Dos and Don'ts for dealing with Death

I’ve mentioned before that Ivylad’s father is dying. He’s fading, and all I can say is Thank God he lasted until today, because today is their 45th wedding anniversary.

Now, somehow, I have reached the advanced age of 36 without having a family member die, so I’m not sure how to handle things. Ivylad and his mom and sisters are doing their grieving now, and I know there’s more to come, but I’m not sure what to do afterward.

I know that we should not go in immediately and clean out his things. I think Mum should do that, when she’s ready. Is there anything else I should be aware of? I am somewhat afraid at how this is going to hit me, and I want to be there for my husbands, SILs, MIL, and my children.

Oh, and dying really sucks, too. :frowning:

Don’t assume anything. Some people will close up the dead persons room and leave it untouched for years. If they are happy with that leave them alone.

If you start reading a book that mentions stages of grief or has the name Elisabeth Kubler-Ross on the cover throw it in the bin. Grief is a personal experience and no-one else knows what is happening, or in what order. Ivylad, his mother and sisters will know exactly what they want if you give them room to explore things.

Encourage them to take their time and think about what they want to do. The funeral doesn’t have to be a rush job done within days of death, just step back and think about alternatives.

I condusted my son’s funeral by a river, rather than inviting people to a funeral parlour or a graveyard. The funeral director brought the coffin and took it away fir cremation. I was only able to come up with a meaningful ceremony because I had the help of others who helped me achieve what I wanted.

Oh. and dying only really sucks for the living, to the best of my knowledge. If I discover that it sucks for the dead I’ll get back to you.

I have told several of my friends that if I die they are to take my ashes to Randwick racecourse and scatter them down the home straight after the last on Doncaster day. They need the opportunity to let people know.

If ypu feel compelled to “clean out his things”, put them in storage. Do not throw anything away yet, ther is plenty of time for that.

For the first year, at least, their hearts will be their guide. Everything will be a first time without him - birthdays, holidays, any thing that was significant as a family will be a stark reminder of his passing. Life without him gets easier after that.

During my father’s illness, my mother prepared mentally to cope without him and she did well. After 10 years alone, she still keeps one very obvious symbol of him - his jacket and cap are still on a hook near the back door. They spent almost 60 years together, he is still present in her heart, and having those items where he left them is apparently very comforting to her. My point is that there are no rules, just kindness and instinct.

Listen, support and love them.

My thoughts and prayers are with you.

If you’re in town, do the laundry.


One of the things that often happens when dealing with grief is a level of depression/exhaustion that makes normal, day-to-day activities into massive hurdles. And not just now, in the first few days, but a week, three weeks, two months from now; if you can check in, and see if they need a hand with laundry, or grocery shopping, or mowing the lawn. Being there as a shoulder to cry on is excellent, but keeping an eye on the practical needs is even better.

(In the past few years, both my parents, my two oldest brothers, one aunt, and several cousins have died. I’m more of an expert on this topic than I’d like to be.)

Also, be aware of anniversaries and holidays, and if you can, give a call, or visit, but check in somehow.

I’m sorry for your and Ivylad’s loss.

I guess I’m having a hard time with this because I need to plan things, to know what I’m doing and when I’m doing it. Ivylad laughs at me because sudden change sends me into a tizzy. One day we were walking into a grocery store when his sister and husband and kids pull up. They ask if we want to join them for lunch. I was thrown for a loop, because it wasn’t on my “to-do” list for that day and I actually stood there, rubbing my head, trying to figure out how to work this into my schedule. We did join them for lunch, though. It’s kind of stupid, when you think of it, but that’s me. I am trying to work on upping my spontaneity tolerance.

Anyway, I’ve been trying to put scenarios together based on when we get The Call…what to do if I’m at work, what to do if it’s late and we’re asleep, what to do if it’s evening and we’re eating, what to do if it’s on the weekend, do we or do we not pull the kids out of school, how much work do I take off…I hate uncertainty, and this is the Big Uncertainty.

Well you are starting to sound like just the person they will need.
I will suggest some responses now. When you read them if you think “that sounds right”, go with it. If you think " I couldn’t do that", work out what you can do.

Don’t introduce additional stress by creating unrealistic expectations for you and your family. Take it easy. Remember that in this process you and your family are more important than your employer.

What to do if I’m at work: say goodbye to the people at work, ring SO and kids’ school and head for home.

What to do if it’s late and we’re asleep: offer commiserations say you will be there sometime (I don’t know what is practical.) Set the alarm.

What to do if it’s evening and we’re eating: see above.

What to do if it’s on the weekend: see above.

Do we or do we not pull the kids out of school: yes. The experience will be valuable. It’s family after all.

How much work do I take off: let ivylad be your guide.

