Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 5, Legal Status

When someone dies, what should you say to surviving loved ones about their legal status?

[While you wait for the answer, listen for sounds of shy, exhausted crickets …]

[… and wait …]

[… and wait …]

Is the silent treatment getting a bit uncomfortable? Only slightly? Then let’s wait a bit more …

[twiddling thumbs]

[looking around the room, avoiding eye contact]

[clearing throat to break the awkward silence]

… and … you’re still waiting, aren’t you?

Get used to it, because I can’t think of a single thing it’s appropriate to say about the legal status of deceased loved ones — or their survivors. Broaching the subject will cause far more discomfort than a pregnant pause.

What seems like a gazillion grief years ago, I started a mini-series of posts on taboo topics* with these assertions:

All grief is personal, but please don’t impose personal comments on the newly bereaved.

Unless the mourner asks you, or it pertains to your already established professional relationship, don’t bring up the bereaved person’s politics, religion, money, physical appearance, or legal status. 

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality reminded me I hadn’t yet posted about why legal status is a taboo topic if you want to console the bereaved. When your relative, friend, or colleague has lost a loved one, the only legal certification that should matter to you is the word deceased

Whether you’re a fundamentalist Christian preacher or the chief organizer of a pride parade or a number-crunching hospital administrator, whether the departed and their surviving loved ones are old or young, gay or straight, zealots or atheists, when you learn that someone died, your only concern should be to offer nonjudgmental consolation and comfort in any way you can.

  • Do estranged surviving spouses suffer more distress than long-term partners who stood by loved ones in unwavering fidelity? Should one group have a say in making funeral and other arrangements while the other has no say?
  • Does it matter to a mourning mother whether her child’s birth (and death) was connected to her by biology or by adoption? Does a father who truly fathered a stepchild (by day-to-day manning up to meet his kids’ emotional and physical needs — whether he legally adopted them as his own or not) grieve less fervently than one whose birth certificate – documented “fathering” was over and done with long before that child died?
  • Do bereaved best friends (who talked twelve times a day) deserve less consolation and consideration than surviving siblings (who exchanged little more than annual Christmas and birthday cards)?
  • Do legal residents mourn departed kin more than people without papers do?
  • Do felons (or their families) deserve less respect and support when someone they love dies?

Of course not.

Grieving has no limits graphic compiled by Harmony Bruce

Grieving has no limits graphic compiled by Harmony Bruce

Grief is an outcropping of love. When death severs us from those we love, grief pours from the wound. Like love, it cannot be legislated into neat little boxes on government-issued forms. What can be, and should be, and now has been legislated, is greater ability for people to decide who will deal with the business and legal sides of their final goodbyes.

Whatever the mourner’s legal status, whatever the legal definitions of relationships between people, it’s not up to anyone else to concern themselves with the details. For the rest of us, our job is to simply say “I’m sorry” and to show up without comment, bringing with us only our kindness — whether that’s demonstrated by casseroles, consolation, or (if appropriate) even cash.

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*To see the first post in the taboo topics series, visit
Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 1, Politics

Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 4, Appearance

Grief is more than an emotional response to bereavement. Grieving impacts every aspect of mourners’ lives — including body systems — in ways they shouldn’t be pressed to discuss. Avoid personal comments about the appearances of mourning friends.* Even if you have a professional, looks-related relationship (as a dermatologist, hairdresser, personal trainer …), or even if the bereaved asks your opinion, guard your tongue. Comments on visible physical symptoms of my loss only deepened my distress.

Stop and think before making personal comments on mourners' appearances

Stop and think before making personal comments on mourners’ appearances

Avoid “about face” comments.

I’ve always been suntan-challenged, but as a new widow I looked paler than usual. I didn’t benefit from others pointing it out. In shock for weeks (months, really), I was oxygen-deprived from improper, incomplete breathing.  I’d taken only shallow breaths — for weeks. It took conscious effort to fill my lungs. Most people grieving new loss forget to breathe fully. An acupuncturist friend, Natalie Doliner, taught me that in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) the lungs are recognized as “organs of grief.”

My skin went crazy. Within days after my husband’s death, my face started shedding. I looked as if I’d suffered a colorless, peeling sunburn. Self-conscious, I preferred not to be seen in public. When I ventured outside, comments like “Do you know you’re peeling?” sent me back into my shell.

My hands, arms, and legs bore scratches, scrapes, and bruises, though in new grief’s fog I seldom noticed what I’d run into or how I’d cut myself. It was helpful to hear “Excuse me, do you know you’re bleeding?” It was never helpful to hear “Wow, what happened to your arms?” I didn’t know.

Avoid “tiresome” reminders of exhaustion.

I never appreciated comments about dark circles beneath (or bloodshot veins in) my eyes. I already knew I looked tired! Hearing “You should get more sleep” didn’t prevent grief-related nightmares from jolting me awake (on the rare occasions grief insomnia allowed me to sleep at all). Such comments felt like unjust scolding and reminded me there was too much empty space in my bed.

