Navigating Sympathy Gifts

White flowers, spaghetti in a disposable tin, and chocolate chip cookies…each of these come to mind when thinking about things people send as sympathy gifts. When trying to figure out how to help those whose husband, child, grandparent, or mom has died, it is our instinct to turn to beauty and baking, thus flowers and food seem to be the staple gift for grief.

But sometimes it’s nice to think outside the box—though, I would never say that casseroles and flowers are a bad idea!

Last October, my spouse and I each lost a grandfather. It was a strange and sad month to be grieving both men. But, one day soon after both deaths had been announced on Facebook, we received the most amazing sympathy gift, a Blue Apron Box. Blue Apron is a meal delivery service. They give you the exact ingredients and an easy to follow recipe. This was something we desperately needed. It was healthy and really tasty, and it meant we didn’t have to go to the grocery store!!! That is a huge gift when you are grieving. A year later and we are still thankful for that thoughtful gift.

 

So, if you’re wondering what you should give or send to a grieving family, don’t be afraid to think outside the box! Here are some other ideas:

Re-Plantable Flowers
By sending a flower like hydrangeas or tulips that have not been cut, a family can replant your gift and then have a beautiful memory year after year as the flowers bloom.
Tree or Shrub and Memorial Stone
A family I was serving received several flowers and as we were loading them up to take them to the reception, we noticed a stone with a Celtic blessing. We thought it was pretty but couldn’t figure out what it was. In the hustle and bustle of three truckloads of flowers, the card was displaced from the stone. Turns out, someone bought and planted a tree in memory of the deceased. The stone was a keepsake to put at the foot of another tree, in a path, or in a garden. When we put two and two together, the family broke out in praise for such a thoughtful gift.
A quick Google will give you several options, a tree in a foreign rainforest, a plant in California, a sapling in your loved one’s favorite National Forest.

Photos
A couple of months ago, a college friend died and the first thing I did when I found out was look through all of my pictures with her. And, it occurred to me that her mom probably doesn’t have this picture of her daughter wearing chaps (backwards at that) riding a mechanical bull in the middle of West Texas. So, I printed it out and a few others. I have heard from other grieving parents that they truly cherish the collection of pictures that have been sent.

A Self-Care Gift
When you’re grieving, it’s hard to spend any time on yourself, and yet, that is a vital part of processing loss. Consider a self-care gift, something that organic-massagehelps the mind, body, and soul, like a massage, pedicure, or manicure. Or even a month of yoga classes would be great! But self-care isn’t just pampering, it can be tickets to the movies or tickets to a game. Or even an Amazon gift card to purchase or rent several movies! Self-care gifts can be anything that help bring relief to the constant worry that comes in grief.

 

House Care

Some people know each other well enough to say, “I’m coming over to clean your kitchen, walk the dog, wash the car, and do a load or two of dirty towels, bedding, or even cloths.” But for others, this could be awkward, so how about a gift certificate to a cleaning service?
For some people having things clean helps let them get to the hard part of dealing loss, and if the dishes are clean, that leaves extra time to talk to lawyers, close bank accounts, etc.

Lawn Care Service
Slawncarebucketimilar to house care, yards are a big energy zapper when trying to grieve and get things squared away after a death. If it’s warmer weather, mowing yards, pulling weeds, filling in mulch are things you can do or a lawn care service provider can do! If it’s deep winter, offering to clear the snow is a huge help! It might seem simple, but when you’re sad, your energy takes a while to replenish and slaving over a long driveway is daunting. Think about ways that you can help your friend through brightening their yard or making it easier to use.

 

For Children                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           bounce-bali-kidsChildren often get left out of the grief process because it seems too sad to even think about or it is too daunting to figure out how to help them, but they need friends to help them too! They might not appreciate groceries or the lawn being mowed, but they would appreciate care, love, and attention. It could be something as simple as a box of their favorite Pop-Tarts, a new video game, or you could get a gift certificate to the local trampoline gym. Help them find ways to make new memories that are not filled with confusion and the feeling of being left out. Don’t let the specific grief of children be overwhelming for you, instead, think about what they like and take the time to make it a special gift just for them.

 

Need more ideas? Etsy has several unique gifts for many types of situations that can be personalized.


