Always go to the funeral. Spouse, parent, sibling, friend, dog—it doesn’t matter who died, it means a lot to the bereaved if you show up at the funeral. You don’t even have to say anything, you can just go in, sign the book and leave. They can’t really remember who’s there anyway, but it’s so comforting to see that someone cared enough to show up for a few hours.
But if you did know the dead guy or their nearest and dearest but can’t go to the funeral (and sometimes you can’t for a variety of good reasons) please do take the extra effort to do something else.
Allow me to throw in a side caveat here that there were several people at the funeral who hardly knew John. One man even earnestly explained to me back at the house while he had only met John once, he was now sorry for that because John seemed like such a great guy. Let’s just agree that’s one of the Top Ten Things Not To Say To A New Widow At The Funeral. You can say it later, but what the heck are you doing at the dang funeral if you didn’t even know the guy. Let me hasten to add that he didn’t know me any better. I was bewildered as to how to reply, “Well, yeah, he was a good guy. Thanks for coming. Do you need a name tag?”
Back to alternatives. Two dear friends lived on the East Coast, so due to the travel constraints just couldn’t make it out in time. In the overwhelming swirl of events, it would have been nearly overwhelming anyway. Being the widow also means being the hostess to a certain extent, your friends naturally want to spend time with you and be as helpful as they can. But you don’t always have the time or ability to spend time or extend the emotional energy when you’re under siege.
So my New York friend wrote me a lovely sympathy note and told me she would be planning a trip to visit me within the next month. And sure enough, three weeks after the funeral, she arrived Kleenex in hand and ready to make casseroles. We sat together talking about John, reading over the cards and letters that had come in. She helped me get the house reorganized and talked over work issues with me. She was just there for a few days, but it was a lovely, meaningful visit.
Three weeks after that, my DC friend arrived for the weekend. She went with me to John’s office to help me clean that out and to figure out what to do with it all when I got it all home. And she too sat with me, laughed, cried and talked over memories. She had recently lost her father and we shared our grief together, which served to reinforce the great love that had been left behind.
Seeing these friends at a quieter time, when the maelstrom had settled was quite a gift. Although I was still in a stupor, they granted me the time to talk over what I had just been through and they listened with love. They reminded me that distance didn’t matter. It took a lot to get them to give up precious vacation time, to leave their own lives and families just to come and show me they loved me. That’s quite a gift and I was grateful for it.
Closer to home, there were friends who also couldn’t make the funeral. One couple took a weekend day and came over to see what needed to be done around the house—we went through the house making lists for repairs or upkeep maintenance that needed doing. Although John was disabled, he couldn’t do the physical work but he always knew what was going on around the house, what needed fixing and how to do it. His last weekend at home, we installed a beautiful dining room light fixture he had given me for our seventeenth wedding anniversary. I hadn’t the foggiest idea how to install a light fixture and didn’t understand how the electric system worked, so John sat in a chair, drinking a beer and directed me step-by-step. The installation worked and the light looks terrific. It was a fun project. But now I didn’t have someone to tell me how to do things.
Since my friends knew home maintenance—at least the husband half did—we went over the basics of the house, where the water and gas mains were, how to turn on and off the furnace, how the water heater worked, and we re-labeled the electric circuit box. I couldn’t have done that alone, in fact, I would not have known where to start. It was an empowering day for me that was also a perfect way for my friends to show me they were still an essential part of my life.
One friend I knew only casually called to ask me out for coffee. She suggested the day, time and place—small but critical details, since I was in no condition to make decisions on my own. She showed up on time, came in to the house, took me out and we had a nice time talking about lots of things, John included.
Going to the funeral means you take the time out to share memories with your friend. Most importantly, it shows the widow there is a network of love and support out there, that she is not alone. So you should always go. But if you absolutely, positively can’t, make the same gesture another way. Take an afternoon, an evening, a weekend and show up. Be present and listen. Let the widow babble senselessly for a while, let her cry on your shoulder, let her do what she needs to do for a few hours. Time is a great kindness.
Allow me one last warning to help steer you through the waters of Doing The Wrong Thing: Try not to show up at the widow’s doorstep all at once just after the funeral, then leave her alone for months and months. That’s a classic dilemma and that’s another post.