Keep working out the nitty-gritty of what needs to be done. Someone has to do it and it will be greatly appreciated. Take notes from this thread and anywhere else you can find.

Make some easily microwaveable food, like a casserole, if you can get some time. It was insanely wonderful of friends to do that for us when our household got disrupted by grief and making arrangements, because on the days we forgot to/were too listless to make dinner, there was something in the fridge brought by a friend.

Carry a couple hankies on you. Let people grieve in their own way, without judging. Do pull your kids out of school, but don’t make them wear dark colors to the services. I think the usual amount of time allowed off from most workplaces is about three days. Make sure that Ivylad’s mother doesn’t spend the next few birthdays/anniversaries/holidays alone.

I vividly recall that you MiL doesn’t want any death talk in the presence of your FiL. However, how is she away from him? Is she in denial over the whole situation?

My point is that maybe the arrangements have not been made. Certainly, don’t push her into anything she doesn’t want to do, but try to find out if it’s been considered, and offer to help ahead of time.

My mother (a strange duck in the stubbornness mold), had my uncle go out to the cemetery and buy her plot for her 6 months ahead of time, and sat with her minister to plan the funeral so my sister and would not have to. Which was nice in one respect, but caused friction in another. I got so fed up with Mom trying to ‘protect’ me that I got a little hot under the collar and told her that the counsel she keeps is her business, but she wasn’t doing my sister and I any favors by keeping us out of it.

Other than that, try to hang around as much as you feel appropriate, and try to pick up on the household stuff: Laundry, cooking, errands, etc. Nerves will be shot, so don’t let a spat bother you, but don’t let one get out of and, either.

VB, having been through this more times than I care to admit.

Unless you’re Jewish.

Which brings up the point, be familiar with the cultural and religious practices of the family. All the funerals I’ve been to have been Jewish. I understand from my Christian friends that there’s a thing called a wake. But I have little idea as to what it is or what mourners do at one.

I think the best thing you can do is simply say ‘I don’t know just what to do, but I’m here if you need me.’ They may want to pack everything up right away and need an extra pair of hands. Rather than sorting through things for pictures or other things they’d want to keep, they may decide to throw out everything, in which case they’ll need somebody to stop them from doing something they’ll almost certainly regret later. They may just want to spend hours telling you stories about the deceased. Or they may need somebody to do the chores the deceased used to do. Just tell them you’re there if they need you.

When my dad died, before his body was even returned from Texas to Maryland, my mother was sorting through his clothes and things. And I understand why. She had to be doing something and his things would need to be sorted and parceled out eventually, so why not? It worked for her. Instead of wandering around the now-empty house knowing he’d never be there again, she kept busy. That’s how she coped.

Both of them had all their affairs in order, and my brother knew all the details of Dad’s insurance, final wishes, their burial plots, and such. I know that was a load off Mom’s shoulders - much as she was trying to be stoic, she was in no condition to be making those decisions. So she was free to grieve as she needed and we were all around to support her as we could.

One thing I’ve learned from all the funerals I’ve attended in my life - there are no rules. The most important thing is to be there to listen and hug and support and do things that aren’t getting done. I suppose the best thing is to trust your instincts. Don’t try to figure out what’s right - you know what you have to do - really.

Don’t ask, “Is there anything I can do?” Tell them what you are going to do, and then do it. My family always brings easily microwaveable food, like casseroles. Volunteer to do the shopping, or the laundry (as winterwren astutely mentions).

And there isn’t anything you can say to make it better. Tincture of time is all that will accomplish that.


Actually, Kübler-Ross’s first book is quite good. It has been misused by people who tried to turn it into a “manual” for dying and subsequent to that first book she began to get quite loopy in her views on the experience of death.

If you have the time, I would suggest reading it.
I would not wave it around and let everyone see that you are reading it, of course.
I would support don’t ask in noting that death is unique both to each person who dies and to each person who suffers bereavement. Nothing in On Death and Dying should be used as a blueprint for behavior. (There have been tales of misinformed readers harrassing mourners, insisting that they have to go through a particular “phase” at a particular time. Those people were idiots (and Kübler-Ross never actually made that claim in her first book).)

Do give the dying and the bereaved room to be angry (or to share boisterous humor) without judging them. (If terrible things are said among the family, let the words die as they are spoken, never to be resurrected, chalking it up to stress and grief.) If they want to be busy when they “should” be mourning, let them be busy. It often helps. (My boss was shocked that I came in to work the morning my Dad died–but my boss would have been short-handed at a time he needed the help, and when he sent me home, I had nothing to do but sit around feeling bad while I could have adjusted to my feelings while my mind was distracted had I stayed at work.)