Writing a Eulogy

eulogy

So, you’ve been asked to speak at the funeral service of a loved one. This is a huge honor and it shows the confidence your family or the family of the deceased has in you to share stories. But, this is not like writing a term paper or giving a speech in communications class. Even a seasoned public speaker can find this difficult because not only will you be in front of people, you’ll be experiencing your own emotions of grief and sadness.

One time, a very gregarious TV personality was asked to eulogize his cousin. As the clergy person, I am always glad when friends or family want to eulogize their loved one! I think it adds so much love to a service, but I always warn people to WRITE it down and to practice. He assured me he could wing it and would be just fine. I announced his name and he came up to the podium and broke down, making his “winging it” very difficult. He did tell a great story and we all laughed and cried. It turned out very nice, but I know he felt awkward for several moments and wished he’d have been able to tell other stories that were important to him. No matter who you are, come prepared. Emotions will be high, so, have a plan!

And, part of that plan can be to have a backup plan. There have been many times where someone really wants to speak but just can’t at the time. But, they have written it out and I read it for them. Think about discussing this option with your clergy/funeral officiant. That way if it comes your time to speak and you simply cannot speak, your words and story will still heard.

Here are some other tips for writing a eulogy that people will remember.

1. Keep it less than 10 minutes (5-7 is even better).
Trust me on this one. No matter how good your stories are, if you talk too long, everyone will stop listening. It may seem to reason that the longer you talk the more you loved the person or that the person deserves to be eulogized for 40 minutes. No doubt your loved one deserves an amazing, memorable eulogy, but talking longer than 10 minutes will not make your words more effective. Talking too long leaves people fidgety and there is less time for others to speak.

2. This is not about you. This is not about you.
Don’t tell a story that isn’t about the deceased. It’s weird, don’t do it. And, don’t just focus on you. Inevitably, the stories you share will probably be about your experience of your loved one, but try to make the eulogy a shared experience that everyone can say, “oh, yes, I remember when she did….” Or “Exactly! She was so good with my kids too!”
Also, this is not a time to tell everyone for ten minutes how sad you are. Sure, that is an important part of the eulogy, but everyone is sad and we know you are too. Feel free to mention how much you loved your friend, mother, grandfather and how much you will miss them, but don’t forget to tell stories, tell stories, tell stories.

3. Laughing and Crying are both good!
Don’t feel like you can’t tell a funny story. People need to laugh and laughing at a funeral can be very healing. In fact, sometimes stories that have humor add a very genuine moment to the eulogy and people truly feel like they are finding healing, rather than a stuffy sermon-like-eulogy that is full of platitudes and doesn’t help anyone find comfort.
Likewise, it’s okay to cry. It’s a sad moment. Don’t feel badly about crying or making other people cry. You do not need to apologize. Just catch your breath and keep going.

4. Don’t use curse words
This may sound silly, but one time I counted 50 curse words in one person’s eulogy. It was really awkward. 50 is way overboard but even more than three times is probably too much. Sometimes there truly is a story or a phrase that needs a curse word, but don’t abuse it. No one wants to go to a funeral service and walk away offended or scandalized.

5. What do you actually say?
This is a question I get a lot. And, I tell people, to tell stories, to give thanks, and to be real. The best eulogies offer words that name why the person was beloved. Tell about that one vacation that went horribly wrong but then became a family favorite story. Tell about that time that he won a cannonball contest. Or that other time that she laughed so hard milk came out of her nose. Or maybe that one Christmas when your sister gave your children a puppy. Look through pictures, through Facebook, through anything you have that might remind you of lifelong stories of your loved one.
I also suggest that people don’t give obituary type of information. For example, don’t give a bullet list of dates: He was born on July 1 at Women’s and Children’s Hospital and graduated from Middleton High School in 1987. These are things for an obituary and really are not meant for a eulogy, unless it helps you tell a good story.

6. Be yourself.
You loved this person and they loved you. That’s all you need to get started, love. If you want to write a letter instead of a eulogy, do it. If you want to make a list of the top ten moments, do it. If you want to sing a song, do it. Be yourself, take a deep breath, and prepare and you will honor your loved one beautifully.


Rip Jaw the Comforter

I have officiated a memorial service in a state park, at an art museum, in a garden. I have officiated a funeral service where people were wearing bright orange t-shirts with an explicit word on them, in reference to their feelings towards cancer. I have officiate a service where two beloved dogs were present. There have been some very unique services. And, each of these services has been incredibly meaningful, full of hope, and the personal touches brought bonding and healing to those gathered.

