Facing Death in the Family

Today was my uncle’s funeral.

I’ve posted seldom since late October, when hospice staff told my aunt to make sure all the family visited within two to three weeks. They didn’t expect my uncle to be with us longer.

When I got the call, my aunt’s soft voice delivered that sentence in a three-fisted punch. The triple blows landed in a tight triangle, right where years before I’d felt grief’s wrecking ball hit mid-gut on my insides. My breath whooshed out as I tried not to cry into the phone:

My uncle.

My aunt.

My cousins.

I didn’t want it to be true. Denial, of course. Didn’t want to think of a world without him here. Selfish, raw, pre-grieving — thinking all about me missing my hilarious, compassionate, faithful uncle. About my kids missing their great-uncle and my dad missing his half-century brother-in-law.

Didn’t want my aunt forced to wear the title Widow. Yes, capitalized. Boldfaced. Italicized. Quadruple-underlined. 800-point font. Thinking all about her — knowing how I’d ached while mourning my husband after 24 years together and not wanting her to feel that. Grieving for what I knew she’d face. Yet knowing I had no idea how she’d feel after more than twice that time with my uncle.

Didn’t want my cousins bereft of their dad. Remembering  how I felt losing — missing — my mom and thinking about my cousins, picturing their pain at losing their dad. Seeing again my children’s grief after their dad died and not wanting that raw ache for my cousins and their kids and grandkids.

All this within seconds of hearing my aunt’s words.

My uncle surprised us all.

Within that hospice-projected two to three weeks, my aunt and uncle’s kids, grandkids, and great-grandchildren all visited with him. Other family members and close friends came too. They shared stories, memories, and love. Said whatever needed saying. Sweet visits, prompted by heartbreaking need.

Beloved uncle, glasses, sour candy, teasing, TealAshes.com

My funny uncle with a piece of candy he didn’t expect to be so sour. (Family photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

My uncle’s eyes still twinkled as he teased, and they softened as he expressed love and appreciation. He and his family enjoyed one another through post-prediction milestones: Halloween, his daughter’s birthday, Thanksgiving, his 57th wedding anniversary, and Christmas Day.

Meanwhile, I all but stopped writing. 

How could I post new material about what to say when someone dies while my dear uncle lay slowly dying? Time and again, my grief over his too imminent passing rebooted feelings I experienced while caring for his sister — my mom — as she neared the end of her life more than 20 years ago. In my mind, I was back in Mom’s bedroom, looking on as my uncle — this uncle — arrived in time to tell her goodbye.

But it wasn’t about my feelings. In the days since my uncle’s death, and on this day of his funeral, and in the days, weeks, months, and years to come, it’s about my aunt, my cousins, and their kids. Yes, I’m grieving my uncle’s terminal illness and passing. But my grief is also for them — my uncle’s immediate family. Theirs is the primary, innermost loss.*

Friends and our church family have been thoughtful in their support of offered meals and visits. For now, the family has requested privacy in grief, declining such offers with gratitude for their kind intentions.

In every loss I’ve suffered, the day of the funeral brought a turning point — in some ways, a relief of sorts, unwelcome though it was. Sometimes, the service also, sadly, began the waning of public awareness and outreach. Well-meaning folks assume memorial gatherings bring so-called closure to mourners.

But no. Closure implies an ability to shut the door on grief and walk away. In reality, mourning loved ones lasts much, much longer — which is why it’s so important to reach out a month, two months, six months, a year, and further after someone you know loses a loved one.

In time, we learn to walk with our grief and its connection to the one we (still) love.

In the meantime (and beyond), please keep reaching out.


*See  Grief — It’s All in the Family for more about how relatives might experience grief differently.

How to Express Your Condolences for a Loved One–guest post by Suzie Kolber

Suzie Kobler writes for ObituariesHelp.org

Suzie Kolber is a writer at http://obituarieshelp.org/words_of_condolences_hub.html. The site is a complete guide for someone seeking help for writing words of condolences, sympathy messages, condolence letters and funeral planning resources.

“How to Express Your Condolences for a Loved One” by Suzie Kobler of ObituariesHelp.org

It can be difficult to know what to say when someone passes away. Death is often an uncomfortable topic, making it hard to express your feelings of condolence and sympathy to the survivor. Here are some effective ways you can express your condolences based on what is appropriate and what you feel the most comfortable with.

A Letter of Condolence

Back before technology made instant communication the norm, letters were the traditional way of expressing condolences. Even with the other options available, they are still a good way to show your support and concern. The main benefit with letters of condolences is that they can be read when it is convenient and re-read as often as needed. They can be shared with others to help with the grieving process.

When writing a letter of sympathy and condolence, you should always think about the person to whom you are writing as well as the deceased. Your letter should reflect the relationship you have or had with each person. Stay true to your personality. If you are a more formal person, then it is appropriate that your letter also sound more formal. On the other hand, if you are more laid-back and casual, your letter can also demonstrate that. Don’t be concerned that there is a right or wrong way to sound in a letter.

Messages of Condolence

Thanks to the internet, you can now send messages of support as soon as you hear the sad news of someone’s death. This allows you to offer support immediately, often when it is most needed. A quick text message or email can let the person know you heard the news and are offering your condolences without going into great detail. This is also a good method for those people that prefer short messages.

When writing a message, remember that you can keep it short and sweet. The person reading the message may be busy so it is acceptable to get right to the point. If you feel that you need to say more, you can follow up with a letter or phone call at a later time.


If you do not know the family or didn’t know the deceased very well but want to express your condolences, it is perfectly acceptable to just send flowers or a financial donation to the organization of the family’s choice.

A simple card with a single message can convey your sympathies without requiring you to compose an entire message. This option is appropriate for many situations, including when the person is a co-worker that you only knew by name or someone you knew in passing in the community. Just make sure you include your full name so the person knows who the card came from.

A Phone Call or In-Person Visit

A phone call or personal visit is often the appropriate method of conveying your condolences when it is someone you knew very well or were related to. However, many people are not sure what to say and avoid the one-on-one interaction. The important thing to remember is that it is the fact that you called that the bereaved will remember more than what you say. In fact, don’t feel like you have to say a great deal besides “I’m sorry for your loss” or some other version.

If you are comfortable talking about the deceased, you can communicate your feelings to the person. It is appropriate to reminisce about special memories or occasions. You can even tell a funny story about the deceased person without feeling guilty. In fact, it may be just what the other person needed to hear after all of the somber moments and sadness they have been feeling.


The timing of when to express your condolences through the various methods can vary. There is no hard and fast rule. For instance, if you just heard about someone’s death even though it was six months ago, you can send a letter or email stating that you just learned of the news. You never know when your message could come at a good time to cheer them up. Grief extends long past the funeral or memorial service.

You can also prepare the way for a phone call or visit through a letter or message by saying that you will talk with them next week or in a couple of weeks.

Your Choice

Any of these methods are acceptable ways of expressing your condolences for a loved one. The choice is up to you based on the situation and what you feel most comfortable with. After all, it is more important that the bereaved feel your support than in how you choose to show it.

Many thanks to Suzie Kolber of ObituariesHelp.org for providing this guest post. Visit http://obituarieshelp.org/words_of_condolences_hub.html for practical tips to assist you in composing condolence messages for those mourning lost loved ones.