Actually, I think you may be confusing me with someone else. My MIL is holding up pretty well, as Ivylad goes over there for a few days each week, and his sisters, with younger children, try to get there on the weekends. The arrangements have been made, he’s going to be cremated and I believe that is paid for. She knows where the important paperwork is, and is quite aware that her husband is dying.

Then I must have you confused. Sorry 'bout that.

Some other Doper has that going on, and it was a Pit topic for a while.

DO take some time a day or two after the funeral to get together with the family and have a nice evening together. Reminisce, look through a box of pictures, share stories, cry a little perhaps, and just revel in the memory of your lost love one. At this time, you will already have mourned for several days and will likely mourn for several more. Take a break to enjoy life with your family and friends. There will be plenty of business to take care of afterwards.

DON’T be ashamed to laugh or smile at the viewing or wake, or whatever service is customary after a cremation. Ivylad’s father’s suffering is over, and that should come as a relief. He is somewhere without pain, and comfort can be found in that.

I wish you and your family well through this difficult time.

Ah, Ivylass, you like to plan

Here are some of the things I did when my FIL was dying/passed away after terminal cancer:

  1. I went to my human resources department at work well in advance and explained a family member had a terminal illness and asked about bereavement leave and my obligation(s) to the company. I found out that, given the distance I would have to travel, I was allowed five days leave, not three, and could also take additional vacation time if I felt a need to do so. They also gave me suggestions as to how to make sure my sudden absence would cause as little disruption as possible amongst my department (your co-workers will thank you and be more supportive if you make the effort not to leave a mess behind - but you sound like the sort who is pretty organized anyhow.)

  2. I planned my route of travel to the in-laws, including hotels if we had to stop for bad weather along the way and favored eating spots on the trail. This made the trip down to Tennessee much less stressful since we had to make fewer decisions on the fly

  3. While there, I helped out any way I could. I offered to cook meals - not timidly, more like “I’m going to get dinner started, where’s the frying pan?”. Grieving people either overeat or don’t eat enough. Either way, they need healthy meals, not take-out. I also volunteered to babysit The Hag {{{{shudder}}}} - that was the MIL’s MIL, and one of the most unpleasent and abusive human beings it has ever been my displeasure to meet. Seriously. I preferred Eagan the Nazi to this hell-harpy. At least EtN did not throw feces at people (he couldn’t, being quadraplegic). I passed out hankies. I swept floors and cleaned bathrooms and changed bedsheets.

Unfortunately for you, there will be chaos. Well, if you can’t plan when the event happens you can certainly plan for every contingency. You may not know when you will be called upon to cook a meal, but you can have a meal planned out ahead of time and make sure the ingredients are in the fridge. You don’t know when someone will start crying, but you can make sure there are tissue boxes in every room.

Items to make sure are available, because they are frequently forgotten/run out:

toilet paper
sanitary products for grieving women visitors (may not be needed, but if needed and not available will precipitate a crisis)
trash bags
paper towels (stuff will get spilled)
first aid supplies (grieving people get careless/clumsy - getting cuts after picking up a broken glass or plate seems to be all too common in these situations)
soap in the bathrooms and kitchen
clean dry towels and washcloths (particularly if out-of-town guests are staying over)
headache remedies (asprin, tylenol, etc.)

Items that will help out:

  • paper plates and cups and plasticware (cuts down on the amount of dishwashing required - even with a dishwasher the dishes can pile up)
  • a couple quarts of stew or similar frozen meals, such as the previously suggested cassarole, that can be quickly heated and served, and if necessary reheated and reserved, and divided into small portions for those who aren’t eating much but still need to eat.
  • bread and cold cuts for quick sandwhiches, along with soft drinks. Individual servings of cold cuts are a good idea - they’ll stay fresh longer, and you only need open what you need. This is no time for food poisoing!
  • if you’re having guests/a large wake/sitting shiva or otherwise having a gathering, many supermarkets either have a ready-made tray of fruit or vegees, or will make one up for you. Sausage/cheese/pickle trays are also availble, but try not to over do the high calorie stuff. This will save considerable time but also allow you to feed large quantities of people, if necessary. Although personally I enjoy having lots of stuff to cut up at a time like that, it gets rid of my nervous energy. So really, you can go either way. But being able to keep the guests busy in one room while you do something else (like cook a meal) helps keep order.
  • if the funeral is outside and the weather is cool, bring some shawls/blankets so folks - especially elderly folks - can throw on an extra layer if needed.
  • keep some umbrellas around, both at outdoor services and also just by the door so errand runners don’t have to get soaked.
  • kids will need entertaining. Games, age appropriate videos, etc. need to be available, as well as an adult to provide supervision.

