot of acknowledgments to be sent, make it easier on yourself by using a pre-printed acknowledgment card, which can be found at a good stationery store or online, where you fill out the deceased's name. Many families have a simple card printed up to share amongst family members. Wording such as this is centered on the card:

The family and friends of George Brown Wilson gratefully acknowledge and deeply appreciate your kind expression of sympathy

Then inside the card or on the back, you can write a short sentence saying, "Thank you for the wonderful basket of food." before signing your name. Of course, you can also send a short message on a boxed thank-you note card saying basically the same thing. There is, also, an old expression, "On behalf of the rest of the family," that seems stilted. You could, also, include a favorite photograph separately or have it printed on the acknowledgment.

~Didi