But, perhaps the most unique funeral at which I have officiated was just after the first class bell rang. I was escorted by a hall monitor to Mrs. Water’s fourth grade classroom. Gathered on her checker patterned floor were 50 fourth graders awaiting the moment we celebrated the life of Toby “Rip Jaw” Venom, the class snake.

Toby 3

My friend, Yaz Waters, hosted the snake in her classroom, and on weekends, took him home. Recently, she took him home and woke up to find that Toby died, we think, of old age. She texted me and asked if there was any chance I’d be willing to do the funeral and teach the kids a little bit about death, both from my standpoint as pastor and as funeral director.

Sure…? Sure, I’d do it, but would my boss, Rick Harra, be willing to let me take two hours out of an already very busy week to officiate a snake funeral? I took a deep breath, said a prayer he wouldn’t hate me for asking, and I emailed him. I waxed poetic on the gift of giving a funeral for this snake, on the joy of taking care of the kids. Not only did I not need to wax poetic, he countered my poetry with, “I am thrilled you were asked. I think this is absolutely necessary for you to do.”

As soon as the email got to my inbox, he popped out of his office and very seriously started telling me how important this opportunity was. For the past few years, Rick and I have talked about how, as a culture, we have washed away some of the truths of death and dying. And, this, this snake funeral could help begin a conversation. Toby 5

Once I got to the classroom, I put on my stole. And, while I was careful to make this service non-religious and appropriate for a public school, I think they knew that the stole signified that this was not something I was taking lightly and that this was real.

And, it was. Mrs. Waters began by telling everyone that it was okay to cry, to giggle, to wiggle, to smile, and to be sad and that no one, NO ONE was to make fun of anyone’s emotions.

I began. “Death is hard and one thing we do to help that pain is to come together and hold a service. Many different religious people and non-religious people have developed rites and rituals to help find a way to start dealing with that pain. And while we all might have different rites and rituals, the one thing in common is that death hurts.”

They nodded their heads and as I named each religion and some of their individual rites, I could see different students connecting with their own set of beliefs.

Then we had a moment of silence, in which I told them (just as I do in non-religious human services), that this is a time they can pray to their God or a time to simply find peace. Some kids closed their eyes. Some looked around the room. Some bowed their heads. A few held their hands high in the air. And, one boy sat crossed legged with his arms stretched to his side with his thumb and pointer finger touching. All the different ways of keeping silence and praying and not one kid said a word. It was holy.

And, the holy continued.

I asked them to share stories. One girl said she was scared of him and didn’t like him at first, but then, she grew to love him. She is no longer scared of snakes. He even helped her get through difficult tests. Several kids in fact found Toby to be comforting, as they were allowed to get up during tests and quietly watch Toby to help them relax. And, “Then there was that one time he got lose! Remember that time!?” Followed by laughter. Toby 4

Turns out Toby the snake did a lot more than slither and shed. He was a peace keeper who brought together fighting foes as they cleaned his cage. He was a comforter. He taught them the value of how “knowing someone” helps us overcome stereotypes and prejudice. He was a friend. He was beloved.

And, then we buried our beloved snake. Well, sort of. We had a bucket of dirt. I asked each child to write a word of thanks or draw a picture or say anything they wanted on a slip of paper. Then we took turns burying those slips. The kids loved it.

Death is dirty. It is not clean. It involves dirt and it involves hard work.

Those kids did a lot of hard work that day. They sat quietly. They shared about learning to accept a new friend. They admitted to fear and then to change. Boys cried. Girls spoke up. One boy shared a eulogy. They made a PowerPoint, complete with Beyoncé’s Heaven as background music. They found the right words to write as they said goodbye. Toby 6

Then, they dusted their hands off and we all said, “We love you Toby.”

As I was leaving the school counselor announced that kids could come by her office any time that day to share, cry, or just have her listen.

And, friends, I know that Mrs. Waters, the school administration, McCrery & Harra, and I all gave those kids a gift, but they, and yes, a snake, gave us all a gift to—the gift to see young minds grieve with hope, with the love of a community, and with the joy of knowing that death does not separate us from one another and that nothing ever really can if we do the work, get a little dirty, and then brush off our hands as we say, “love.”