Some folks go into “paralysis mode” when grieving - they’ll sleep a lot, sit around a lot, and not eat. Keep an eye on them. It’s OK for them to do this for a couple days (usually they’ll come out of their shell on their own) but encourage them to eat something, even if only a little bit, three times a day and make sure they drink fluids. That may mean putting the drink in their hand, or setting one by their chair, or whatever. Frequently, even if they have no appetite they will eat if you just get them started.

Some folks want to be alone. Some folks want to be in a crowd. Someone getting stressed out and wanting a nap should be allowed to have it, in a quiet room without disturbances. If you have a lot of people about designate a “nap room” for both kids and adults.

Some folks prefer to cry in private - that should be allowed. However, I don’t feel it’s necessary to hustle every single weeping person out of a room at the first tear. This is where knowing the family is important. I’ve seen entire rooms of people sobbing and howling for a half an hour in a very cathartic manner, after which everyone felt much better, and I’ve seen situations where everyone insists on being very stoic, excusing themselves to sob in private. Some folks want to stay home and sleep or reminise. Some folks will want to do something - organizing an movie outing or a frisbee game in the back yard is entirely appropriate, particularly when children are involved.

In some families, alcohol and grieving go together. If this is the case, you will need multiple small plastic buckets. And extra towels and washcloths.

Ivylass, I suspect you’ll be most comfortable keeping busy. During the FIL’s funeral week I not only ran errands, cleaned house, cooked meals, and took care of pets (dogs, birds, mouse, and sugar gliders) I also kept a needlepoint project at hand to keep myself busy during down times. Amazingly enough, there were down times and stretches where I was just waiting. You might be more comfortable using those times to do a quick check of the house - bathrooms in order, kitchen cleaned up, trash taken out, whatever. Which doesn’t mean you should be doing all these chores yourself. Enlist help when needed. Be the catalyst, not the actual workhorse. Have a to-do list ordered by priorities rather than by timeline.

And don’t forget - take care of yourself. You can’t help others unless you’re functioning well. Be sure you get your needs satisfied as well.

Don’t be afraid to say nothing. Silence is fine.
Stupid statements, like ‘It’s a blessing it’s finally over’, are not.

Don’t feel bad if you don’t cry.

Don’t stand around looking as awkward as you feel; try to look serious.

Answer the phone; write down the names of every-one who calls.

Address the envelopes for the ‘Thank you for your condolences’ notes; tracking down the address can be a real chore.

Don’t use paper plates; hand washing dishes is a really nice chore for both the grief stricken and their friends and relatives.

Don’t wear warm or bright colors.

If you really like to plan, make a list of appropriate movies to rent. You can’t sit around crying the whole time, and the kids will get bored sooner than the adults. Avoid comedies and movies about death. ‘Little Women’ is OUT. ‘Key Largo’ is good.

Amen to this. At my dad’s viewing, our mood went to both extremes. At one point, I was with my youngest sister and my husband, standing aside, looking at Dad laid out in his tuxedo. My sister said something to the effect that we should have dressed him in one of this t-shirts that looks like a tux, and propped up a sign that said “I’m dead and all I got was this lousy t-shirt”

Yeah, we cracked up. And Dad would have also - we shared the same sense of humor. I’m sure there were those tsk-tsking behind our backs. Like we cared - we were coping as we felt necessary. Humor really helped.

Broomstick’s advice is wonderful. Unfortunately, all four of my grandparents and several of my aunts and uncles died slowly of terminal diseases. I’ve grown used to be around the dying and mourning. As Broomstick pointed out, the widow and children may too stunned/upset to deal with mundane things, like getting the house clean for the inevitable onslaught of visitors. This is where you can really help out.

Also, do you live near your in-laws? They may need help with those kind of mundane things now. When my grandmother was dying of cancer, my mom and I went over once a week (she lived about 50 miles away) to clean house, grocery shop, etc., so that my aunt wouldn’t have to worry about such things. When my granddad was in the hospital for the last time, I’d take him meals from home–he hated the hospital food–and give him back and foot rubs. I think just being touched by another person helped comfort him.

Are your in-laws using a Hospice service? If so, you may want to note the first and last names of the care providers, as well as the address of the hospice headquarters. After the initial grief lessens a bit, your MiL may want to write them thank-you letters or send them something. (I can’t say enough good things about hospice workers; they are truly a blessing.)

For my dad’s funeral, my mother even went so far as to hold up the procession to the church for about 20 minutes. We knew why, but when the funeral director asked her about it, she explained “Paul was never on time for anything. We’d always tell him he had to be somewhere 30 minutes before he actually did, and he was still late. I would tell him he’d be late for his own funeral, and he’s not going to make a liar out of me. So, he is literally the late Paul Casey.” Her sense of humor and grace at such a difficult time made it so much easier on a lot of people.