Avoid mentioning “weighty matters,” either gained or lost. 

Mourners won’t tell you embarrassing ways grief impacts digestion — and they shouldn’t have to. I hated explaining (as diplomatically as I could), “I can’t keep anything down,” or “Everything I eat rushes out the other end.” Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea (I later learned) are common in bereavement. Mourners shouldn’t have to justify why they do (or don’t) want to eat or how that impacts their appearance. 

This should be obvious (but my experiences proved otherwise): I didn’t appreciate reminders that I’d lost or gained weight while grieving. Unless mourners mention their weight to you (and perhaps even then), keep weight-related observations and opinions to yourself. 

I lost more than 20 pounds in a few weeks as a new widow, more than 30 in a few months, but it certainly wasn’t a healthy (or sustainable) way to lose weight! I despised everything about the grief-induced “death diet” inflicted on me, including well-intended reminders about how “good” I looked because of it. Over and over I endured conversations like this:

“Wow, you look great! How’d you lose so much weight?”
“Umm … I forgot to eat.”  Or couldn’t keep it down …
“No, really. How’d you find the willpower? I’d kill to lose that much.” [Yes, someone said that.]
“My husband died.”
“Oh … [insert awkward pause and/or dismissive shrug] Well, at least you look good.”

There was nothing “helpful” about being urged to eat more when I had no appetite — or to eat less when my appetite resurfaced with a vengeance that was (pardon the pun) “fed” by grief. Within months I gained double the amount I’d lost. It took a full year of hard work to reach a zero net weight change before I began moving toward a healthier range.

Picture the whole person before you click.

I still seethe over one  against-my-protest  snapshot taken during my first year as a widow. It wasn’t about my bad hair day or ill-fitting outfit (though if it had been, even those concerns should have warranted better respect). It was about the PAIN of LOSS I saw EVERY time I couldn’t avoid a mirror. My eyes reflected bereavement, and (like people who believe cameras steal souls) I felt that shutter sever my gossamer connection to my surroundings that day — and (even though I’ve long-since forgiven the snapshot-taker, sort of) I still feel the reverberations of that click. If mourners balk at having pictures taken (of themselves or the deceased), LISTEN — and honor their requests! 

When it comes to personal comments about bereaved friends’ appearances, “no comment” is the best option.  Instead say, “It’s good to see you,” and leave it at that.

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*I talk about other taboo topics — politics, religion, money, and legal status — in other posts. (And yes, I still appreciate the irony of talking about things you shouldn’t talk about.)

Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 3, Money

Part 3 in this series on taboo topics (*see below) focuses on money matters and why you should leave them alone.

Would you walk up to random people and pat them on the stomach? Of course not, except… Have you ever noticed that insensitive relatives, acquaintances, or even strangers will do that to women in the latter months of pregnancy? No matter that it’s intrusive, rude, and creepy. (It happened to me, more than once.)

Would you walk up to random people and ask them about their finances? Of course not, except… Have you ever noticed that insensitive relatives, acquaintances, or even strangers will do that to mourners in the earliest days and months of bereavement? No matter that it’s intrusive, rude, and creepy. (It happened to me, more than once.)

Here is what you need to know about the finances of those who are grieving:

1) Their finances are none of your business — unless

the bereaved asks you about money matters, concerns, or questions (in which case, you should limit your words to providing direct answers, not asking them questions or making assumptions), or

… you already have a professional financial relationship to the bereaved (and/or the deceased) as their financial or insurance adviser, accountant, broker, loan officer, etc., and your inquiries are

relevant to that relationship,

timely for the altered needs of the survivors, and

mindful that most major decision-making should be delayed for at least a year.

2)  Financial gifts may be desperately needed by bereaved families, even though mourners’ finances are none of your business. If the deceased was the primary (or even secondary) breadwinner in a family, the sudden loss of income can be financially devastating. Even small monetary gifts can help offset expenses, and they will show your tangible support for friends who have lost loved ones.

3) Death is expensive for its survivors.

Whether the death was expected (due to age and/or health issues) or unexpected (due to undiagnosed health matters or external forces), there are likely medical expenses. Big medical expenses. These may include (but aren’t limited to) doctor, hospital, and ambulance services (**see below for a digressive rant). The financial costs can be huge, and the emotional costs of drawn-out payments for treating the already-deceased loved one can be just as difficult to pay.

Funeral, burial, and cremation expenses can be prohibitive and drain a family’s financial reserves. Payments are often required up front. My home (and the land it stands on) still belongs to my mortgage company as much as it does to me. Even after it’s paid off, I’ll still owe property taxes as long as I own it. How awful it is that the only land I’ve purchased and own “free and clear” is fully uninhabitable: my husband’s burial plot.

Legal and business fees add up. I remember the sticker shock of having to pay for changing the title of my husband’s car to my name before I could sell it. Various accounts and deeds can cost even more. Eventually, every legal document or business account once in the name of the deceased must be updated, closed, or renamed, and these transactions can be costly.

 4) Not everyone has adequate — or any — life insurance (***see below).

