I logged on to Facebook one afternoon to find my grandfather had died. A relative made the announcement via status update. It was not the way I wanted to find out of his passing. My aunt, his daughter, had not even been told. My relative meant well, and my grandmother, not knowing what Facebook is, thought a Facebook announcement would be fine.
In the past few years I’ve noticed other faux pas in the form of status updates, wall posts and emails sent out en masse. I’m not sure what it says about our culture; our lack of reverence for the dead or more likely our misguided yet unfeigned compassion towards those who lose loved ones. News media regularly refrains from revealing the names of those who have died until all family members have been notified. This can take days, or sometimes weeks. But news travels fast in wards and neighborhoods, especially in the age of the internet. It only takes one post on someone’s wall with the word Condolences to send ripples and waves that crash down on unsuspecting loved ones.
I offer some tips as general guidelines taken from my own observations, leaving room for people to navigate the very tender and individual circumstances around them.
Don’t announce via Facebook, email, instant message, twitter (heaven forbid), or any other public means that someone has passed away unless you have been asked to get the message out—and even then Facebook may be in poor taste. If you have been notified of a death, you could ask the person who told you if it is ok for you to tell people, or if there are specific people you should notify.
Don’t post on the Facebook wall of a spouse, child, parent, or other loved one’s wall that you are sorry to hear about someone’s passing—even if someone else has already posted something to that affect—unless the person who owns the wall has already not only announced it, but announced it on Facebook. They may have told you, but they may not have had a chance to notify all relatives. Don’t tweet it!
Don’t call the house. Instead call the Bishop, Relief Society President, visiting teacher, close friend or family member of those grieving to find out what you can to do help. Usually there is a contact person, it is best to arrange to help through that person. Not only is it hard on the family to receive lots of calls, but calling the contact person cuts down on confusion as efforts are made to help.
Don’t just stop by. Even if it’s to bring food. Call the contact person first (see above).
Never, ever tell someone who was pregnant you are sorry about the loss of their baby via Facebook. Chances are they haven’t told all 400 of their Facebook friends about their baby, and prefer to keep it private. But what if they announced their pregnancy via Facebook? It doesn’t matter, don’t do it.
Don’t tell someone who has lost a child that his/her child must have a mission in heaven, that the good die young, that it was God’s will, that they must be special people to have lost a child so young—who obviously must be special to die so young, that it was the person’s time, that it’s good we know about the Plan of Salvation, or wax on about any other theological comforts to support them. It doesn’t usually help and often hurts. Sam’s gentle post illustrates this.
Don’t say anything like the above regarding adults who have died. Especially don’t say it via Facebook (or other electronic means).
Don’t be overly eager to do something. You may want to feel helpful. Sometimes the most help is to do nothing.
Don’t wish someone well on their surgery or medical procedure via Facebook. Don’t ask them how their recovery is going publicly on the internet.
Once you’ve found out about someone’s loss, find out who the contact person is. Contact that person to know what to do to help. This could be planning a funeral, picking up relatives from the airport, finding place for relatives to stay, putting notices in the newspaper, arranging meals or arranging childcare. Later someone close to you might want help going through personal items of a lost loved one. Again, go through the contact person (unless you are the contact person).
Take food, but call the contact person first.
Remember, although you might be the bishop, Relief Society President or home or visiting teacher does not mean you are the person who needs to be there. You may feel the burden of your calling to jump in and fill a need, but you may not be needed as emotional support. Your efforts as peripheral support are often times the best you can give the family. For emotional support, people will want to lean most on their closest friends during times of grief. Let them.
Remember, although you might be the bishop, Relief Society President or home or visiting teacher does not mean the family wants you to know they just lost a baby, have an illness, or have other hardships of sensitive nature befall them. Some things don’t require ward involvement. If you found out, that doesn’t mean you are supposed to know. Unless the family approaches you, let them be.
Believe people mean what they say. If someone says they don’t want help (i.e. meals) don’t pressure them to take it. That isn’t helpful.
Often time’s people want privacy. Give it to them.
Such a concrete list may appear that one size fits all. Probably the first thing to know about grief is there isn’t a one size fits all. Don’t beat yourself up if you’ve done it wrong in the past. You may feel genuinely prompted to do things on the don’ts list. In times of grief, everybody is trying hard to do the right thing in an impossible situation. While lots of things that get done may be ill-timed or poorly delivered, just as damaging is the inaction precipitated by fear of doing it wrong. Give yourself some space to follow your own impressions and good heart. What experiences have you had as the bereaved or someone helping to handle arrangements? What helped or worked and what didn’t?