|(In loving memory of my brother, Gregory.|
You always believed I could.)
It's been a while since I have written something public but recent events have driven the protocol person inside of me crazy! Through a series of unfortunate events, I found myself seated in a funeral parlor surrounded by friends, family, well-wishers, and onlookers. One hardly expects to know everyone who shows up at such a gathering, but cordial behavior is extended to all, no matter how severe the grief. But, there is a line. Crossing it whether knowingly or unwittingly, always causes the recipient of such foolishness to reassess their tenacious hold on their present reality. They must first ask themselves, if the person is actually real. In times of grief, it is easy to imagine things another way because each moment is filled with "what if's and why's". After ascertaining the obvious, yes, there they are, the next question becomes, "did I really hear that or did they actually do that?" This also bears a moment's reflection because hallucinations or surrealism often accompanies grief. And if the internal checks accept the truth of the current situation or person, then it is incumbent on us to either smile and step aside or politely shove them into the flowers. Either way it is handled, it will always be remembered with extreme forgiveness at as such seemingly abrupt rudeness or aloofness on your part, because, "poor dear, they were grieving so hard!" Here are some general rules of protocol for expressing condolences that allows you to express real sympathy without becoming part of the pain:
1. Respect the family's time to grieve. I haven't spoken to one person who hasn't been appalled at the media's "camera in face" footage of the poor waiting families when they heard of the recent plight of the missing Malaysian aircraft. Truly, we didn't want to share or know that much. You are an outsider pretending to be concerned. What you call sensational news is truly personal pain to us. Go away.
2. Refrain from asking questions which require repeating the horrid details that led to the current situation. Clearly, no matter what could or should have happened, didn't. To ask the same question that every insensitive person has asked since the occurrence is like pouring salt on a fresh cut. It burns to tears each time. In time, you will know what is public. If you were closer than that, you wouldn't have to ask.
3. Sudden bereavement is seldom a time of exuberance. If you are attending the visitation, refrain from any attempt to turn it into a social hour. Loud, rambunctious laughter may have been the past style of the deceased, but at this moment, the reminder may not be so welcomed. Gauge the atmosphere before joining the receiving line. Respectfully greet, smile, nod, or even hug if appropriate, but never assume that this is the time to reminisce about the good old days or hold up the line with inappropriate inquiries (See #2 above!)
4. Unless you are immediate family, don't assume liberties such as pointing out perceived flaws in the deceased dress, facial expressions, and/or other banal findings which may ramble through your thoughts. Resist dragging unwilling participants over to verify your findings or asking a family member to take or put something in place. It is not party dressing but parting dress and careful scrutiny has already occurred before you arrived.
5. Taking unsolicited photos of grieving family members or their loved ones in the casket is a no-no! Even if you are a professional photographer, do not attempt to corral the family, snapping like paparazzi, or worse, asking the bereaved to smile; I assure you, no matter how glad they are to see you, this is the last expression the face wants to make.
6. By the same token, if the person was indebted to you in any manner, and/or you are feeling anything other than grief, do not canvas the crowd or haggle with family members to discover details about legal matters or proceedings. It is not only in bad taste, it reeks of rudeness and apathy.
7. Burials are personal. Yours will be also. If you accompany the family to the gravesite, don't' offer meaningless platitudes such as "they are in a better place"...no, right now, the "they" that you are mourning is being placed into the ground! While spiritually it may mean more later, at that moment, the reality of not seeing the person tomorrow makes rational thoughts of a better place hard to swallow. There are moments in life when words may not be necessary. This is one of them... let the meditation of your heart be acceptable...choose silence.
8. Don't ask for things. Leftover flowers or plants may be a free for all at the funeral home, but selling the car or renting the house is another. It has been said that “Death is the most viral of all life events” , i.e., it is big news! Some people shamelessly scour the newspapers looking for obituaries of people they know or whose family, in their own eyes, appears prominent or needy. Then, although the person is barely gone, the telephone begins to ring or the letters of inquiry arrive offering a promising solution to what appear to be "just an additional financial hardship"! The family has a right to take their time in decisions of disposable and release. Even if they appear burdened with excessive debt or you are privy to the personal financial status, resist the urge to become a vulture!
9. Please remember that although something may have been promised to you, it still belongs with the family until they can stand or bear to part with it. If you never get it, find another way to live with your memory. In addition, words for future peace to the wise - if a person cares enough for you to have a thing, make sure they put it in writing.
10. A good friend, family member understands that grieving is not quick or pleasant. Be prepared for unexplained emotions, random acts of confusion and anguish. Learn how to "hold" an emotional moment close in quiet empathy without demeaning the person because " it's been 3 months!". In some cultures, grieving rituals last up to twelve months! The best way through grief is by grieving. Rev. York, writes in an article, Seasons of Grief, that as anniversaries, significant events or shared memories approach, allow the bereaved to have opportunities to create rituals of remembrance and mark milestones of memory. There is not an prescription, a scripture or a prayer that will bring back what is missed the most. Time heals and time, well it takes time.
I am Pamela Coopwood, and I am Speaking of Protocol
Pamela Coopwood is a Certified Trainer of professional Protocol and Etiquette. Her company, Speaking of Protocol, LLC, offers seminars, classes and corporate training to enhance the soft skills to be successful in today’s business arena. www.speakingofprotocol.com/703-408-0403