Don’t assume.

Don’t judge.

Preexisting health conditions, finances, or emotional constraints may have prevented purchasing such policies.

5) Life insurance payments feel like blood money. They are not windfalls or fun lotto winnings. Their intent is to pay for current and future life expenses for the surviving beneficiaries.

ONLY named beneficiaries have the right to decide how such funds should be spent. Period. If you have an opinion on how it should be spent, keep it to yourself.

Do NOT ask about or comment on life insurance amounts. The subject is not only private — it’s painful. Survivors who are asked about whether they received life insurance payments may feel cornered or pressured into discussing details that only their financial advisers should be privy to. (Remember #1 on this list!)

Don’t ask to borrow money from life insurance funds.

I apologize if this post feels stern. I’ve developed a pretty thick skin by now, but I still remember some people’s intrusions during my earliest months of widowhood. Many meant well. I understood their concern for my well-being, and I continue to feel gratitude for the gifts generous souls sent our family at that time. However, I also recall the inappropriate questions of those who were more interested in satisfying curiosity than consoling my family.

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*I talk about other taboo topics — politics, religion, appearance, and legal status — in separate posts (while, yes, talking about the very things you shouldn’t talk about).

**My digressive rant:
The ambulance bill provided a double shock. The 5-minute “ride” cost more than $150 per mile, and when I received my credit card statement verifying payment, the expense was listed under “travel and entertainment.” While I appreciated the efforts of the EMTs who responded to my 911 call, and I didn’t begrudge paying for their efforts (fruitless as they were), seeing the cost listed as “travel and entertainment” infuriated me. Still does.
(Okay. Rant over now.)

***If you’re on the fence about purchasing life insurance and you have dependent family members, do it. NowEven small policies can help. I hope you outlive your policy, but if — Heaven forbid! — The Worst Thing (your death) should happen to your loved ones (as it did to me and mine when my husband died), having a financial cushion may be of indescribable help to them, even if it is a small one. [Note: I’m not endorsing any company or industry by saying this. I’m sharing first- and secondhand experience.]

Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 1, Politics

Some topics are off-limits when a friend is grieving. Do you remember the classic dinner conversation advice given to prospective business associates (or future in-laws)? “Never discuss politics, religion, or money.”  Keep this in mind as a starting point, but to support mourning friends I recommend expanding the list.

Unless the mourner asks you, or unless it pertains to your already established professional relationship, don’t bring up politics, religion, money, physical appearance, or legal status. 

The rest of this post tells why you shouldn’t bring up POLITICS.*

Keep in mind that no matter how devoted the bereaved (and/or the deceased) may have been to a cause in the past, the surviving loved ones’ world has changed. It doesn’t matter that you and your coworker may have made lively political debates as much a part of daily lunch breaks as clocking out and back in again. For your grieving friend, in the initial shock of new grief, community or state, national, and even global concerns may shift into a distant blur.

Grief’s omnipresence overwhelms other concerns. To the newly bereaved, issues of political concern aren’t spelled P-O-L-I-T-I-C-S; they’re spelled P–loss–O–grief–L–loss–I–grief–T–loss–I–grief–C–loss–S–grief. (If that seems hard for you to read, think about how hard it is for your grieving friend to live.)

Perhaps the deceased was actively involved in political processes (campaigning, debating, petitioning, running for office, or simply following the nuances of opposing parties’ claims). Survivors may feel impelled to take up their loved one’s unfinished work and step into their footsteps — or they may actively avoid the entire realm of politics. Such activities may be far too painful (“too close to home”) as they grieve and adjust. Persuading (or worse, guilt-tripping) mourners to step into (or out of) the political arena does them a disservice. No one representing a political cause (or party) has the right to claim what the deceased “would have wanted.” Ever.

On the other hand, some survivors may need to immerse themselves in political processes. Perhaps circumstances surrounding the death of their loved one could have been prevented had legislation, policy, or decision makers been different. Working and fighting for related changes can be therapeutic and can help grievers direct or channel their pain — not remove or heal it.

If your mourning friend approaches you, by all means listen! Offer to help if you see the point of the changes they want to make. However, if you disagree (and when it comes to political matters, even reasonable, like-minded people can have passionately divergent opinions!), now is not the time to argue or debate the issues with the bereaved. For the mourner, the politics and the emotions may be inseparable, so don’t go there.

My husband loved our country’s political process. He watched (and argued at) the televised debates. He was passionate (and a bit one-sided) about campaigns and platforms. One of the things he loved about me was that I took the time to study the issues on the ballots and the candidates running for office prior to every election. After his death, it took what felt like superhuman strength to do even the most superficial research and to decide issues. I could not (and still can’t) abide the rancor of the adversarial debates. It was (and still is) repellent. Yes, I know the issues are important, but the mud-slinging is too great a reminder that “life’s too short” for that much anger.

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*I’ll talk about the other taboo topics — religion, money, physical appearance, and legal status — in upcoming posts. (And yes, I appreciate the irony of talking about things you shouldn’t talk about.)